Suhail Sameer, CEO, RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group (FMCG): Fastest Growing Leader 2019
Post my MBA, I worked with McKinsey (the pre-eminent consulting firm) as I believed that learning different facets of how organisations are built (finance, people, products, sales & marketing, etc.) would set me up well for taking on meaningful leadership roles faster
- Years of working in the industry, your contribution reflects versatility and volubility. What has influenced your decision making process at various stages?
Overall, I have just more than 12 years of experience in the industry across Private Equity (Goldman Sachs, RP-SG Ventures), Consulting (McKinsey) and FMCG (RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group). I started my career with investing as I believe it is one of the fastest ways to understand how businesses make money (and for Goldman Sachs being a great brand). Post my MBA, I worked with McKinsey (the pre-eminent consulting firm) as I believed that learning different facets of how organisations are built (finance, people, products, sales & marketing, etc.) would set me up well for taking on meaningful leadership roles faster. It worked well for me, as I got to over a period of time lead McKinsey India’s Energy practice, and then McKinsey Asia’s clean-tech practice (i.e., renewables, climate change) And then the decision to join the RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group was to a). Get into a clear operating leadership role, and b). To set-up a consumer business from scratch. It was (and still is) a brilliant opportunity, one which I was excited and nervous to take on. Over the last 2.5 years, I feel we have been blessed to be able to create a 100 mn USD business (which grew 6x in the last year), and build an organisation of 750 people from scratch. Three core tenants of my decision making philosophy over the years when it comes to my professional choices have been a). Impact I can create in the role (on people, on business growth, on community), b). Personal learning and growth, and c). ability to demonstrate leadership and build leaders.
- A project or an accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career?
Launching RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group’s FMCG business from scratch (Too Yumm! brand). Snacks is a cluttered market, and most of the new brand launches in the last 10 years in India have failed to scale. And as a Group, we had no consumer business experience. In that context, launching a brand which disrupted the myth that snacks can’t be tasty and healthy (together), and creating the fastest brand to get to 50 Mn USD milestone is an accomplishment I am proud of. Having said that, the thing which gives me most satisfaction is to be able to create a self-led team of 750 people who can take this organisation to our stated goal of creating a large multi-category FMCG organisation.
- How do you integrate corporate philanthropy or corporate social responsibility as a part of your business strategies?
Even though our FMCG business is new, and a lot of work on corporate philanthropy needs to be done, but we do our best to live up to our Group’s reputation and our own expectations of being a great organisation. We currently do a few things a). Making investments and setting up plants in economically backward areas to generate livelihood, b). Employing women in the plants (we strive for 70% women participation, though our current numbers are around 50-55%), c). Investing in upskilling labour by leading efforts on our own or by partnering with the government institutions, and d). Wherever possible, sourcing directly from farmers. Even at this small scale, we work directly with more than 10,000 farmers. We are exploring many other ways to give back to society, knowing well that there’s a lot more that can be done. And it goes without saying, that we pay all our employees much more than minimum wages, provide them transport, food, etc.
- What has been your driving force or philosophy in life?
It is very tough to pin-point a single driving force. A few of my core beliefs (mostly professional, but equally applicable to personal life) include:
a), Learning is key. The day you stop learning, that is the time you stop becoming a better professional (and person). So keep on looking for opportunities to keep the learning rate up,
b). One leads by example. Leadership is not only board room talks or motivational speeches (which one has to do), but also how you work with the team members in the trenches. Moments of weakness (or bad times in business) are the best opportunities for good leaders to show their worth, and inspire followership (vs. demand it through authority),
c). People operate best when they are trusted. So the much abused phrase “Trust until proven wrong’ is a philosophy I fully embody,
d). Speed of decision making is a key to build a business in today’s age. Many companies, especially as they scale become slow, causing them to struggle. And thus I do whatever it takes to ensure we are not adding unnecessary complexities which hamper decision making. Processes are to make life simpler, not to add time to decision making, and
e). Keeping consumer/ customer at the core of every decision one takes as an organisation typically leads to one taking the right decisions. Companies are built to serve consumer needs, and they become sustainable businesses once you figure out ways to make money while doing so. But making money by short-charging consumers is a sure-shot way to making the business redundant.
- What are the other philanthropic works you are involved in?
