In an interview with broking firm Jefferies, Nestle India chief Suresh Narayanan talked about his and the company’s response to COVID-19, among other things.
In an interview with broking firm Jefferies, Nestle India chief Suresh Narayanan talked about his and the company’s response to COVID-19, the changes brought about in working-from-home and how companies will have to change in light of the crisis.
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Excerpts from the interview.
Gearing up for the crisis
Personally, my wife and I have worked in various difficult geographies. I have spent 5 years in Egypt during the Arab spring, so I know a thing or two about what happens when the whole city and the whole country comes to a grinding halt. We have lived through it with a lot of pragmatism, calmness and maturity. When you are calm and mature then you handle it with the respect it deserves. The reason for this calamity is that we do not treat the pandemic with the respect it deserves.
Currently, I have a small space at my home as my office and every day, I login at 9 am and log off at 6:30-7:00 pm. The space is strictly used as an office area.
Does work-from-home work?
Three things have turned out to be beneficial due to working from home.
First, meetings have become more planned. When you are in the office, many unscheduled meetings happen, when you meet someone and decide to sit down and discuss. Now, meetings are very limited and focused.
Second, enablement and empowerment has increased. Personally, I have increased the empowerment of people.
Third, is the increased sense of responsibility. I think we love to be supervised but work better when empowered. The responsibility part has increased much more.
What Suresh Narayanan misses the most
I miss meeting my people the most. Somedays I get up a little disappointed as I don’t see them. In the office, when I am not around, people used to highlight my absence and I would feel happy because I knew that they look forward to my visit. In the post COVID era, I would like to shake hands with people, pat them on the back and would like to chat sitting next to them.
Taking up household chores
My wife is quite exacting in the standards she wants. Good to have a wife that knocks your head when your colleagues don’t knock you on the head. I try to help once in a while in cooking which I like or involve myself in cleaning vessels. I have discovered a new penchant in doing the dishes. I don’t do too much of it, but I do a little bit of it. Because my wife’s standards are so exacting, I wash them twice. I haven’t tried to sweep as my wife isn’t happy about the outcome.
Changes in the consumer goods industry because of COVID-19
The channels are undergoing sharp change. If you look at e-commerce channels, in the US what took 8 years in terms of penetration has been achieved in 8 weeks. Clearly the e-commerce journey is here to stay and there will be re-calibration of channels. I think the winners of the game would be e-commerce platforms if they are able to ramp up the infrastructure.
The good old Kirana stores will come back into figure because they will have location advantage, service to home delivery advantage, assortment advantage and credit advantage. If there is a lockdown in the future, you can run down to them and get whatever you want, and you can keep your kitchen and household going for a couple of days. I think the old Kirana stores will become a friendlier place to shop because of social distancing, sanitization and hygiene norms.
Organized trade would undergo a rejig. There are platforms that offer convenience, better assortment or better prices. These guys will probably be the winners. Those who are just large boxes talking about the shopping experience, they might need to recalibrate themselves because the fact is that shopping experiences will probably have to wait for some time.
Then, of course, you have got players like Jio who are coming and shaking up the whole space. They are transcending traditional trade, e-commerce and the modern retail format. They also tend to redefine rules of engagement.
How Nestle is helping the ecosystem
I think three Ps are extremely important and come before the fourth P that is profit. The 3 Ps are People, Purpose and Partnerships. We made sure that people are safe and have work from home facilities. We have almost ten to twelve thousand front line people who work as distributor salesman, loaders, merchandisers and they all are humble people who get ten to fifteen thousand as monthly salaries. These are front line people, who are out there every day, servicing half a million outlets that we reach as a company. The first decision was to get them on ‘Nestle Suraksha’, which provides them with COVID insurance.
I believe that, if every organization were to invest as much in culture as in capex, they would be far more profitable. Every worker who comes to the factory is taking risk due to COVID, so we have started a program called ‘Nestle Samman’, where we gave them substantial incentives to come everyday.
The third thing is about training and counselling. We are 70 percent millennials as a company. If I am 22 or 25 years old, then this pandemic is a first, and a traumatic experience. People could be away from their family and could be locked up in a small apartment. So, to help them, we have counselling support. We have a 24x7 medical online service developed in partnership with SOS, which allows our employees to consult a doctor on any aspect related to COVID.
Several training programs were given during this period as this is the time when people can upgrade their skills. This is the time we live to our purpose, and we live in the respectful practices of our company.
Nestle works with a large number of MSMEs like those who make cartons or supply indirect materials etc. We have ensured that not a single MSME working with Nestle should go under.
Overall learning from the crisis
This is not just a healthcare catastrophe, this is also a humanitarian call. I really see the COVID crisis as a humanitarian call to redefine the way in which humans live, engage and work. I think from that point of view this should be seen as a serious wake-up call for humanity, corporates and other stakeholders of society. This is a call to lead lives in kinder, gentler, more generous and compassionate ways. How much of it we will absorb and how much of it we won’t I don’t know.
There is a famous quote from Nassim Nicholas Taleb that the most incompetent people occupy the highest offices in the world and the most competent people are the humblest who stay in villages because they know what it takes to lead lives. So, I guess this recalibration might happen as we go along.
First Published: Jun 9, 2020 1:33 PM IST