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BrandSutra: The world should be one country, not many countries, says GCMMF’s R S Sodhi

09:40 AM Oct 17, 2020 | Srabana Lahiri

Rupinder Singh Sodhi, Managing Director of Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (Amul) is everyone’s favourite in the industry. Now, the affable Sardar known for his warmth has set an example with his unique handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Unlike other brands, Amul advertised aggressively during the lockdown, and became highly visible both in media and on the ground. Also, amidst job cuts and the general gloom and doom, Sodhitreated employees and all stakeholders with the greatest care and compassion.

Recently, Amul made it to 16th position on Rabobank's Global Top 20 Dairy Companies list, but Sodhi has his eyes set on the Top 3 slot within five years. Here, RS Sodhi recalls his journey in his own words – from the simple village boy at Ratta Khera in Punjab to the top echelons of power in one of India’s biggest home-grown enterprises, Amul.

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Earliest recollections around milk…

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I was born and spent my childhood in a village. I remember milking the buffalo at home and that my grandmother used to keep milk boiling in a earthen pot all day in this dry cow-dung fuelled ‘pakhiya’ so that it got slightly burnt and brownish and acquired a rich thick texture full of malai, which in Punjabi was called ‘kaadi da dudh’. Later on, when we shifted to Delhi in the late 60’s to mid-70’s, we had to go to the nearest milkman with a stainless steel container to fetch milk. And then the change happened - we had to walk about two kilometres to get milk at the Delhi Milk Scheme (DMS) booths as RK Puram, where we lived, had no ‘tabelas’ or private dairy farms. Getting the aluminium DMS tokens used to be a very prestigious thing - you needed somebody’s recommendation to get them, and even then, you weren’t 100% assured of your quota of milk, which was rationed at that time. You had to stand in queue for at least two hours to get two bottles of milk. Usually, only the first 20-30 people in the queue would get lucky.

Leadership learnt the hard way…

All summer and winter vacations, we used to go to our village Ratta Khera in Punjab, to work in our fields. We are four brothers, and from the fifth standard, I travelled with my brothers or alone from Delhi to our village - first a DTC bus to the railway station, then the Punjab Mail to Ferozepur, walk to the bus stand and take a bus from there, finally walking five kilometres from the village bus stand to home, while carrying all my luggage! That built confidence and independence like nothing else did. Later during my college days, I took responsibilities like managing the hostel mess or organising movies for the students. In those days, you had to get the film reels from Bombay – first select the movie, write a letter to order it, send money by money order, get the reels and then watch the film show!

My dreams and aspirations...

At RK Puram, a colony of peons and clerks at that time, we had rented a one-room kitchen house. In the mornings, I would watch the peons going to office, all dressed in white uniforms, carrying their tiffin boxes. I remember thinking, ‘Kya mazedar job hai yaar, bade hoke agar peon ki job mil jaye to bahutbarhiya’! I had a lot of friends whose fathers were clerks. They had two-room sets and a kitchen. Seeing them, I aspired to be a clerk to get a house like theirs! After my Higher Secondary exam, I got into Agricultural Engineering. I heard from a senior that after passing out of college with a BE Agriculture degree, you could become a junior engineer and get a Jeep to go to the villages for various projects. I thought ‘What a job… you move around in a Jeep; you become a sahab!’ I realised only later that further study was possible - either MTech at IIT or MBA at IIM. So, I applied for MTech and got admission in IIT, Kharagpur. I had also applied for MBA at IIM, Ahmedabad and Institute of Rural Management, Anand helmed by Dr Varghese Kurien. He was offering a scholarship of Rs 800. I passed the written test of IIM, Ahmedabad but could not pass through the interview, perhaps because I lacked communication skills due to my schooling in Hindi medium. Eventually, I got into IRMA. By then,the National Dairy Development Board was coming up. I hoped to join NDDB, but could not get a job there. Instead, I landed a job at Amul, in the marketing and sales department. I had never thought of myself as a marketing guy, but handled sales at various locations for 13 years and have spent the last 22-23 years in marketing at the headquarters, notching up 38 years with Amul.

The biggest reward is trust…

When I joined Amul, it had a turnover of Rs 121 crore, and we were collecting around 12 lakh litres of milk per day. Last year, Amul’s turnover was Rs 52,000 crore and we were collecting 250 lakh litres of milk a day. We were lucky that we had Dr Verghese Kurien associated with Amul and guiding us till 2006.

We faced challenges, but kept Amul ahead of its time – be it milk procurement, processing, technology or distribution. So, the biggest success of Amul is developing a robust distribution technology. When I joined in 1982, Amul‘s marketing was done by Voltas Limited and in the South, by Spencer's Limited. Our most challenging assignment was to take over from Voltas marketing of our products (mainly baby food) and start marketing directly and establish the distribution network.

The biggest achievement for anybody who is working with a company governed by farmers is that they love you, they give you respect and they have trust in you. Today, whatever Amul has achieved is because of our team. It is not an individual achievement. We repose the same trust in our agency partners.

In lockdown, Amul ran at 115% capacity…

During the lockdown, our procurement increased by 17% and so did demand. In fact, our business was running at 110 to 115% capacity. All through this time, we did not reduce our advertising spends, rather we increased it by 15-16% compared to last year. As ad rates had gone down drastically, both Press and TV, we were able to get more visibility for the same price. Shashi Sinha (CEO of IPG Mediabrands) got us some very good deals. For instance on Ramayana, we got a rate one-tenth of last year’s IPL rate and the viewership was 10 times more than last year’s IPL final. We came up with a number of great campaigns during the lockdown. We also kept communicating with our supply chain partners, assuring them of support. We started paying more salaries, free food, all three meals to our employees at warehouses and plants. We realized that when the consumer is under stress, we should not stop communicating with them. When you advertise to build the brand, it is not a sales pitch. It isn’t that I am playing an ‘Amul doodh peeta hai India’ ad on TV and the consumer will buy it tomorrow. It is a long-term asset-building. We took it as an opportunity that people would be sitting before the TV uninterrupted, uncluttered, with veryfocused viewing. We not only had Amul visible in the media, we also ensured its availability on the ground.

Meanwhile, our people felt it was better to work in office than work from homeand end up doing household chores! As for me, I had my daughter, my grand-daughter and my son-in-law at home for 4-5 months, and on Sundays, I used to cook for the family, picking one of my favourite recipes. I started with cheese cabbage omelette. Then I cooked mutton korma, chicken and also chicken biryani!

To be among the top 3 globally…

Amul is 16th on the Rabobanks list as far as turnover is concerned, but that is based on our GCMMF balance sheet. If you take the Amul brand, our last turnover is more than $7 billion, then we come to the 11th position. By volume of milk handled, we are ninth in the world. But others on the list are multinationals operating in a number of countries, whereas Amul operates only out of India. Two years back, when PM Narendra Modi was opening our ultra-modern chocolate factory, he gave us a target - that Amul should be among the top three dairy companies in the world in five years. So, that is our aim.

If I could change one thing in the world…

Across the world, the disparity levels are increasing. In India, disparity between the rural and urban. In the world, disparity between the developed countries and the poor countries. The world should be one country, not many countries…so anybody can move from anywhere to anywhere, and work anywhere... a world where equality comes first.

Sodhi with his grand-daughter Myrah

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