The #14 Most Daring CEOs in India
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A business leader is the one who challenges the status quo. Their unexpected ways of looking at situations draw the best results for the companies. The corporate head keeps a steady hand while the company is growing to its full potential.
A great CEO cannot be judged by his degree but how he can lead with impact. This year's 'Daring CEO' list features people with practical wisdom: the insight, judgment, and strength of character that no business school can teach.
Our 14 leaders are distinguished from misleaders as they outline a practical road-map to take their game to the next level. Their enterprising behaviors and the zeal to think through every situation to come out of it with flying colors has made them great examples in the world of entrepreneurship too.
Whether it's the making of Patanjali or Nestle's coming back strategy, the most insightful CEOs of the day share their wisdom about what it means to be bold.
(This article was first published in the July issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)
Kurta-dhoti Clad CEO of Patanjali Acharya Balakrishnan
Though Swami Ramdev has been the face and brain behind Patanjali's success, it was his aide and childhood friend Acharya Balakrishnan who ran the show perfectly well, executing the best duties a CEO can perform.
From being an Ayurveda practitioner in Himalayan villages, to shaping up Patanjali's success as its CEO is a story of a disciplined approach followed by Balakrishnan. When asked how he manages to cope up with the growth, Balakrishnan said, "Routine operations do not have much of a pressure because we have a system wherein we keep a record of the policies to be implemented and the existing policies. But there are times, when some unwanted and unexpected incidents might take place and we have to up our ante immediately. Or when routine work gets disrupted, we have to sort it out through planning and intellect."
Patanjali was incepted in 1995 as the Divya Yoga Mandir Trust, with Swami Ramdev being the President while Acharya was the General Secretary. Back then, it was a small pharmacy by the name of Divya Pharmacy. Since then, all the administrative, manufacturing related responsibilities are handled by Balakrishnan himself. Sharing his journey over the years, Balakrishnan says, "Right from the inception of Patanjali when we had just five employees, to this day when there are more than 15,000 people with us, I have been closely monitoring the whole system."
Rahul Agarwal, CEO and MD, Lenovo India
Often regarded as the troubleshooter, Agarwal took over his current position almost two years back after being with the company for close to 10 years.
When asked what kind of innovation he has been able to bring in, Agarwal said, "We are doing innovation even at the execution level. For example, how do we reach out to the customers, how do we sell and improve our internal structure to make sure we are more efficient."
One of the major initiatives he had taken was making his team interact with the consumers. Sharing the same he said, "We realized that as sellers we are more dependent on the retailers to tell us what the end consumers think about us. So we have made it mandatory for the sales team to spend more time in the market and speak to at least five to seven customers in a week.And we started receiving a much stronger feedback."
Speaking about his other initiatives, he said he found that there were some states where Lenovo's retail presence was low for no particular reason.
"It was simply because nobody really looked at that direction. For example, if we look at Punjab or Ludhiana or any such big cities, we do not have enough retail stores. So we did the scanning of the top 500 cities in the country and compared our retail presence to what the market could be. So now, we are on the path towards driving our retail expansion," he added.
Currently, Lenovo has 800 exclusive stores across India. Aggarwal has initiated opening of several new stores but has also closed a lot of non- performing stores.
Dr Ajay Bhushan Pandey, CEO, UIDAI
Meet Aadhaar's man in-charge.
There was a little confusion if Aadhaar was to be made mandatory or voluntary. But last year, the parliament passed a new act called Aadhaar Act and following which, Ajay Bhushan Pandey was made the first CEO of UIDAI.
As the person in-charge, he has to ensure that all operations complies with the Aadhaar Act. Talking about the significant enrolment Aadhaar has seen in one year, Pandey said, "We have taken the level of enrolment to 115 crore, which constitutes more than 99 per cent adults in the country. Even in the younger age group of 5-18 years, the coverage is more than 75 per cent."
Prior to this, he served at Aadhaar as DG and Mission Director. Aadhaar has truly come to a stage where people have started using it.
Another major initiative taken up by Pandey was taking the authentication to a fourfold increase. Sharing the same, he said, "Till last year, the authentication per day was around 50 lakh and now it has gone up to two crore."
The recent Supreme Court judgment has also made it mandatory to link Aadhaar with PAN Card. It has also been very useful in promoting the digital platform.
After demonetization, Aadhaar facilitated the digital payment (Aadhar Pay) for those who do not have the means to do transaction digitally. Pandey's team estimated that this number would be close to 50 crore. Talking about the digital mode that Aadhaar had adopted, he said, "We came up with a concept called Aadhaar Pay where the shopkeeper would have to have his own smartphone with a biometric finger print scanner attached. The customer would have to provide his Aadhaar number, bank's name finger print and the amount he has to pay. The money would be debited from his account and will go to the customer's bank account."
