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Saturday January 19, 2013

Up close & personal with Sunil Sethi

YOU are not going as a superhero.”

Eight-year-old Sunil Sethi stared at his mother in dismay.

The annual fancy dress competition at school was coming up, and usually, kids got to choose interesting characters to portray on stage.

“You're going as a leper,” his mother said firmly.

“A leper!” he cried. It was unheard of.

It was a while before an agreement was reached: Sethi would play the part, incentivised with a full set of baseball gear.

The day came and the audience cheered dozens of fancily-clad kids as they paraded their fancy costumes.

Finally, Sethi's turn came. Sombre, in rags, looking diseased with thick, dark goo smeared over his face and limbs, he started to writhe across the stage.

The surprised crowd watched then rose and erupted in applause.

“In those moments, I understood what it meant to be different,” remembers Sethi, in an interview at the Kraft Foods Malaysia headquarters in Petaling Jaya.

His tall, lean frame clad in a navy blue polo tee, khaki slacks and coat, the managing director looks both dapper and relaxed in this conversation in his tidy office.

Although he is friendly, there is an air of authority about him, an assertiveness and sense of control that probably never sleep.

The conversation is peppered with meaningful anecdotes from his childhood and lessons he has gleaned from working in the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry over the decades.

Natural born leader

A good managing director is able to fuse strategic thinking with executory capabilities, acquaint himself with his staff and keep morale high.

Ultimately, these are the essence of an attractive and lucrative business.

Fortunately for Sethi, people management and a mind for processes are his strengths.

Over the past few years, Kraft's acquisition of Cadbury and Danone biscuits division has made things very busy and interesting for Sethi.

They're in a good place now, and gearing towards making their Malaysian business a role model in the international platform.

With new roles created for existing employees, competitive remuneration and opportunities for international placement, staff can develop new skills, find their niche and most of all, gain a thorough understanding of the Kraft business.

Kraft Foods Malaysia has just received the Effie award for its Twisties campaign Life's better twisted a strong boost for the team.

Customers will see many new innovations soon, Sethi discloses.

“Every director that takes over will bring the business to the next level. I take people development and streamlining of processes very seriously. In the future, successors will carry on with fresh perspectives,” he says.

Sethi's leadership at Kraft Foods is a culmination of diverse experiences gleaned from several notable FMCG companies in Asia over the past two decades.

There was Wipro Ltd, a business and IT consulting company in India, where, via various portfolios in sales, branding and general management, he learned professional ethics; Pepsi gave him a good grasp of the FMCG industry; Diagio, an alcoholic beverages company, stretched him as he learned to build the brand in spite of social and legal constraints; and Cussins, as national sales manager, he learned to build and restructure the whole organisation

“You must know your strategy, vision, execution and get your processes together,” he says. “If you can get your people excited, you will have it.”

His ability to visualise the greater perspective of things was attained in his youth.

In university, Sethi would devour several books on every single subject prior to exams, determined to gain a wholistic understanding.

As a result, he produced superior answers, an advantage that put him ahead.

He emerged top in class, and fifth in the University of Delhi, India.

In his post-graduate studies, he maintained his academic standing, earning the Ranbaxy-sponsored Marketing Man of the Year award, trumping some other 100 students in his batch.

The extra effort was hardly a choice, he remembers.

Populous India was highly competitive, its education institutions inundated with pupils striving to break into the marketplace.

Students who wanted to get ahead had to work harder and smarter than their peers.

Furthermore, Sethi yearned for a career different from that of his father's.

Although his father's income was fair, times had changed and Sethi longed for excitement, like his eldest cousin who had found work in the corporate sector.

After university, Sethi decided that sales and marketing would be his niche and drew up a simple career plan that would serve as a guide over the coming years.

His move to Kuala Lumpur was timely as he had visited Malaysia during a working trip several years ago and decided to return.

The offer from Cadbury last year was opportune.

Sethi took it with both hands and left Hong Kong for Kuala Lumpur with his wife and daughter.

Over the decades, Sethi has had to transition between Indian and multinational companies.

That has been one of the major challenges he talks about as the adjustments he has had to make require patience and dedication.

He finds that the Indians place more emphasis on personal relationships, whereas international corporations tend to be more process-oriented, giving its staff more liberty to carry out their tasks at the price of greater expectations.

He draws the conversation back to his tenure at Cussins where he not only played manager in the local arm but also friend in a time of need.

Sethi, in his late 30s at that time, took on the additional and humane task of helping his colleagues secure new jobs when the company underwent major restructuring. Soft skills

Sethi is personable and a good conversationalist.

As he speaks, his brows furrow as his eyes bore through dark-rimmed glasses that frame his clean-shaven head; you can tell that he's listening intently.

He notes that his interpersonal skills come from growing up in a loving family.

The firstborn of a government servant (father) and a Hindi teacher, Sethi's home was crowded, for it also housed his grandparents and uncles' families.

Sethi thrived in school, excelling academically and taking on leadership roles in cricket, badminton and football.

It wasn't just about technical skills, he points out, but being able to inspire his peers and simply, lead.

His ability to inspire continues to serve him at Kraft Foods Malaysia.

Good leaders motivate staff to get things done without being told, he says.

“Vision, sound strategy and flawless execution of that strategy are the essence,” he adds.

As Sethi progressed into the late teens, he learned another important lesson in becoming his own person when he respectfully stood up to his parents.

At that time, the majority of Indian parents eagerly prescribed medicine and engineering courses to their impressionable teenagers.

Sethi had given their suggestion a shot, opting for the science stream in school and producing good results.

But he didn't connect with the subjects for they did not feed his curiosity about the world of business and commerce.

“Well, would you be proud if I excelled at commerce?” he asked his parents.

His clever question drew a favourable response.

On the side, Sethi indulged in the arts well, moonlighting as a broadcast journalist and feature programmes host.

On the radio, he facilitated discussions on social issues such as poverty, prostitution and other troubles that he saw on the streets.

His ability to connect with the audiences in both fluent Hindi and English were added advantages that kept the gigs coming.

His half-hour TV sessions paid a pittance, some 60 Indian rupees (RM3) per episode, serving his passion rather than bills.

Sethi acted in plays and eventually started his own production company.

These days, he maintains his artistic flair by coaching his only daughter 15-year-old Ragini in her school performances.

BORN: March 16 , 19 64

PERSONAL: Marr ied with a teenage daughter

HIGHEST QUALIFICATION: Masters in Manageme nt Studies, University of Mumbai, India

NOTEWORTHY: MD of Kraft Foods Malaysia

FAVOURITE FOOD: Vegetarian, It alian and nor the rn Indian

FAVOURITE PLACE: Beach resorts, boutique hotels & colonial buildings

HOBBY: Helping daughter with school plays

VALUES: Be unique, do it well and make a difference!

INSPIRATION: Parents

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