Besides minor philanthropic initiatives, I am actively involved in 3 things: –
a). I am a Mentor of Change at the Niti Aayog run Atal Innovation mission, which strives to build a culture of leadership and innovation at school level. I have been working with various schools over the last 18 months as part of that.
b). I am one of the major sponsors of Alohomora Education Foundation which works with high school students to ensure they are able to build the skill-set and the confidence to pursue interest and aptitude aligned careers
c). I work on multiple areas with the Ministry of Power in India (pro-bono) on topics of policy, tariffs, etc. (e.g., Renewables policy of India, distribution turnaround)
- How do you define success and how do you measure up to your own definition?
Success to me is 3 things. A). Are you learning? B). Are you creating impact at your work (business results as well as building future leaders) C). Are you giving back to the society appropriately?
Overall, I believe I track well on all the 3 metrics. Having said that, I am also conscious that I can do a lot more than what I have so far accomplished. And also, these are constantly moving goal-posts, so I am not in a position (at least yet) to say I have achieved all that I want. All can say is that when I look back, I feel happiness in what I have accomplished. And when I look ahead, I see a long road yet to be travelled.
- A recent project or solution to a problem that you have made better, faster, smarter or less expensive?
I recently led the thinking of our work in Kolkata to use the existing power infrastructure (which is one of the best in the country) to provide solutions to the government on implementing electric vehicles. Though this is not the first implementation of electric vehicle charging stations in India (and thus is not necessarily a novel idea), but the kind of impact it can have on the environment is incredible. And given Kolkata is a power surplus city, it is also a way to reduce the cost of mobility significantly. The pilot is in progress, and if successful, can be scaled rapidly.
- In your opinion what is the most significant aspect of leadership?
Two aspects which I rate equally: – a). Inspiring others and enabling them to become leaders they can. It is easier said than done, as it requires you to let them lead (even at times when you know you can do it better or faster), allowing them to make mistakes & learn from them, and instilling trust in them that you are there to support them (and cover for them, if needed). b). Taking tough decisions which others can’t take for you (on products, clients, and if required, people). At the same time, carrying the organisation along on why a particular course of action is the right one for us.
- Your perception of an empowered society. How far your industry has / can contribute for the same?
Empowered society to me starts with empowered self; then with empowered colleagues; which then coupled with social inclusiveness, leads to social and economic empowerment. Our company, as well as our industry, given it employs a large part of our country’s workforce has a large part to play in this. ITC’s e-chaupal program is a great example of this. Too Yumm! still being a small business has started doing it’s bit through means of inclusive hiring (inclusive in terms of gender, caste, religion, economically backward), investments in backward districts for manufacturing, and procuring raw materials directly from the farmers (we work directly with 10,000 farmers already). I believe there’s still a long way to go. Both industry leaders as well as government bodies need to come together, and create a meaningful and impact-oriented roadmap for this. But as I said, it starts with self, and thus as an individual (and as a company), we can still contribute a lot.
- One thing you wish to change and one thing you wish to retain about your industry?
Retain: Focus on making consumer’s life better through innovation to bring solutions to their most pressing problems, and making them affordable.
Change: Role of women in the industry. Many FMCG companies in India have a low proportion of women, especially in non-factory roles. We at Too Yumm! are also struggling with the same. We need to work (and also collaborate with the industry) to create more conducive working environment for women, and encouraging their participation in a lot more meaningful way.
- One thing you have to let go off as an entrepreneur/leader?
The urge to do everything on your own (mostly due to the misplaced belief that you can do it better). Not only it is not true (many people are better than oneself on many dimensions), but it also does not create the empowered leadership one needs for the organisation to scale the business significantly.
- Whom do you owe your success to?
My parents – I come from a very humble background from a troubled city (Srinagar, Kashmir). My parents have made multiple sacrifices to enable me to get the right opportunities through my life
My mentors – I have many mentors; far too many to mention here. But without their guidance and support (sometime blind support), I would not have been half as good. And I would have definitely not understood what it takes to be a good leader.
My teams – which have trusted me; which have taken my mission as their own, and made personal sacrifices at times to deliver. I hope to find a way to make them successful.
- Best thing about your job?
Teams I work with – they are full of passion and energy. Coming to work everyday is a delight. And running a business with a noble mission (to make meaningful differences to consumer’s lives, for e.g., starting by providing healthier snacks)
- A message from you to all the future entrepreneurs/leaders?
Think big, act boldly. Invest in people – at the end of the day, your success is linked to their success. And be humble while doing all of this.