Prashant Gupta, President and CEO, ABOF
Prashant Gupta is dumping discounts and playing the experience part. Prior to joining the Aditya Birla Group, Gupta spent about 12 years at McKinsey, where he was a partner at their Mumbai office.
He was part of the operations' team which responsibly delivered tangible bottom-line impact to clients across manufacturing and service sectors.
He has also driven significant strategy engagements including global growth for Indian majors, growth within India and India entry strategy for MNCs. Gupta had joined the Aditya Birla Group as the Head of the Chairman's office in January 2011. This is where he played a pivotal role in assisting the group Chairman, Kumar Mangalam Birla, on a wide range of issues across all businesses of the group. Gupta was moved to his current role in late 2014 after steering the incubation of abof ground up.
Talking about creating a balance in the e-commerce space between discount and experience, Gupta said, "To stay alongside with other major players of the market, we also have to provide some discounts if not much. But the major challenge is to convince our customers through the quality of the merchandise, shopping experience and various other features that play the major role in creating business for us."
On his future initiatives, Gupta said, "Being an e-commerce brand, the main requirement is constant innovation and the constant push to be differentiated. So we will continue to come up with ideas and things that we are trying to build. So to give an example, we have recently, launched a fashion chatbot called 'Aisha' which is essentially your fashion, styling advisor which you can use anytime you want and it is Facebook messenger enabled."
Suresh Narayanan, CEO, Nestle India
He is the CEO who managed one of the biggest FMCG crises in decades. Maggi was "clinically dead" in June 2015, after traces of monosodium glutamate (MSG) was found in it.
However, the company rose like the phoenix from the ashes to become the market leader yet again in a short span of six months, thanks to Suresh Narayanan, CEO, Nestle India.
Managing a crisis as big as Maggi's, Nestle India's highest selling product, was possibly the biggest career challenge that Suresh Narayanan had faced so far. While every step in ensuring a return to stability had its risks, "team work, transparency, humility and credibility helped him and his team helped overcome the setback," said Narayanan.
Moreover, Narayanan's team unleashed over 30 new products under the brand, following which the company witnessed a double-digit growth. Nestle in India has always had a solid, credible, strong reputation that creates iconic brands.
"India's love for Nestle's celebrated product Maggi can be seen by its robust comeback," said Narayanan.
Narayanan counts his team and all those associated with Nestle's products his true heroes and heroines of the recovery and says he owes a debt of gratitude to them. Narayanan believes that team is above any single person and respect for each person irrespective of their status is an integral part of his value system.
"I seek to enable and empower my colleagues to do their best for Nestle and for the society," said the turnaround CMD. He considers his high point to be seeing the smiles back on the faces of his team members.
"My factory colleagues, sales colleagues, head office colleagues, seeing happiness and relief on the faces of my trade partners, suppliers, millions of retailers and many thousands of people who derive a living from Nestle and Maggi and who had been affected by the crisis was my biggest high point," he says. Being a part of the FMCG industry since more than three decades, Narayanan is not new to how important the consumer link is in the buisness.
Avani Davda, Managing Director, Nature’s Basket
She is the one who streamlined Nature's Basket.
Having introduced to the idea of a conglomerate with her first job at the Tata Administrative Services (TAS) in the past to currently being on the board of Natures Basket for the past 15 months as Managing Director, Avani Davda truly reflects the persona of leadership delivered under the purview of humanity and humility.
She realizes that taking decisions in a growing organization can be tough but it's all about being human; while at the end of the day, leadership is all about managing people.
"The companies I have worked with, whether it was as CEO of Tata-Starbucks or now as MD of Godrej Nature's Basket, I have always realized that leadership is about humanity and humility. And that is how I would define my management style", said Davda.
After joining the company, in a bold move, Davda closed down eight under performing stores in Delhi NCR. Post that, she introduced several other initiatives for the revival of Nature's Basket.
With the wealth of experience in retail, business strategy and brand building, Avani is at the core of the organization in devising a five-year strategy with GNB Refresh to turn Nature's Basket from an occasional destination to a neighborhood store.
"We're looking at setting up a prototype store in Mumbai soon and then expand across the country. The brand is in the process of taking its much-loved products to the next level and the team is excited to roll it out soon. Its vision is to redefine India's freshest and finest food experience," added Avani Davda.
