Shekhar Ramamurthy is an executive who believes in thinking both big and small. “You must have the big picture in mind but at the same time have control over the details,” he explains to The CEO Magazine. Coming to the role of Executive Deputy Chair and CEO at Allied Blenders & Distillers (ABD) from United Breweries, where he worked his way up to Managing Director over a three-decade career, he has spent enough time in the C-suite to know that “many leaders fail when they think the role of the CEO is only to think big and lose sight of the detail”.
“A CEO needs to see the big picture, needs to set the direction, but also have tight control on the details, without stepping into the role of others. I’m there to make sure they’re all able to perform to the best of their ability,” he explains.
This leadership approach has proved a robust starting platform as he navigates his first 12 months at India’s largest spirits company. “When I arrived at ABD, the business and the industry had been quite severely impacted by COVID-19,” Shekhar says. The pandemic, he explains, hit the alcoholic beverage industry in India more than others. “Socialising is a very important element that drives the life and growth of our business,” he says.
And, along with lockdown restrictions, there’s been an understandable decline in the desire to spend time in public spaces. “That is something that has had a direct impact on the alcoholic beverage industry because a lot of consumption occurs out of home.”
As consumer confidence begins to return and theatres, bars and restaurants start to fill up again, Shekhar’s task from day one has been to realign the company as the effects of the pandemic start to recede. “From the beginning, one of my key objectives has been to pull the team together, to give them a sense of direction, confidence and belief that the good times will return,” he says.
That common purpose, he continues, is directed towards “building brands, working towards growth, investing in people and investing behind brands”. “Because at the end of the day, brands are what our business is about.”
Shekhar acknowledges that the opportunity was a “challenging assignment”. But he’s brimming with enthusiasm. “There are green shoots for growth and we are optimistic that, by the end of next year, we will be back to where we were pre-pandemic,” he says. “Going forward, we have a lot of exciting plans. Our brand portfolio has enormous potential.”
ABD was founded in 1988 on the back of a single brand, Officer’s Choice, a whisky that has become a global powerhouse in the market and the third-largest selling whisky in the world. Still what Shekhar calls a “relatively young” company, ABD’s portfolio has expanded across multiple market segments including brandy, rum, vodka and bottled water, with its products available in 29 countries.
“We need to have a portfolio that meets the aspirations of every emerging segment.”
As talk turns more to premiumisation in alcohol and spirits categories, Shekhar says the company has a huge opportunity going forward. “India’s economic growth is uplifting millions and millions of people to a higher socio-economic strata,” he says. “And that brings more and more people into branded categories of whisky.”
Positioned in what he calls the “mass premium segment”, Officer’s Choice is ABD’s entry-level branded whisky. “It’s at that sweet spot where people coming into the branded segment have a product that offers quality, is aspirational and widely available.” For an urban elite with a higher disposable income, Sterling Reserve is ABD’s more premium offering, with two labels: Blend 7 and Blend 10. “We launched it three years ago and already we’ve sold over a million cases in the world,” he says.
And, when you add in changing social norms (“there’s a far greater acceptance of alcohol in wider society”, he says) with India’s growing economy, Shekhar believes that there’s a platform for anyone in the market with quality brands and a quality organisation to grasp with both hands. “Our objective is to leverage our strengths, our brands and our infrastructure, to grow ahead of the market and have a stronger connection with our consumers,” he says.
New brands to complement its existing portfolio are in the pipeline – while they may be across different spirits categories, he says they will all be linked by a common thread: “We need to have a portfolio that meets the aspirations of every emerging segment,” Shekhar says. “And we need to do it with quality, speed and excellence, and make our brands desirable.”
With its successful track record of creating brands from scratch, ABD is already a step ahead of other players in the market. A belief in excellence – not just in frontline brands, but across all aspects of its operations, also sets it apart from the competition. “We have a deep commitment to quality,” Shekhar says. Behind the scenes, a solid infrastructure is in place to support its consumer-facing products. “We have production facilities across the country, a strong sales organisation and a lot of intellectual capital.”
He also knows that the company wouldn’t have achieved all the success it has if it hadn’t been for its network of “great quality” supplier and vendor partners. “We are where we are because we have them,” Shekhar says. Most of its supply chain relationships are strengthened by decades-old bonds. “These are not short-term relationships. Every business will have its ups and downs, but when you forge long-term relationships, you are there for each other; you all work for mutual benefit.”
As a business that doesn’t produce any of its own input materials, ABD relies on its partners for everything. “From bottles, to spirit, to grain, to labels and caps, as well as IT vendors and marketing support vendors, and advertising agencies, we have a whole gamut of partners that we work with,” Shekhar explains. “Every single one of them is crucial because you can’t produce a brand without every element being available.”
And, like every chain, this one is only as strong as its weakest link. “You cannot have weak links in your partner relationships,” he adds. Security of supplies, proper inventory management, price stability and responsiveness during a time of crisis are just some of the benefits he lists from these strong, long-running collaborations.
Having spent so much of his career with brewery giant United Breweries (UB), which since 2009 has operated as a joint venture with Heineken in India, it is hardly a surprise that these past experiences are helping shape his approach to this current role. “My time with the UB Group and United Breweries specifically has enriched me professionally in a variety of ways,” he says.
“It gave me the chance to work with some of the most iconic brands in the country such as Kingfisher beer and shape it and build it. I also had the opportunity to have mutually beneficial interactions with some of the most interesting people in the world because of the global Heineken network.”
Shekhar appreciates that, while no-one knows the future, as the company CEO, he’s tasked with “looking ahead with reasonable judgement”. “I think the important thing is to be constantly vigilant for the opportunities of tomorrow while meeting the challenges of today,” he says.
“I am very mindful that a successful organisation does both equally well because you are judged on today’s performance, but you are evaluated on your preparedness for the challenges of tomorrow. That is something we are working on.”