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Ascent of an innovator: Harsh Mariwala's transformation from astute entrepreneur to business catalyst

Shradha Sharma
9th Feb 2018
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Harsh Mariwala

One of India’s most respected business leaders, Harsh Mariwala, reinvented his family’s spice and edible oil business into Marico, the name behind Saffola, Parachute and the Kaya chain of skincare clinics.

The 66-year-old has scaled down his involvement in the day-to-day affairs of the company he started 27 years ago but is busy in his new role as a business mentor.

I was thrilled to get a chance to talk to him about his stupendous journey, right from turning Marico into a health and beauty-based empire and creating purposeful brands. We also spoke about his passion for spreading awareness about mental health and well being, as well as his new vocation of helping other entrepreneurs through his Ascent Foundation.

Here are edited excerpts.

Shradha Sharma: What got you to start the Ascent Foundation five years back?

Harsh Mariwala: I wanted to give something back to the society: just not money or hospital or school or college. I wanted to play a catalytic role: apart from financial resources, I also wanted to give my time. That meant to select something that was my passion, to impact others, where I could give my time and add value. I had four options actually: entrepreneurship, health, education, and innovation. We are already doing work in Marico Innovation Foundation. So I decided to look at entrepreneurship because I believe that entrepreneurs add a lot of value to all stakeholders, which includes not only the owners and promoters but also society or employees or associates you are dealing with.

Good entrepreneurs can actually make a difference in that they provide jobs. And I was willing to spend time. [In fact], I spent about 10-20 percent of my time on this. I started my business at a very small pace and I realised that as you progress from small to medium to large size, the entrepreneur has to go on shifting his or her focus, role and processes; many entrepreneurs are not able to do so. Though they are very good businesses, they are not able to grow beyond a certain scale. So, if I can play a role in helping others, then I'm using my experience in adding value to these entrepreneurs who will get to scale up further to benefit all stakeholders. So mine is a purely catalytic role. I did spend some money, but I think, more importantly, we need to play a highly catalytic role where we basically influence entrepreneurs. Learning comes from peer-to-peer learning. Beyond that, we also have other initiatives like events and lectures and we help them network with the right consultants the right service providers. I spent months with 10 entrepreneurs who had some individual issues [and needed] mentoring. We are going ahead with newer initiatives like mentoring entrepreneurs by selecting some retired CEOs. When you create an ecosystem of entrepreneurs who can learn from each other and learn from people who can help them and in that process if they are able to grow and overcome the issues many entrepreneurs face, I think that will put value to our camp. Nobody else was doing this.

SS: You are an exemplar of leadership that is willing to let go, which most Indian leaders just cannot. How do you do that?

HM: I think you have to realise that you are not indispensable. In my own journey, I have realised that when you are small, you do things on your own, when you are mid-sized you get things done by others, and when you are large you influence, and beyond that, I gave up the old imaginative senpai. I had to practically relinquish [my responsibilities] though I do play some role. You have to see what is good for the organisation. If you are handing over responsibility to someone who is ideally better than you, then you won’t have regrets.

SS: But you are such a strong person yourself…

HM: You find newer ways of occupying yourself. You have to reinvent yourself every 10-20 years and in that process, you are not abdicating responsibilities: you are giving them to a person who is very capable so that the institution continues, and you get that extra time to do personal things, which will make your life richer. You are right, I was quite shocked to see examples of the best-governed houses and companies where the promoter and ex-chairman getting into issues, which should not happen.

SS: Does the clarity come with time or did you already have it when you were chasing your vision?

HM: No, it comes with time. When I started the business, I never knew how I would do, how big it was going to be. So, this whole thing of the vision that entrepreneurs should have at the start… I don't agree. The environment changes very fast and business too evolves. You can have a short-term outlook in terms of where you are going but I'm not a kind of person who would set a 10-year business plan because the disruptions that are happening are so impactful that it is impossible to predict what will happen. And you have to be aware of the discontinuities in the area of technology or whatever and fine-tune your [strategy]. You have to go on changing with the times.

SS: You turned around Marico. When you started out, did you [know what to do]?

HM: No, at the time I was totally without experience with nobody to guide me. So, it was like one step at a time, "Okay, let me try something" and "Is it working out?" If it was working, you went to the next step. Suppose if it was working on one State distribution expansion, then from Maharashtra, you went to Gujarat, then to Madhya Pradesh, then South and then North. So, it evolved over a period of time.

SS: Did you think of brands very consciously from the early days?

HM: Yes. Brand-building, especially in our kind of business, is the most important part because that’s where you are able to add value.

SS: Some brand professionals in the US I was talking to were saying that the whole narrative now is about purposeful brands. In fact, Stanford is doing a study on this…

HM: I fully agree. In fact, two of our brands have a purpose and I am pushing some others too. I think for a company it is important to have a purpose because [it is] all inter-related. If I do something good for my employees and they are motivated to perform, it will have a better impact on their finances and on the finances of the shareholder. And if the shareholders’ market cap increases, you can make acquisitions. If you are making acquisitions, skills increase and your associates will also benefit. So, it’s a circle where everybody is interlinked the organisation does not exist just for the sake of the promoters or the shareholders but all stakeholders.

Customers are also a part of the stakeholders. To give an example, it was perceived maybe five years back, Shanti Amla, was a low-priced brand that disrupted by its low price. Then we have a purpose to that brand and exemplified and accelerated it by having Vidya Balan as a brand ambassador and the image completely changed. We donate a certain percentage of our profits towards education but indirectly it benefits the brand because its equity really shot up because of all the work were been doing. We've overtaken Dabur Amla in terms of volume. With brands like Saffola, you're selling heart care: [promoting] exercise or [healthy] habits. For Saffola, I did it from day one saying we are not selling oil but heart care. Shanti Amla was not my idea but the brand team came up with the purpose. Now they are trying to work on a purpose for some of our bigger brands like Parachute.

SS: Tell us about the entrepreneurs you mentor through Ascent.

HM: I wanted to impact people in large numbers, not 10, 15 or 20 but hundreds and thousands hopefully over a period of time. We had to create something that was a bit process-based rather than individual mentoring-based. That’s why I went to a peer-to-peer platform like entrepreneurs learning from each other so the biggest gain for them is through their trust groups.  We are now also trying to institutionalise it, which is getting CEOs to mentor entrepreneurs.

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