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Book review: How Marico built products for India’s GenNext

‘Harsh Realities’ tells the story of how Harsh Mariwala negotiated odds to build a successful commercial empire boasting of brands such as Parachute and Saffola

Written by Aashish Aryan |
September 12, 2021 6:20:57 am
bookHarsh Realities By Harsh Mariwala and Ram Charan Penguin Portfolio 272 pages `699

For a country full of turns” — this recent advert for a tyre company is an apt description of the business ecosystem of a pre-liberalisation reforms era. Such were the complexities of the licence raj then that it did not matter if you had a financial jumpstart by virtue of being born in a relatively well-off family. One stroke of the pen and you had to wait eons to get that consignment, stuck in customs, cleared. How then did India Inc. navigate those paths, and build itself into the behemoth that it is today?

Harsh Mariwala’s book Harsh Realities provides a sharp insight into that in 21 concise chapters. Mariwala narrates how he, despite being born with an obvious silver spoon, built Marico, and its flagship products Parachute and Saffola, into products for the next generation.
Mariwala’s narrative takes off with an explanation of how the family got its name. Initially given the surname ‘Merchant’ by the then ruling British, the family settled on Mariwala as his ancestors were traders of pepper, called mari in Gujarati.

And so, in a family of traders, four years after India became Independent, the first grandson of the family, Harsh was born. Though the family astrologer had ably predicted the young baby’s future as being full of successes, Mariwala recounts how this prediction was rather a burden of sorts, that made him shy and withdrawn.

He is equally candid about his vulnerabilities, speaking of the mistakes the company made when it launched a healthy alternative snack that had to be withdrawn immediately afterwards. Another such open admission surfaces at the very end of the book, when Mariwala writes that though he held out against a factory union strike for nine months and eventually “emerged victorious”, he realised the importance of not just ensuring his own victory but a resolution that was to the satisfaction of all parties, when the let-down workers went on strike again.
Mariwala’s book also offers a fascinating insight into the journey of Parachute hair oil, from being sold in 15-litre tin jerrycans to customised containers. As one traverses the growth of Parachute, from a commodity-based product to a brand and then to one that was at one time the “most copied”, it also lays down an easy narrative for the reader to peep into the mind of its owner.

The book also highlights another crucial aspect — that of India Inc. and boardroom wars, of secession and succession. In the late 1980s, when Mariwala decided to take charge of his destiny and called for separation of companies that operated under the larger umbrella of Bombay Oil, the parent company, he very naturally faced stiff resistance from the family patriarchs. Instead of rebelling, however, Mariwala roped in his cousins, mostly his contemporaries, who understood his point of view and agreed with it. Likewise, he reveals, why his decision to step down as Marico’s managing director in 2014, while continuing to serve as chairman, was a difficult one. His family was understandably sceptical about handing over the reigns of the company to a professional, not because of the charge going out of the family, but because of the fear that the man who had built Marico from the ground up, would not be able to adjust to the sudden lack of drive that would come with relinquishing the post.

The role of professor Ram Charan, his co-writer, in Marico and Mariwala’s life is also worth noting in the book. Though Mariwala describes the professor as a jetsetter, it is very easy to see how he was one of the mainstays in the businesses that the former built, tore down and rebuilt. The insights provided by Charan may appear to be conventional, but to Mariwala, they always came at the right time and with the right economy of expression.

For a book that offers such an insider’s account, it could have benefitted from better editing. There is an excessive use of business jargon that is not easily comprehensible to the lay reader and the jump cuts, intended to take readers to and fro across important events in Mariwala’s life, affects the flow of the narrative. At other times, it is difficult to distinguish between Mariwala’s voice and that of the many characters he speaks of in the story. Barring these oversights, the book offers interesting insights into the workings of a corporate leader who fought family pressure and hostile takeover attempts from larger conglomerates.

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