Vasanth Kumar, Executive Director, Max Fashion India
When Landmark Group entered India with Max, Vasanth Kumar became its first employee.
Today the man has risen to be the Executive Director at Max Fashion. Talking about the entry of Landmark in India, Vasanth shared, "This concept was launched in 2004 in Dubai, by the Landmark Group. At that time, I was a part of the start-up team for Peter England."
When the group set up the brand in India, they started operating from a two bedroom apartment. In 2005, the initial team was created, who made the products available.
Simultaneously, they also started looking for a property and the first store came up in Indore in 2006. The first four years were actual test for Kumar because the format itself is challenging by nature. It was virtually a 100 per cent private label.
Talking about his journey so far, Vasanth said, "Max has been growing at a rate of 34 per cent per year for the past 12 years as claimed. In 2010-11, we started to break even and after that there was no looking back."
The team he had started with, is still working with him. Sharing on the growth journey so far he said, "We claim to be a fashionable brand at an affordable price. So it is very important to retain that image." To build this scale, Vasanth put a lot of focus on getting its foundation right. Talking about his initial struggle,
Vasanth said, "We went through a lot of losses during initial days. There were temptations whether to increase the price or to dilute the product. And we were very clear that this is going to be a Rs 5000 crore brand." Talking about his next goal, he said, "Initially, our target was bringing freshness in fashion within 60 days, we have brought it down to 45 days. Now, our biggest challenge is Zara which brings freshness in every 30 days. It is a huge target for us now." So far the retail chain has opened 190 stores and by this year, it is going to have 200 stores. On the learnings in retail, Vasanth says, "We are very clear that if one segment does not work for us, then it does not work for us. We close it and we don't really hesitate in doing that."
Amar Abrol, MD and CEO, AirAsia India
For Amar Abrol becoming a CA was something decided by his mother, which he thinks has been the best career decision for him.
Abrol spent much of his professional life overseas spending 19 years in American Express. However, April 2016 marked the arrival of Abrol on board Air Asia.
Prior to joining AirAsia, Abrol was the CEO of Tune Money, a fintech start-up. Talking about this transition from pure-play financial to landing up a career in aviation, Abrol said, "Understanding the dynamics of any business requires the ability to look into the financial statements, do a little bit of balance sheets and doing things in the right direction. Working for a fortune 500 company, I got to see the big business from every department."
Talking about the transition, he said, "Yes things are different here and we have a lot more variability, as a plane is taking off every minute. But the customer dynamics or underlying principles of a business won't change."
When Abrol had joined, AirAsia was already a big brand though he realized that the problem was expansion which was rather slow.
His immediate focus was on the expansion vertical. Sharing more on focusing on the future rather than being caught up in the past, Abrol said, "Starting with the leading men and going down to all employees working for the AirAsia, we had reemphasized the fact that we were here to stay, we were here to invest and we were here to grow."
It all led to a change of mindset to reposition AirAsia towards the growth path. Switching from financial service to airplane also required a lot of learning on Abrol's part. On his personal transition, he says, "It is a lot more complicated logistics business, where a number of people have to come into play, before you can get the end product right."
Nitin Prasad, CEO, Shell India
Corporate structures at large organizations remain unbiased towards the age while distributing important job roles.
Hence, younger executives, with the right set of knowledge and work skills, are gradually considered top contenders for such roles. 37-year-old Nitin Prasad is one such leader, who today has a new set of challenges and ambitions ahead of him with the launch of the company's new technology centre in India.
Shell India has recently inaugurated a 52-acre custom built technology centre that can house up to 1,500 experts, who would work collaboratively. Speaking about his achievements at such an early age, he said, "As a leader you get to a point wherein you begin to question what your personal motive in life is and what kind of legacy do you actually want to leave behind. My idea of a good leader is to build a great team and build a solid company culture."
Speaking about the business lines that the European oil giant plans to concentrate on in India, Prasad said that they are going to concentrate on downstream fuels, downstream gas applications, city gas distribution and new energy businesses; like biofuel, solar etc. Having helmed a multiple roles at the organization since 2004, Prasad was appointed as India Chairman of the company last year.
He took over from Yasmin Hilton, who ended her tenure with Shell on September 2016 after spending 37 years in the organization.
Harshil Mehta, CEO, DHFL
DHFL's inception about 33 years ago was based on the fundamental necessity to enable people from the lower and middle income (LMI) group to own a home.
Even after three decades, DHFL stands strong as one of India's leading housing finance companies. However, it has navigated tremendous change over the years.
Spearheading the company growth strategy is Harshil Mehta, who was appointed as the CEO in January 2015. Mehta has over 25 years of experience in the Banking and Financial Services industry.
