W Power 2024

7 leadership lessons from outgoing HUL CEO Sanjiv Mehta's journey

Mehta, who turned HUL into a bellwether consumer company, is stepping down later this month

Varsha Meghani
Published: Jun 19, 2023 03:22:03 PM IST
Updated: Jun 19, 2023 03:33:55 PM IST

7 leadership lessons from outgoing HUL CEO Sanjiv Mehta's journeySanjiv Mehta, CEO, Hindustan Unilever (HUL) Image: Mexy Xavier

After more than 30 years at Unilever, 21 of which were as CEO in different parts of the world, and 10 of which were as the top boss of Hindustan Unilever (HUL), Sanjiv Mehta will be stepping down later this month. A true captain of industry, here are five lessons from the road he has travelled:

1. Talent trumps passion

Not many know that Mehta always wanted to be a cricketer. So much so that he joined Bharda New High School, the Mumbai-based school famous for churning out cricketers like Vijay Merchant, Polly Umrigar and Nari Contractor. He played for the school’s junior team but never made it to the senior team. “I realised, perhaps, I do not have as much as much talent for cricket, as I had the passion for cricket,” said Mehta in an address to young students.  

2. Be curious, be inquisitive

An aptitude test taken in his senior years at school pointed Mehta towards a career in accounting and finance. He went on to study chartered accountancy, assuming he would follow in the steps of his father, a career Reserve banker. Mehta later started his articleship, visiting companies at their premises to audit their books. The work helped him develop an eye for detail. But he often found himself asking employees multiple questions about the business, rather than just the accounts. “This is where, I believe, I fell in love with business,” recalled Mehta in one interview. “Now I’m very curious about consumers. I want to know about their life, their behaviours, their habits, their attitudes, everything,” he said.

3. Invest in yourself

As one of the toppers of the chartered accountancy exam, Mehta received multiple job offers from corporations. He zeroed in on two companies of equal size at the time: Unilever and Union Carbide. Since the former was a Kolkata posting, Mehta decided to join Union Carbide, the US-based chemicals maker, as it was a Mumbai-based job – a place he called home. At Union Carbide, he was first placed in the corporate finance team given his chartered accountancy background. But he was soon moved to management audit and later crisis management when the Bhopal Gas Tragedy struck. Later, he was asked to join the chemicals and plastics division.

“I went and told my boss at the time, ‘I want three weeks leave.’ His first question to me was, ‘Are you getting married?’ I said, ‘No. I will be at the factory if you need me.’”

Mehta spent that entire time on the factory floor, understanding the business of chemicals and plastics—the terminology, the functioning, the need. “I would only go home to take a shower,” he said.

“There is no shortcut to detail,” said Mehta who went on to head the chemicals and plastics division for Union Carbide before moving on to a sales and marketing role within the company.

4. Take considered risks

After nine years at Union Carbide, Mehta joined Unilever in the UAE managing, and later leading, the Home and Personal Care (HPC) division for the Gulf region. “We never called it so at the time, but it was virtually a startup. We were setting up factories, entering new product categories, setting up operations,” said Mehta. Eventually the division which was barely making profits was turned around into a high profitable, fast-growing business.

Mehta was then asked to move to Bangladesh where the Unilever’s business was struggling. “I almost didn’t take it up because the business was really struggling. No one wants to join a losing business. But my wife said, ‘When else will you get a chance to turn around a failing business. And if you do it well, new opportunities will open,’” said Mehta. He joined as commercial director, turned around the losing business and rose to become chairman and managing director of Unilever Bangladesh. Sure enough, new doors opened: Mehta served as CEO of Unilever’s business in the Philippines, as well as chairman of Unilever’s North Africa and Middle East business. In 2013, he was asked to lead the India business as the first “outsider” as he calls himself, as he had never worked at the India business prior to taking on the top job. 

Also read: Business is about minimising mistakes, not avoiding them: Ajay Mariwala

 5. See a problem, conquer it

When Mehta took over as MD and CEO of HUL, he quickly saw that the four sales clusters in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai weren’t fully catering to the diversity and heterogeneity of India. He rolled up his sleeves, overhauled the existing structure, and instead set up 14 clusters that rolled into five sales branches in seven locations. The genesis of the idea came from heading the North Africa and Middle East business which although comprising 20 countries, was largely homogenous in terms of culture, religion and language. “India’s 29 states have less in common than the 20 countries of Africa,” said Mehta. He describes the undertaking as “changing the wiring of the company while the engine was running.” The move turned into a massive capability for HUL which its competitors only later replicated.

6. Play the long game

Today, HUL is India’s bellwether consumer company. But when Mehta joined as CEO ten years ago, that was not the case. In the last ten years, HUL’s revenue has grown from Rs24,000 crore to Rs60,000 crore. Operating EBITDA margins have expanded from 14-15 percent to 24-25 percent, and the market cap has zoomed from around $15 billion to around $75 billion. That is roughly $60 billion in market cap was added to HUL under Mehta’s leadership, making it one of the most valuable companies in the country. Today India is Unilever’s largest business in volume terms and second largest in value terms.  

7. Recruit the best and empower them

Mehta credits much of HUL’s success to its people. “Great business, great brands are built by great people,” he said. To that end, HUL recruits the best and “makes them better.” Many of those people stay on at HUL, while others move on to become top leaders at other companies. “From that point of view, it’s a service to the nation. We groom talent not just for HUL and Unilever but India Inc,” he said.

According to Mehta, HUL’s purpose drive culture and the values it stands for enables it to consistently attract and produce managers of the highest quality.

“So long as our bench strength remains strong, our employer brand remains strong, so long as we can attract the best talent, it doesn’t bother me when some of our best people leave us and find opportunities elsewhere,” he said.

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