Learn something everyday: Abraham Alapatt of Thomas Cook India tells BrandSutra
Learn something everyday: Abraham Alapatt of Thomas Cook India tells BrandSutra

ABRAHAM ALAPATT, President & Group Head - Marketing, Service Quality, Financial Services & Innovation, Thomas Cook India, takes us through his interesting journey, starting out with advertising, and moving to the marketing side, as well as the learnings gathered through it all

I wanted to be a copy-writer...

I was born in Chennai, into a middle class Malayali family. I went to school in Chennai, and graduated from Loyola College. Later, my interest in marketing led me to get an MBA from the School of Management Studies, Cochin. Right from school, I was fairly good with words, and thought I could make it in advertising. In fact, when I got a sense of what the business or industry did, I was fascinated with the idea of being a copy-writer, drafting words from the point of view of marketing. Straight out of business school, I opted for the first advertising job I got, as management trainee with a little agency in Chennai called Goldwire Communications. It had been set up by the late Aubrey Sequeira, one of the most respected creatives at Lintas – he had left Lintas, and the MRF account had moved with him. I ended up being an account executive on MRF, a very tough client. While I hated it then, in hindsight, it was probably the most fulfilling learning experience. At Goldwire, over a period of five years, I grew to client services head, managing MRF and a few other large clients. The company was ahead of its time, because Aubrey set up an Internet solutions start-up, called Goldwire Software, when Internet had just come to India. Though I was very young, he made me its chief operating officer for international operations. The idea was to build web solutions in India, and sell them to clients overseas. I had to set up operations in Singapore, San Jose and Frankfurt, for the Asia, America and Europe markets respectively. It was quite challenging as I was not a technology person, and also a huge learning. At Goldwire, I also met my wife, Susan, a trained film-maker who was in charge of films there. We married soon after.

All this while, I still wanted to get back to advertising, and my dream was to work with Ogilvy. So, when I got a call from Ogilvy Chennai, I joined as management supervisor and left the company as client services director five years later. While there, I handled some part of the Vodafone business, ITC, Club Mahindra Holidays, Nippo batteries and a few other clients. I was in charge of acquiring accounts, and part of pitching, which gave me a chance to thoroughly understand businesses. Being in advertising, I got solid grounding in customer understanding and insights, besides invaluable exposure to brands across categories.

THE PEOPLE-WATCHER

I love watching crime thriller movies. I run every day, and have done a few half marathons. Running keeps me sane - getting out there, seeing some sun, seeing people. My wife and I are fairly big into fitness. She is a cyclist, and if I’m not running, I go cycling. The other thing I love is people-watching. For example, I can sit on Worli Seaface and just watch people go by, or keep observing people while at a supermarket. There is so much to learn by looking at people and how they act - you grasp culture, habits, shopping habits, and other traits as they argue, bargain, negotiate…

My move to marketing...

After 10 years in advertising, I wanted to get into a marketing role. A dear friend, Ajay Kakar, had joined the newly set up Reliance Capital and he was looking for somebody to look after marketing for the Reliance Mutual Fund brand. I knew nothing about mutual funds, but he was sure I could figure it out. I did manage to convince the MD of Reliance Capital that not knowing anything about financial services and mutual funds was an advantage - to grow the business, it was imperative to get people to speak the language of the majority of consumers who don’t understand mutual funds. So in 2005, I became a marketer and moved to Mumbai with the job. The markets were kind, and Reliance Mutual Funds went from a Rs 12,000 crore business to Rs 1,00,000 crore in 2.5 years.

There were a lot of firsts, including perhaps the first TV commercial for a mutual fund in India which I did. After Reliance, I moved to the Development Credit Bank (DCB), for a while. Then an old colleague from Reliance, Sandip Tarkas, who was then heading marketing for the Future Group, reached out to me as they had just entered a JV with Generali to set up the Future Generali Life and General Insurance businesses. So I became CMO and part of the start-up team at Future Generali. It was exciting because I got to build not one but two businesses from scratch. After almost five years at Future Generali, I had the opportunity to meet Madhavan Menon, Chairman of the Thomas Cook India Group. At that meeting, I interviewed him more than he interviewed me! We hit it off personally, and to me that was always important. I joined as Head of Marketing. Since then, I've been given a lot of other responsibilities - customer service, service quality, innovation, value added services and so on. When I joined, we were just Thomas Cook India, a brand licensee from Thomas Cook UK. Along the way, we acquired several companies – among them Ikya which became Quess, Sterling Holidays, SOTC and TCI Sita, Kuoni’s global destination management companies, DEI in Dubai, Tata Capital's travel and foreign exchange business… Today, we are a multinational company present in 25 countries, having bought over the brand from Thomas Cook UK, as they went bankrupt.

Big bets at Thomas Cook...

The pandemic made us reimagine and reinvent ourselves faster than ever before, right from a complete shift to virtual selling, to our Assured Safe Travel Programme with Apollo Hospitals to reassure customers, to getting every one of our partners to sign up for our stringent safety norms – be it a taxi, hotel or airline, to guaranteeing refunds, free re-scheduling, etc. With countries opening up, travel will resume and we should bounce back stronger than before.

We’re betting on a couple of things. Everybody is craving travel more than ever before, and they are also willing to pay more for quality. The entire ecosystem will benefit from that. We’re going to see the 4D customer – deliberative, discerning, demanding and discovery-oriented, with a larger focus on discovery and experiences, rather than just places and things to see. So our entire focus is on building experiences.

Giving back via Fairfax...

Thomas Cook’s primary promoter, Fairfax Financial Holdings, is a Canada-based holding company. In India, its big investments include Lombard, which is ICICI’s partner, Bangalore airport (Fairfax is the largest share-holder), Catholic Syrian Bank, IIFL and others. Fairfax is headed by Prem Watsa, a Canadian citizen of Indian origin, who wanted to give back to India. When he met the Prime Minister and sought his guidance, he was asked to organize 1,000 dialysis machines, as dialysis is a huge challenge in India. Thus he set up the Fairfax India Charitable Foundation and asked me to lead it. India has one-tenth the number of machines required to serve the current patient load, and it’s getting worse every year. Our objective is to reach dialysis machines to places where they are not available, in smaller towns and cities, where people often travel hundreds of kilometers to get dialysis sessions. So far, we’ve deployed close to 700 top quality West German-made dialysis machines, of the targeted 1000, with support from our friends and partners. Today, more than a tenth of the Prime Minister’s National Dialysis Programme works via us, across 21 States. We have set up close to 100 dialysis centres already, including one at NESCO in Mumbai for COVID patients. Some centres are for the armed forces. We’re very proud of this.

Learn from everyone...

I believe you must learn something every day. My favourite proverb is: ‘He who knows most knows best how little he knows.’ It's important to be humble and try to learn something every day from people around you - be it your driver, your boss, your colleagues, your peon… anybody can teach you. The key is to learn.

(To receive our E-paper on whatsapp daily, please click here. We permit sharing of the paper's PDF on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.)

Free Press Journal

www.freepressjournal.in