Growing up in Meerut, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, Ajay Khanna saw his father, a fitness freak, play squash, swim and take early morning walks. He also saw his mother cook great meals, and always ensure healthy eating. This seeded in him the concept of fitness, to which he is deeply committed to this day. The fit-as-a-fiddle Khanna, 61, literally walks the talk in his role as Senior Vice President and Managing Director, India of global nutrition company, Herbalife Nutrition, even as he leads the company’s No. 2 global market to consistent growth. According to a company report, operating revenues were above Rs 4,000 crore for the nine-month period ending September 30, 2022, an increase of 33.6%, as compared to the same period in 2021.
Ajay Khanna, Senior VP and MD, Herbalife Nutrition India |
In your 14-year association with Herbalife, how have you seen the brand evolve? Could you share some of your big learnings over the years?
Herbalife Nutrition has been in India for more than two decades now. Globally, we have been around for about 40+ years. I have seen this brand evolve since I started 14 years back, with just a handful of distributors and products to today, when we have more than 1 million distributors, and more than 1 million preferred customers. In 2017, we segmented our business to distributors who are business builders and people who are lovers of the products. So, today we have preferred customers who just want to consume the products, and we have distributors who want to take the business opportunity. In India, we are the No. 1 nutrition brand. Globally also, as per the Euro Monitor, we are the No. 1 meal replacement brand.
How has Herbalife India performed as a company? Where is it placed in the scheme of things in the global hierarchy of top markets of Herbalife? Can you share any numbers?
India has seen double digit growth over the last three years. We see a lot of people joining in for the business opportunity. And, yes, India today is the No. 2 market for Herbalife globally. Next to the US, definitely, but we see an opportunity, for India has the potential to be the No. 1. In India, I've seen a tremendous acceptability for our products by Gen Z.
There was this concern about direct selling some time back until the Government regulated it in 2019. How do you see the business panning out? Are there still any hurdles in the way of direct selling?
I would like to thank the Government for regulating this industry. As you said, there was a concern around this industry for a couple of years but in 2019, direct selling became a part of the Consumer Protection Act. So it's a regulated industry, though people are still accepting it slowly. But it's becoming a much more respected industry right now.
Talking of Herbalife as a sports nutrition brand, you have associated with various sporting events such as the Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022, Ironman in Goa and Tokyo Olympics, as well as athletes - Virat Kohli, Mary Kom, and now Smriti Mandhana. What do these associations do for the brand?
We are a science-based organization. Our purpose is to talk about a healthy, active lifestyle through all these sports personalities who are associated with us, be it Virat, be it Mary Kom, Lakshya Sen and now Smriti. These are all live icons of sports who represent fitness and health. Moreover, the Indian Government is also promoting Khelo India, so our efforts go along with the mission of the Government.
What other brand associations are on the anvil?
We are working with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), which is the food regulator for the Fit India campaign. For that, we train students in various establishments, such as schools and colleges. Up to now, more than 40 institutes have been associated with this ‘Eat Right’ campaign, and we work very closely with them. It is not only about products, but about promoting hygiene, good nutrition and an active lifestyle.
What is your view of targeted nutrition? How has the consumer adapted to the concept of meal replacements? You have competition in the market from Ayurveda companies, the likes of Patanjali as well as nutraceutical brands... how do you differentiate?
The nutraceutical industry is bound to grow because with all the challenges of the last couple of years, people have become more aware of wellness and nutrition. If you talk of Ayurveda, we are also into Ayurveda with products for physical ability, brain health, etc.
The biggest USP of Herbalife is that we are a focused nutrition and wellness company. Our approach might be direct selling, but our focus is on nutrition with R&D centres across the globe. Last year, we inaugurated our own centre of excellence at Bangalore.
How does the Centre of Excellence in India contribute to global and local growth?
India has got a massive opportunity and the R&D centre in India helps us understand what the requirements are for the India market. A lot of products are made especially for India, for example, the Formula One shake becomes the Formula One Shake Kulfi here, and the Kahwa that we just launched. R&D is the reason that we are able to launch these unique products. The Bangalore facility has got a dedicated Ayurveda research wing as we plan to expand our Ayurveda range.
Can you talk about the focus of your marketing and advertising strategy?
Our prime focus is on holistic wellness. Our entire marketing and advertising strategy is based on educating the Indian masses about an active lifestyle, wellness and nutrition, and what is it that would take them on the journey of holistic well-being. That's the reason why we have associated with sports personalities like Virat Kohli, Smriti Mandhana, Manika Batra and Lakshya Sen.
What is your favourite story from your career at Herbalife?
A man who used to work as a peon is today one of our top distributors. That guy could not even speak English, and today he goes on stage and makes presentations. When I joined this company, I was witness to this life-changing story. It greatly impacted me, and that's the reason why I'm here, seeking to change people’s lives for the better.
Going forward, what are your plans for the business in the long term and short term?
When we look at the business plans for India, I can say that we haven't even scratched the surface, as the kind of opportunity that exists in India is tremendous with a population of 1.3 billion people. We will continue to invest in R&D and localized products that cater to the Indian market. We will also continue working along with the Government on the mission of Fit India (Swastha Bharat) and Atmanirbhar Bharat.
What is one principle that guides you as a business leader?
I've been working for almost about 30+ years now. One thing I tell my people is that keep learning, no matter what age you are. I'm still learning every day. Learning never stops.
The banana habit
“One thing I recall is that whenever we used to play squash, my Dad used to give us bananas to eat to recover from the fatigue, as bananas re-energize you. Even when we used to wake up in the morning, the first thing he would bring us was a cup of tea and two bananas. That habit has stayed with me - I still continue to eat bananas.”
“I am very committed to my fitness regime. First of all, I love Herbalife products and have been a user over the years. I've seen the difference, and that is something we actively promote within the organization. I start my morning with the Formula One shake, my current favourite is the Formula One Kulfi. At the company, we have a lot of activities related to fitness and wellness training and education for our distributors as well as employees.”
A bike lover
Ajay Khanna on bike |
“I'm an avid biker. I live in Bangalore and we have a group of 10 colleagues, who go on a bike trip every weekend. Our upcoming trip is to Chikmagalur - a 300 km ride one way. That's what keeps my adrenaline high - being with people, going into the lap of nature… Holistic wellness is also about connecting with nature.”
(If you have a story in and around Mumbai, you have our ears, be a citizen journalist and send us your story here. )