My next stop was Bombay. We had just launched what I still consider to be the finest fruit drink, Tree Top. Even Frooti was shaken by the launch. But, as we soon realised, Lipton had gotten a couple of things very wrong. One, our volume estimates were way off the chart. Two, at the time — 1987 or thereabouts — Lipton was a financially weak company and we didn’t have the money to support the brand. So when Frooti upped the ante, we couldn’t match up. Three, we had a serious quality issue with the laminate on the package. Ultimately, the brand was pulled off the market but had Tree Top become successful; it would have become bigger than Kissan.
I learnt a valuable lesson in leadership from the Tree Top episode. The man in-charge of the product was Pradeep Dutt, vice-chairman and head of new products. With enormous courage, he took the rap for the failure. All of us had contributed to it but Pradeep ensured none of us paid a price. Although he probably took a hit because his career at HLL didn’t go very far after this, he protected his team and I got my break in Hindustan Lever exports right after this.
A couple of years down the line, I got my marching orders once again — this time to Varanasi. This time, Paati was thrilled — you must have done a lot of good in your previous lives, she exulted. It was a matter of pride for her to tell all the relatives that “Suresh Kashi poran (Suresh is going to Kashi)”.
I was to handle hand-knotted carpets. I didn’t know the front side of a carpet from its back and here I was, supposed to manage that business. Even as I was learning everything related to carpets — warp and weft, distinguishing between silk knotted and wool knotted, the types of loom, the Persian terminology… — crisis followed me, as usual. Ram Janmabhoomi happened. It was a tense time, especially for someone who was in the heart of rural India. But Varanasi is truly a city that God protects. Those were not the days of digital, so we didn’t know exactly what was happening elsewhere, but there were rumours everywhere, making the situation tense.