Sri Sunil Alagh
Alumni Cell: Can you tell us a bit about your early childhood, about where you grew up and what was your childhood like?
Sunil Alagh: I was born and brought up in Calcutta, and lived there till the age of 21. Now I am staying in Mumbai. I have some very good friends in Calcutta. I have learnt Bengali, though I am a Punjabi. My parents were from Chakwal, now in Pakistan. They came over to Calcutta during the exodus of Independence. As a result, I had my education in Calcutta (St. Joseph’s, St. Xavier’s and IIMC). My father was in the motor parts business, and if I went into that, then perhaps we would have gone into manufacturing. But I didn’t think that I was cut out for family business and decided to go work for large companies. I grew up in a 1000 sq. ft. flat in Calcutta. I had a friend, Aveek Sarkar, who had a bungalow and came to college in a car. My other friend, Shyamal Dutta, stayed in a 300 sq. ft. flat. But none of it made any difference to any of us. We are still the best of friends, and all achieved our dreams in one way or the other. What it taught me was that money and position don’t last, but relationships do.
AC: How do you think your time at IIMC prepared you for the professional world and personal life after MBA?
SA: My first job was with ITC, then it was known as Imperial Tobacco. I was perhaps the only student who had an appointment letter at the end of the first year. Mr. Ajit Haksar had given it to me after my summer project with them, and asked me to join right away. I did not agree as I wanted to finish my second year. However, I committed that I would join them after completing my MBA. So, I breezed through my second year as I already had a job. I was one of those lucky guys. Being at the right place at the right time does help. Also, a ‘degree’ stays with you for life-not the job.
AC: What would you say was a defining or turning point in your career?
SA: It was around the time I was in Britannia. I was first in ITC, and later I joined Jagatjit. They had taken over the distribution of their products from Voltas and were appointing their own distributors. I learnt a lot during that period. Then, Mr J B Singh, Head of Marketing at ITC, joined as Marketing Director at Britannia and asked me to join him. He offered me a choice among two roles: Regional Sales Manager in Calcutta or Group Product Manager, in Mumbai. I chose GPM since I had done my stint in Sales earlier. This was a defining moment for me. When I joined Britannia, I found that contrary to my expectations, there was no Product Managers under me and I was handling all the biscuits. So, I was compelled to think as to who would be my team. That’s when my experience in sales came into play. No matter where you went, be it Bihar or UP, the distributor was the most important person along with your Sales Team. One had to motivate them, have a drink with or watch a movie after doing market work on tours. It helped me identify my team - the Advertising Agency, which was Lintas. Fortunately, their office was next to ours. I told my Marketing Director that from 9 am to noon, for 3 months, I would go there and learn and the afternoon I would spend in our office. The major take away for me was that if one wants to learn how to lead a team then you have to first decide who your team is. Then motivate and align them to your goals.
AC: If you were to leave one line of thought for those graduating from an MBA, what would it be?
SA: My one line of thought would be that dy/dx does not matter (unless you are in Org.Research). Remember, you must have testicular fortitude, a sense of humour and disruptive optimism. This does not come from just reading books but from learning from all your successes and failures in life. Experience counts, because if one relies only on books then all those who read them would succeed. As a leader one must choose the right team and earn respect. Hard power is exercised but soft power is evoked. As Einstein said “Do not try to be a man of success, but always be a man of Value”.