BrandSutra: Linen-blend Cavallo is a response to the pandemic by Aditya Birla Group‘s textile business
Photo by: Chou Chiang

Satyaki Ghosh, CEO - Domestic Textiles, Aditya Birla Group is no stranger to business challenges. In his long and impressive career across companies like PepsiCo, L’Oreal, GE Lighting, Shaw Wallace and others, he has picked up business nuances and applied them effectively in his work. Ghosh talks to BrandSutra about challenges he faced over his career and how he solved them, as well as his resolve to help those worst affected by the pandemic to get back on their feet.

From December 2016 to now… how do you see your own growth and that of the domestic textiles business at the Aditya Birla Group?

I can describe my tenure in one word - ‘hectic’. There have been a lot of learnings, though, in terms of the product, category, trade, manufacturing, etc. Since I came from a multinational background, integrating into a big Indian group has been a cultural learning as well.

The last four years have been very tumultuous for the textile industry, with demonetisation and GST. Now we have been hit by this pandemic. It’s been thoroughly challenging, but enriching as well, because you learn things the hard way.

We are in the middle of Unlock 5.0; how do you expect consumer behaviour to change in the days ahead and how are you gearing up for it?

From the consumer behaviour point of view, what is selling is the lower price point. So, we are launching a linen-blended fabric called Cavallo by Linen Club at a lower price point before Durga Puja, but it will hit Diwali more aggressively. It took us time to innovate and get a product which will be at almost 60% the price of Linen Club, but it will still be Cavallo by Linen Club.We've already launched Cavallo Studio, our readymade range, on e-commerce,and it has got very good traction. Now we’ll also launch fabrics in the market,for bespoke tailoring. Besides, we are making ready-made cuts of trouser lengths and shirt lengths and selling them as a combo. We are getting good traction on our overall Exclusive Brand Outlets (EBO) business.

In the pipeline are some smart innovations on Linen Club; one such big innovation will hit the markets before Diwali. In our ready-made business of Linen Club Studio and Cavallo, we are also launching the work from home range.

“What has kept me going is my learning agility, my need to learn and do something different. I've never changed jobs within the industry. I hope to do at least one or two more sectors before I call it a day, and Aditya Birla Group has enough scope of doing that.”

Personally, how has the lockdown treated you? What has been your lockdown learning?

I used to travel 20 days a month. From that to six months of no travelling is actually life-changing. I eat home-cooked food and walk every day. I’m physically much fitter than I was before the pandemic. Emotionally, it has been draining on many fronts. I’ve seen friends and relatives lose jobs, face salary cuts, children are facing career-defining moments. My family has gone through COVID infection, so I’ve seen it from close quarters.

Even professionally, it has been draining, because business is difficult and cost cuts were unavoidable. You do it because the business needs it, but it isemotionally draining. The big realisation for me from this pandemic is that we can’t get everything we want. So being calm, taking life one day at a time is my learning.

You would have several extraordinary on-ground experiences to share from your marketing career across L’Oreal, Pepsi, GE, Shaw Wallace, etc. Tell us about some of them.

When I worked with PepsiCo snacks, our products like Lay’s and Kurkure used to dominate the market. We had 80%+ share in the Western snacks market, the team was relaxed and thinking of ways to grow. The leader at that point in time redefined the strategy and asked Nielsen to stop sending us the Western snacks data and instead, asked for the overall snacks market data. The moment the data became ‘all snacks’, we figured how big Haldiram was and how big the Indian competitors were. It changed our entire perspective. We suddenly figured outthat our market-share was not 80%, but just 35%. It changed the momentum of the company. We suddenly saw the big picture and the big learning for me wasto raise the bar and to change the context.

My other memorable experience was with L'Oreal with a brand called Maybelline – its claim to fame is mascara. Maybelline sold millions of mascaras across largely the Western world. When they came East, their mascara sales actually doubled in countries like Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Mainland China, Japan, etc., as women typically have small eyelashes and a good mascara was a huge help.
However, in India, it faced resistance on two fronts – one, Indian women already had dense eyelashes, and second, thanks to our age old ‘jadi-booti’ culture, women believed that mascara would make their eyelashes fall. TheIndian sub-continent, which I was in charge of, did not need a mascara!
We had to innovate immediately, and figured out that Indian women were okay with kajal. Though it was a mix of various chemicals and applied inside the eye, it had camphor so it gave a cooling effect which everybody thought was great for the eye, but actually it wasn’t. So we introduced Maybelline kajal in amodern pencil format and it became a rage. At launch, we planned to sell a hundred thousand units, but we ended up doing nine million. Today, every make-up brand has a pencil kajal but the category was built by Maybelline and it is an amazing story.

What is the biggest business challenge that you have faced so far and how did you overcome it?

Garnier had a hair care brand called Fructis and it was not going anywhere. The category was dominated by Unilever and P&G. Based on huge consumer research, we launched another brand from L’Oreal’s French heritage called Ultra Doux, which we called the Ultra Blends. At the same time, we also activated our other brand, L'Oreal Paris healthcare in India at a lower price, and it actually hit the bull’s eye versus Dove. In India, because you use oil, you don't need that much conditioning while the Western formula involves a lot of conditioning. Our formula was very Western. We changed it for India and it worked.

What do you look forward to personally and professionally?

The pandemic made us realise that certain sections of our society have nothing to eat; they don’t know how they will send their children to school… I plan to join an NGO and work for the needy. While I may not be the next Jack Welch in this world, I would like to contribute in some way to society. On the professional front, I have always worked in different sectors, from liquor, to lighting, to FMCG, retail, etc., and now I work in the textile industry. What has kept me going is my learning agility, my need to learn and do something different. I've never changed jobs within the industry. I hope to do at least one or two more sectors before I call it a day, and Aditya Birla Group has enough scope of doing that.

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