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Don't be a rolling stone: Godrej Consumer Products' Sudhir Sitapati on how to build brands that last

The MD & CEO of GCPL shares his vision for the consumer products company, the secret to building businesses that last, and career advice for the young

Published: Aug 30, 2022 02:31:48 PM IST
Updated: Aug 30, 2022 02:58:07 PM IST

Don't be a rolling stone: Godrej Consumer Products' Sudhir Sitapati on how to build brands that lastSudhir Sitapati, MD and CEO, Godrej Consumer Products Ltd (GCPL)

Sudhir Sitapati joined Godrej Consumer Products Ltd (GCPL) as managing director and CEO last year, just as the world had begun to open up in a post-pandemic era. In a candid interview with Storyboard18, Sitapati tells us how he articulated his vision for GCPL, and his approach to marketing and brand building. Plus, he throws in a business lesson from  Moby Dick. Edited excerpts.

Q How did you articulate your vision for GCPL when you joined last year?
The vision that I articulated for GCPL was based on what I found Godrej to be good at and what I found it to be not so good at. I found GCPL to be a very innovative and frugal company. I, however, found it to be relatively poor in terms of category development or market development. And I found it to be more complex than necessary for a company of its size. So what we basically said is that we need to grow this company at close to double-digit volumes. We said that strategy is market development and we will release the funds for market development by radically simplifying the organisation. So that was the basic vision that I laid out to the company, which is to focus on developing categories.

Q Can you elaborate on your strategy of democratisation of categories? Is the launch of the ready-to-mix body wash part of that plan?
The DNA of GCPL in terms of frugality and innovation is geared towards democratisation and not premiumisation. Strategy is about making choices and the first big choice is really about democratisation. It has to do with getting access packs. Now, if you take body wash as a category, we’re the number two player in India in the soaps category or the skin cleansing category. It is one of those categories that is very underdeveloped. In many other parts of the world, it’s a very large category. And our thesis for underdevelopment was that the category’s pricing is not accessible. So this was certainly one of the levers for launching Godrej Magic Body Wash.

Q What were the other levers?
The big, sort of, parallel track has been our commitment to sustainability and ESG [Environment, Sustainability, Governance]. GCPL is not the largest company in India, but it’s always a top five in terms of sustainability. Reduction of plastics has been a big drive within GCPL and this innovation has the intersection of making body wash more accessible and by reducing plastic and energy footprint. They’re not two independent things. I think the interesting thing about this product [Magic Body Wash], is that it’s not ecological and economical. It is ecological because it is economical.

Also read: How Tata Consumer Products grew despite the pandemic

Q What are some of your key focus areas in terms of categories and markets?
Three of our markets account for about 80 percent of our revenues, which are India, by far the largest market, Nigeria and Indonesia. We’ve got a very large global footprint or almost half our business is outside India and this is not from Indian exports. They’re all independent businesses in those countries. The three categories that are the core of our business are household insecticide, hair colour and air-care. Hygiene is the emerging one that has a lot of potential, which is where Magic Body Wash is. So this is a 3+1; three, where we are today, and the +1 is what we’re trying to do with Magic Body Wash.

Q What is the secret to building future-ready, homegrown brands and businesses that last? What lessons can younger companies take from legacy organisations like GCPL?
I think all companies that succeed, young or old, have consumer focus and are solving unmet consumer needs. I don’t think young companies have that much to learn from older companies on that front because I think they do it very well. There are two other things older companies like Godrej have, which are value systems and commitment to the environment. That value system sometimes transcends profits and, in the long run, pays off. So companies that last a long time have very strong value systems ingrained in them. The second is you have to have a manic focus on cash and you have to pay for whatever you do. Your own investments have to be paid from your own pocket.

Also read: Traditional trade's resilience in the era of instant gratification

Q Tell us about some of the writers and books that have inspired you, and the business lessons you’ve gathered from them.
I read a lot but I’m not a heavy business books reader. A few months ago, I read Moby Dick by Herman Melville and I really enjoyed reading it. So Ahab, who’s the captain of the ship, is a great guy, a charismatic leader and he loves his people, but he’s driven by personal ambition to take revenge on the whale. And he basically sinks the ship. I found that analogy quite apposite for a lot of business leaders. They are very good people, not necessarily evil or villains, but they’re running a personal agenda, and that personal agenda may not be personal aggrandisement, it’s just revenge in the case of Ahab, and they take the whole company with them and it often sinks. So I thought that to be a good business lesson from a classic.

Q What are some of the skills or traits you look for in young marketers and leaders?
The first thing is that marketers need to go out and spend time in the market or with consumers. You cannot do it on an Excel sheet. Go out there and meet people, and let it be a non-agenda meeting. Go have a cup of tea with your consumer frequently.
The second most important thing in both marketing and leadership is that it is a left and right brain activity together. You have to be analytical and you have to be intuitive.  
In terms of leadership, you need to genuinely care for people working with you. I think people don’t mind if you are rude or get irritated. As long as they feel that you are genuinely invested in their development, they will generally fall in with you.

Also read: Leaders must find a way to make work more important to the person they are working with: Revathi Advaithi

Q A piece of career advice for the young?  
Don’t be a rolling stone. You won’t gather moss if you keep changing jobs. Figure out what you like and then run the course. Stick with it.

(This story appears in the 09 September, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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