NOORINGS: Did HUL Miss An Opportunity For Its First Woman MD & CEO

Two days after International Women’s Day, HUL has named its new MD & CEO and one wonders whether it missed out on the opportunity of getting its first woman top boss, and adding to the rare breed of women FMCG CEOs in India

As the terms of appointments near their end, the leadership in Unilever and Hindustan Unilever are set to see new faces taking the helm. Globally, Hein Schumacher will step into the top boss role in July 2023 and in the preceding month, Hindustan Unilever (HUL) will have a new boss in Rohit Jawa.

Returning to the country after two decades, Jawa is no doubt among the best choices for this role. Having run the Unilever business in many markets since 2004, including the likes of Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines and China, Jawa took the role of Chief of Transformation at the company in April last year. Credited as one of the finest leaders, who has led complex market situations and worked in multiple roles from functions to organisational transformation, Unilever’s decision to award the custodianship of its crown jewel to Jawa is not a surprise.

The HUL he will come back to will barely have any shadows of the past but the current structure is something Jawa would be more familiar with. 

HUL’s Decade of Rise & Rise

Under the current MD & CEO, Sanjiv Mehta’s leadership, in the last decade, HUL has transformed itself in its culture, diversity and its ability to collaborate with the ecosystem, while backing it all with a strong performance. Last year, in its FY22 numbers, the corporate major became the only FMCG to cross the Rs 50,000 crore mark. Embracing a digital-first approach, becoming leaner and more agile in its decision-making and setting up a product portfolio meant for the consumers of today and tomorrow, HUL’s rise is noteworthy on all counts. 

Leading all this is Sanjiv Mehta with his unique style of work, and his team. Mehta’s leadership has been about inclusive growth, being future-fit and grooming leaders, and one example of this would be Priya Nair. 

Best for the Job

Priya Nair’s growth in HUL has been nothing short of exemplary. After taking the Beauty and Personal Care category in India to newer heights in profitability, she took on a global role last year to become the chief marketing officer for Unilever’s Beauty & Wellbeing division. Having begun her journey with the company in 1995, she is what is popularly referred to as a ‘Lever’s product’. In her nearly three decades with the company, she has taken on multiple roles and made some crucial decisions that held HUL in strong positions in tough times like the pandemic or steered the direction of the company for some of its brands that were not in line with its purpose ethos.

Nair is familiar with every aspect of the Indian market and the thought process that has marked the last decade, which without doubt redefined HUL in every way for the better. She has participated in and executed these decisions with a firm hand. She is aware of the system’s strengths and gaps and how best to unlock its potential. 

The world order is changing, competition in India is escalating and as HUL has learned in the past, it can come from anywhere. 

One would have imagined that Nair would be the best person to grow the company at this time. After all, the HUL that Jawa will come back to is the one that Nair has helped create. Also, Hindustan Unilever has supplied so many CEOs to major companies in the last year, whether it is Prabha Narasimhan who now leads Colgate-Palmolive India or Sudhir Sitapati who is the CEO of Godrej Consumer Products, both identified when they were part of HUL’s executive committee along with Nair. 

The Rare Women FMCG CEO

An outsider’s perspective is exactly just that. Nair and Unilever seem to think differently. In the process though, HUL lost its present chance to be led by a woman leader. What was also lost was the opportunity to add to the rare breed of women FMCG CEOs in India.

As per a Nasscom report, the IT sector, considered the largest employer of the country’s white-collar workforce, has the highest representation of women in the workforce, while FMCG and industrials occupy the last two spots in the listing with 5.5 per cent and 4.3 per cent representation, respectively.

No decision should be driven by gender and hence Unilever’s decision is understood through the lens of rationality and fairness for all. Nair’s new mandate takes Indian leaders to the global stage, which in itself is as exciting as it is challenging. She will continue to grow businesses wherever she is and Rohit Jawa will bring his brand of leadership to a new era at HUL. But in the picture, where it said that India will take two centuries to be gender equal, one cannot help but ask the ‘what if’ again.

Noor Fathima Warsia is the Group Editorial Director of BW Businessworld and for last two decades has been writing on brands, businesses and leaders

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