In 2008, Cadbury appointed me as the global head of chocolates, and there was one company that immediately saw its bottom-line swell — Singapore Airlines! I kept the A380 in good use, travelling all over the world. After the “yes sir’s” in China and the “not possibles” in Australia, London kept me guessing. What did they mean when they said “interesting” (the tone was the cue to whether they thought it was good, bad or ugly) and “challenging” (really bad)? You would say, “Lovely day” and the reply — “Isn’t it”— would have you wondering whether they agreed or disagreed. Understanding the subtlety, understatements and self-deprecating remarks was central to getting things moving. Language and its nuances aside, understanding the expectation of a global board and its concerns also took some time.
And then, Kraft made the acquisition bid for Cadbury — in six months after the bid, we were acquired and from Singapore I landed up in Zurich. When you get acquired it is like joining a new job without having left the old one. You have to work hard to establish yourself and can’t live on your past glory. But now we were the largest chocolate company in the world, since Kraft with products such as Milka and Toblerone had an equally big chocolates business. It wasn’t as difficult to be the co-head of chocolates as much as it was to straddle the American and British ways; they are like chalk and cheese.
Cadbury used to be highly decentralised, so countries did not have too much difficulty with the centre; Kraft was just the opposite. Thankfully, I was by then part of the centre. That’s a trend that is becoming increasingly true for countries: individual countries such as India are becoming just the sales and distribution centres with Singapore or Hong Kong calling the shots. To win in India is still a massive task— you need to understand the local market well and develop a strategy accordingly. Europeans are more international, so it’s much easier for them; American companies have much more learning to do.
Working in all those different co