Nagesh Alai
Guest Article

A joyride of a lifetime astride a bull in a china shop

“He was the glue that kept his lieutenants -Arvind, Ambi, Niteen, Shashi and yours truly- together,” writes Nagesh Alai, in a memoir for Ulka’s Anil Kapoor, who passed away last week.

Anil Kapoor used to laugh uproariously and cuss when in private I used the epithet “Billy the Bull”, just to needle him. A man of extraordinary energy, enthusiasm, candour and leadership.

Going down the memory lane, I, as a rookie, met AK for the first time in July 1983 in Boots Pharmaceuticals, in his smoke-filled cabin, a huge figure with a lit cigarette in hand (he used to be a chain smoker). Over the next four years (AK left Boots in October 1986), he was a constant factor in the cabin of my boss, D M Gavaskar, discussing pharma business propositions, plans, pricing and profits and the then incipient launch of the consumer products division. It soon became a reality under AK’s stewardship and made fabulous strides with the launch/relaunch of marquee brands like Coldarin, Strepsils, Burnol, Sweetex, etc., giving sleepless nights to P&Gs of the world and of course to the agency partners, HTA and Clarion.

I have lost count of the number of times that I must have met AK in my boss’s room and the several interludes with him veering around both business and personal and of course the jokes and barbs about everybody in colourful lingo. The entire finance team used to curse AK in a way for dominating our boss’s time because it used to delay our work and force late working almost every day. AK was a notorious latecomer in the ‘stiff upper-lip’ British company and since the then MD could do nothing about it, he just issued a general circular levying penalty on anyone who comes late, so that he will get the message! Who can stand up to AK, the terrier of a bull? It miffed all of us punctilious folks. AK was also a profligate spender – both on business and personal front – literally requiring a dedicated person to chase him and close IOUs before audits. And by the way, when I got married whilst in Boots, the only person who did not attend the function was AK!

Circa 1989 and 1990 – AK was the shooting star in Ulka and was putting his team together. He was also looking for a finance partner and was sending overtures to me through Mr. Lalit Bhai (a colleague in Boots) and Ambi Parameswaran. I was not interested in the offer since by then I was in John Wyeth Pharma in a senior position and had made up my mind on a career in pharma industry. Moreover, I was worried about his storied profligacy as well as the fact that Ulka was a dying company. And to be honest, I had been miffed at his big shot attitude of not attending my marriage function.

To cut a long story short, AK persisted and I finally agreed to meet him on a Friday evening at 6 pm. I landed at Ulka’s Nirmal office before time and was told that AK will soon see me. Soon became forever and I must have sent 5 messages to him through the security guard (called Tiwary). Nothing worked. Then I sent in a final message saying that I am leaving. AK was out in a jiffy, flippantly apologised and met me, again in a smoke-filled cabin. By the way, AK liked the blue and grey colours and he was wearing that combination on that day too. And OMG, the meeting went on and on over coffee and endless platters of sandwiches which he kept gorging on – it was not an interview really, but him talking passionately about his vision and mission for Ulka and everything else under the sun. I remember vividly what he had said to me that day finally when I asked him why I should join him – “Nagesh, I am trying to resurrect a down-in-the-dumps Ulka and I have definite plans for it. I need a strong finance partner given my predilections to brand building. I will be focussing on attracting and retaining clients, but I would want you to ensure for me a strong balance sheet. Can you help me do that?” A clear one line ‘brief’ that! In my mind, clearly the importance of finance is industry neutral and at the end of the day, everything ends in a balance sheet. Hence, his words stayed in my mind. Truth be told, 99% of my family and friends, some from the ad world, advised me to decline the sinking-ship-Ulka offer. Contrarian that I innately am, I said to myself that I should take up the challenge. I joined Ulka Advertising on 21st May 1990.

That was the beginning of an extraordinary ride over 26 years, literally 24*7*52, engaged soul and heart in the ‘business of brands’ and the ‘business of business’. AK, with consummate ease, would convince everyone that they start the day early morning before the rooster crows with Wipro bulbs, imbibe ‘Amul doodh doodh, piyo glass full’, bathe with Santoor to ensure that ‘aapke twacha se umra ka pata hi nahin chalta’, have Sundrop serve you poories made out of ‘healthy oil for healthy people’, Whirlpool serving you ‘ice ice’, have a powerful reason to get dressed with a Zodiac tie, go to office in Tata Indica giving you ‘ more car per car’, have a comfortable ride with ‘born tough’ Ceat tyres, return home in Mahindra Scorpio and make ‘cars suffer from low esteem’ and in the evening go for a long joy ride in a Hero two wheeler after ‘fill it, shut it, forget it’ while your daughter takes the scooter with a blasé attitude of ‘why should boys have all the fun’ and end the day reading a very strong Week magazine. For AK, it was all about building brands, it was his lifeline.

There were extraordinary developments along the way with Ulka eventually becoming a top 5 agency in India, global players like Publicis, Y&R, Euro RSCG and others coveting us and finally Ulka finding a suitable boy in FCB, an IPG agency, and yours truly playing an active role in making that happen. Our success soon ensured expansion of role into Asia Pacific and Africa, all milestone ‘firsts’ and enriching professionally. And the piece de resistance, AK being inducted into the FCB Global board. Ulka had truly become a jewel in the crown. AK truly was a king, not just a king maker!

True to his commitments, AK had all along left me alone to manage the finance and legal and few other portfolios and given the trust reposed, one of the finest balance sheets in the ad industry was ensured in course of time. He always used to tell the world that we are two sides of the same coin and one could detect a latent pride in him of having developing a person who trusted him and came on board in 1990. My growth, both personal and professional, in the industry and out of it, have been in no small measure due to his extraordinary influence. He was a counsellor nonpareil.

I would leave for another day to write about my journey with him at a personal level, being his informal finance and investment consultant and the fabulous conversations and experiences along the way. AK did have chinks in his armour, but then which king did not have any. We have had our share of skirmishes and differences of course, only to make up and move on over delightful eats, liquids and laughs.

AK was smart, tough, supportive, celebratory and generous. He was a glue that kept his lieutenants (Arvind, Ambi, Niteen, Shashi and yours truly – a trivia, both Shashi and Niteen were in Ulka before AK had joined in Sept 1988), together and firing full blazes in unison. He was a classic bull in a china shop, wont to question the status quo, but who never broke the china. Little wonder, the clients relished the tea of strategy that he served them in fine china.

Alas, this charming Bull finally had to submit to the divine will, leaving many bereft.

I can imagine AK questioning God’s brief and putting the almighty in a mighty tail spin around the cosmos. Adios and stay well, AK. They don’t make them like you anymore.

(Nagesh Alai is co-founder at Enterprise AI startup and former group chairman, FCB Ulka Group.)