Deepashree Banerjee

"Marketing taught me how to listen": Himanshu Bakshi, MD, Danone

A quick interview with the recently appointed MD of Danone India. Formerly, Bakshi was director, marketing and led the marketing function for the brand's dairy and nutrition verticals.

Making a move from a marketing role to a more business-oriented role like Managing Director is not a first for any industry. From an area sales manager at an FMCG major like Dabur to being eventually elevated as the managing director at the French dairy giant Danone, Himanshu Bakshi has had quite an exciting journey in his over 18-year-old journey so far. Last week, we reported that Bakshi's new appointment would be effective from 1st April.

During his 5 year stint with food and beverage giant PepsiCo, Bakshi worked as a sales manager and looked after the Frito-Lay account. Prior to joining Danone, Bakshi spent over five years at consumer healthcare group Reckitt Benckiser(RB) where he worked as a brand manager with Dettol Antiseptic Liquid and Lizol and was eventually promoted as the senior category manager for Dettol Soaps. He joined Danone India in August 2013 as director, marketing - nutrition. In June 2015, he was promoted to the position of director, marketing and commercial operations. In August 2017, he moved up to the position of director - marketing, before being elevated to interim MD at Danone.

Dairy and infant-nutrition company Danone, started its nutrition business in India in 2012 with the acquisition of Wockhardt's nutrition portfolio that comprised brands like Dexolac, Farex and Protinex. The nutrition industry in India is around Rs 6000 crore (Nielsen, March 2019) while the adult nutrition segment, in which Protinex operates, is around Rs 400 crore.

Edited Excerpts

On the shift from a marketing role to a business role...

It's a logical step. When you're a marketer, you do a lot of things that are focused on the consumer; it's really about getting your brand vision right.

Now, as MD, I have to know how the macro environment is doing - what the upcoming trends are and how the economy is faring. It involves building a strategic framework and planning ahead. Interpersonal connections come in handy.

One major difference is that now, I'm responsible for the people within the organisation. As MD, any decision you take is going to affect more than a thousand families. At the end of the day, I'm accountable for every employee.

From a personal point of view, the recent shift of responsibilities is more like taking a step back, because, in a marketing role, you do a lot of micromanagement. As MD, you have to let go of a lot of ideas and opinions that you may have had as marketing director. That, for me, was a bigger challenge on an individual level and was something I had to work on initially.

I have to keep reminding myself about my newly donned avatar several times a day. I now make a conscious decision to keep myself at a slight distance in project meetings etc. because you don't want your teammates to feel like you're barging in on their freedom in any way. They view you in quite a different manner now.

It's not easy, for sure. But it's an opportunity; I'm learning how to deal with the challenge. All of a sudden you have to start thinking from a corporate point of view.

There are certain corporate agendas that we have. As MD, there are several things I want to take up - being an employer of choice, making a positive impact on people and society, safeguarding the environment, and focusing on sustainability. These are the key areas beyond my previous marketing role that I'm planning to work on in the coming months.

On how having been a marketer helps run the business...

There are many lessons one can leverage from 'the marketing role' like the strategic planning part. Secondly, it really helps having been a marketer because you've already worked very closely with all functions. Marketers are not supposed to work in a silo. For any project, marketers have to work with finance, sales, regulation and legal teams, and even cops. That experience has given me a lot of perspective.

Thirdly, marketing taught me how to listen to consumers' feedback and understand consumer insights. The entire procedure of listening, learning and engaging as a marketer has helped make me ready to take on this bigger role.

On market trends, the zero sugar variant of Protinex Lite and Danone's pledge to reduce added sugar in its Protinex portfolio by 20 per cent by 2020...

Firstly, digital disruption is happening all across. Secondly, there's a 'premiumisation' trend across verticals.

Sugar was never a menace about five or ten years back. Today, it has become such a talking point. We strive to meet the needs of Indians through health-focused product offerings responding to the food trends of today and tomorrow. The launch of products like Protinex Lite answers to consumers' needs. It has a compelling, differentiated proposition - zero sugar and high protein.

On his move from Reckitt to Danone in 2013...

The life stage of the brands I've worked on, be it at Dabur, PepsiCo or Reckitt Benckiser, are different from Danone. And they are all brands backed by huge advertising spends and promotions. There's a specific role marketers play in the handling of such mature brands. When I joined Danone, it was more like a startup and a lot needed to be done. The challenge was bigger as we almost had to build it from scratch. As a marketer, giving a brand a much-needed makeover always gave me a kind of high.

At Danone, I had to develop the brand positioning for a prescription brand like Protinex. So, at that juncture, it was more of a personal challenge and a test of everything I had learnt with the big brands in the past. There was a lot of room for experimentation. We tried so many things. Some worked, some didn't. Now when I look back, that decision was the biggest game changer.