Prior to joining DHFL, he was the MD and CEO of Aadhar Housing Finance (company now merged with DHFL), also operated in the same segment. He has also served in companies such as ICICI Bank, Transamerica Commercial Finance and Whirlpool India in the past.
Talking about his future growth strategies, Mehta said, "Our expansion momentum continues as we are planning to reach out to customers in new tier II and III cities and towns to strengthen our distribution capabilities." Talking about DFHL, leading financial services provider catering to the LMI segment, Mehta said, "DHFL set a benchmark in the Indian capital market through two public Non convertible debentures (NCD) issuances. I believe, this endeavor has significantly repositioned DHFL's borrowing portfolio." DHFL has created history in the Indian capital markets by raising a record Rs 14,000 crore within one month from two public NCD issuances.
Hubert Sagnieres, CEO, Essilor
Often referred as Chief Evangelical Officer and not a conventional Chief Executive Officer, when Hubert Sagnieres, the chairman and CEO of Essilor International, talks about his steady corporate vision, his undaunted desire to serve the best eye-care solutions his bright-eyed face glint with passion.
The French lens maker company, Essilor, broke all its previous records and mounted a new growth juncture when Sagnieres took over as CEO in 2012.
Currently, the company is the world's largest ophthalmic lens-maker. Following a road-map of converting social impact into a competitive advantage, Sagnieres joined Essilor in 1989 as
President of the International marketing division, since then his journey with Essilor has been seamless.
The company shot up a vibrant rise of almost 50 per cent to 1.2 billion euro in pre-tax profits while its shares mounted to more than double the value after the change in company's executive position.
Eying to double the revenues from 7 billion euro to nearly 14 billion euro, Sagnieres is all set to ink a 50 billion euro merger deal with one of the world's leading frame-makers Luxottica by the January 2018.
Sagnieres aims to make the newly merged entity a global eye-care powerhouse in the world and provide best eye-care and eye-wears for the 2.5 billion people with uncorrected vision.
The historic deal is one of the big mergers in the eye-care industry,which left the other industry players in a state of upheaval.
Akshay Kothari – Country Manager and Head of Product, LinkedIn India
If there is any CEO, who the Prime Minister Narendra Modi would like to invest time on crunching out of his busy schedule, it is none other than Akshay Kothari, Country Manager and Head of Product, LinkedIn India. Last September, Narendra Modi met Kothari to know of LinkedIn's (India) initiatives and ideas that the company is aiming to take ahead, a high point for the India chief of one of the biggest social networking companies in the world. Kothari isn't a 40-year-old with an experience of decades in top tech giants like his peers.
He is one who sold his start-up at the age of 27 to the same company of which he went on to become the India chief. Kothari's robust educational background and an entrepreneurial mind has led him to where he is. But his success at LinkedIn hasn't been easy. Before Kothari stepped in, LinkedIn only had a sales and engineering team which operated in India.
With him on board, a local team was formed to start creating not just features, but full standalone products that are essentially made in India, for India and by India. Products like LinkedIn Lite have been the real growth acceletors for the company.
Ananth Narayanan, CEO, Myntra and Jabong
After Myntra's acquisition of Jabong, Ananth Narayanan became the CEO of the country's largest online platforms for fashion and lifestyle products. He leads the team with a dedicated mission to disrupt and transform the way fashion is sold and consumed in the country. His aim is to make Myntra the first profitable e-commerce company in India.
Under his leadership, Myntra has made two strategic acquisitions - Cubeit, a Bangalore based start-up that facilitates content aggregation on mobile devices and Jabong from Global Fashion Group; making it India's biggest fashion shopping destination.
Ananth has deep expertise in driving performance improvement and product development. He started his career with Mckinsey & Company where he worked for 15 years across four offices (Chicago, Shanghai, Taipei and Chennai).
Hitesh Oberoi,CEO, Info Edge
The CEO and Managing Director of a INR 800-crore listed company is proud of taking decisions from the start like it was his own business. "One's position in the company depends on their state of mind," says Hitesh Oberoi, who had joined Info Edge as a partner about 20 years ago from Hindustan Unilever and now runs four successful internet business portfolios for the company.
At a time when Google was a still a start-up in 2000 and there were only a couple of million people on the internet, Info Edge had started as a pure internet company.
Diversified into four business portfolios, Info Edge is most popularly known for its recruitment division Naukri.com, which makes 75 per cent of the company's total revenue. Its other verticals include matrimony via Jeevansathi.com, real estate via 99acres.com and education via Shiksha.com.