At first glance, Britannia’s managing director Vinita Bali comes across
as anything but the head of a Dh300 million a year global food company.
Spry, energetic and forthright, and without the airs that many heads of large companies project, Vinita is down to earth and friendly. She says these are qualities she learnt from her parents and the many people who taught her music, dance and drama.
“I learnt the Indian classical dance form Kathak for many years, and also to play the sitar. Both of these demand a very high level of dedication,” says Vinita. “People think the arts are only about inspiration and creativity. But they also foster discipline.”
Even though she pursued a career in business, she did not give up her passion for the arts and made time in her busy schedule to act in plays and practise the sitar as often as she could.
She used the discipline she learnt through the arts when she studied economics at Delhi University, and earned a management degree from Mumbai’s prestigious Jamnalal Bajaj Institute. She pursued further studies in business and economics at Michigan State University on a scholarship from The Rotary Foundation and later interned at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Vinita cut her management teeth at Cadbury in India, the UK, Nigeria and South Africa, and at Coca-Cola in Chile. At Coke she was responsible for global marketing strategies and was one of the key players who helped the soft-drink giant double its growth.
In 1997, she was made Coke’s vice-president of marketing for Latin America. Two years later, she became the president of the Andean division with retail sales in excess of $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion), spanning Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.
She later joined Sergio Zyman, her mentor at Coke, when he created a consultancy firm Zyman Group, as a managing principal and head of business strategy in Atlanta, US.
What sets her apart from other women executives like PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi or Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg is her approach to management. Despite her extensive experience, Vinita, 57, believes people can become better managers through lessons in the arts rather than business.
“The dedication, devotion and application that are required in the arts are the same qualities needed to succeed in business,” she says.
That’s why she regularly invites artists such as Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas to speak to her senior managers on what business can learn from the arts. She firmly believes that following the simple rules of dedication, devotion and application can transform any company into a winning one.
Vinita has won numerous awards including the Businesswoman of the Year in 2009 from the Economic Times in India and she has been named one of the top 50 most powerful businesswomen in the world, twice, by the Financial Times.
An advocate of healthy living, Vinita was responsible for Britannia eliminating trans-fats from its products such as biscuits and cakes and offering foods for people with diabetes. As a result, the company’s market share grew 25 per cent last year.
But her pet project – the Britannia Nutrition Foundation (BNF), which supplies iron-fortified biscuits, among other things, to poor rural school children in Andhra Pradesh, southern India – is what really excites her now. “We should all have a project that gives both physical as a well as mental satisfaction,” she says. “That’s the only thing that will sustain in the long-run.” She talks to Friday about her passion and motivation.
In her own words:
I’ve never really considered my job as work. For me, work is an opportunity to do what you like doing and in the process adding value to whoever you are working for and to yourself by enriching your own learning and development. You should have fun along the way. Work is a place where you put your talent, experience, and leadership qualities to practical use and use your abilities to change things for the better.
This applies to work that you do professionally and get paid for as well as volunteering. It’s the same thing except that in one case you are getting paid real income and in the other you get psychological income because it makes you feel good. Both are important. Real income without psychological income doesn’t endure.
As a child I wanted to do a lot of things – be a pilot, a neurosurgeon, a diplomat... but I am glad I entered the business world. I enjoy every minute of it. I don’t make grand plans or plot out the future. I love to live in the present and go with the flow and as long as I am learning, contributing to the job and having fun, I am open to anything. That is probably the reason why I have had an unconventional career.
After completing my MBA in 1977, I did a short stint at Voltas, one of India’s largest engineering companies, before landing a job with Cadbury in India. Three and a half years into the job I got a full scholarship from Rotary International to do my postgraduate studies in business and economics from Michigan
State University, so I left for the US.
After that I enrolled in a PhD programme, but found it boring so I quit and returned to Cadbury. I also spent time working at Coca-Cola.
When my mentor Sergio Zyman, who was responsible for getting me into Coca-Cola, left to start his own consultancy, the Zyman Group, I joined him. I loved it but eventually decided to return to India to look after my ailing mother.
You don’t learn from just one person in life, you learn from many people all the time. I learnt about history and culture by living in many different places – six countries on five continents. Developing businesses in all these different places was possible only because I kept learning from everyone. I still do.
Being a woman has never held me back in my career. I firmly believe that the debate about gender should be replaced by a debate about competency. I don’t wake up every morning believing that I have to behave differently because I am a woman. I think about the best way to deliver what I have to deliver and just do it.
Being tough is part of being in a leadership role. I am a very demanding individual – on myself as well as others. I believe in the pursuit of excellence. This, of course, requires hard work and discipline. Being fair and transparent is equally important. I have to explain what I want from my staff very clearly, and give them a fair chance to achieve it. Leadership is about disciplined thought and action and creating an environment that will help produce the best work.
I get inspired by excellence – whether in a painting, a photograph, the sports or the arts.
When you are doing so many things you need to have some discipline and a schedule. Although I don’t plan the future, I plan my days. At work I am a stickler for time. I like to pack as much in a day as I can. The only way to do
that is to plan your day really well. When I am travelling for work, I stick to my schedule, but that doesn’t prevent me from going to the theatre after work.
My relaxation time is written into my tight work schedule. An element of fun is always there and so are opportunities to broaden my perspective on things.
I travel for around 15 days every month, visiting our units around the world. My work is in the markets and in the factories where we manufacture our products. I prefer that to sitting in an office pushing papers.
Britannia has seen a good and healthy growth in business in the Middle East. From being a brand that caters largely to the Indian diaspora, it is now being accepted by local consumers. We’ve also extended our market to Saudi Arabia.
A very important development for me was the Britannia Nutrition Foundation.
It was established in 2009 with the belief that something needed to be done about the very low levels of nutrition in India. BNF’s starting point was an involvement with the World Food Programme for which Britannia made specially formulated biscuits as part of a special package.
In 2007 I had the opportunity to showcase Britannia’s work in health and nutrition to an audience of over 1,000 prominent people at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York – world leaders, former heads of state and hundreds of global CEOs. This is a group that brings together a community of global leaders to devise and implement innovative solutions for some of the world’s most pressing challenges.
I am a very eclectic person and my career reflects that quality. Work is important, but it is not everything. I love theatre, the arts, music and sports. Life has to be lived fully.
I was lucky to have met amazing people throughout my life. The teacher who taught us drama in school, the now well-known actress Sushma Seth, was a major influence. Theatre icon Barry John taught us elocution. Our sports teacher Mrs Pilkington and my Kathak guru all influenced me while growing up in Delhi.
Work and play intermingle in my life. I try to exercise every day. I listen to music, walk and read. Whenever I can, I see a play, go to the theatre, visit an art gallery and meet with friends. I am so interested in drama that I acted in plays right through school and college. At one point I was so serious about it that I joined the National School of Drama in New Delhi. I love reading biographies and autobiographies.
To me, a work-life balance means how work fits in my life and not how life fits into work.
My dreams today are about the BNF, of which I am the chairperson. It is more than just a job, it provides an opportunity to impact wider agendas in the country.
The foundation’s goal is to create a platform for all the agencies that deal with nutrition – NGOs, the Department of Education that oversees midday meal schemes, the Department of Women and Child Welfare that is responsible for the Integrated Child Development Services scheme – to lead to some concerted action.
BNF’s partnership with the Hyderabad-based Naandi Foundation and Geneva-based Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition is something we all dreamt of. Britannia supplies iron-fortified biscuits via Naandi’s midday meal scheme to schools.
Bill Gates named the programme as one of eight examples of creative capitalism in an article in Time magazine. Our dream is to take this further.