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Sangeeta Talwar: The Maggi movement

Sangeeta Talwar, the former commercial director at Nestl India, talks about her book and trends in the packaged food category

Sangeeta Talwar spent two-thirds of her career at Nestlé, from 1979-2000, where she was closely associated with the India launch of Maggi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Sangeeta Talwar spent two-thirds of her career at Nestlé, from 1979-2000, where she was closely associated with the India launch of Maggi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Sangeeta Talwar’s The Two-Minute Revolution: The Art Of Growing Businesses (Penguin Portfolio) brings to life the journey of a woman management trainee from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta who went on to break the glass ceiling while crafting the stories of three of India’s most iconic brands. Talwar spent two-thirds of her career at Nestlé, from 1979-2000, where she was closely associated with the India launch of Maggi. The book tells the fascinating story of what it takes to establish a new food category in a challenging market. It traces her journey up the corporate ladder, to head functions ranging from marketing to sales and HR. In 2001, she joined American toy maker Mattel, Inc.’s India business. From 2004, Talwar was also instrumental in revitalizing Tata Global Beverages Ltd (formerly known as Tata Tea Ltd) with the Jaago Re marketing campaign, which focused on issues such as corruption and women’s empowerment. Edited excerpts from an interview:

The book tracks your career trajectory while tracing the journey of some of the brands you have built. How did the idea come about?

Through this inspirational journey of over 30 years, I grew both personally and professionally. I wanted to share that with young people. So I have kept the tone and tenor of the book very simple. It’s an easy read. There are no hard words or theory being thrown at you. The other consideration I had was that it’s not common for people to have such a wide experience across such iconic businesses. Also, I knew that the real story of Maggi, and how it changed the landscape for food and created a whole new category in our country, has never been told. So, I said why don’t I use the story from my life and write that along with the story of the brands as a business lessons book for young people.

You spent 21 years at Nestlé. What prompted you to move?

I had spent all my growing-up years at Nestlé and I had done extremely well with it. I was head of marketing, head of sales, country head of HR. I was then put in charge of a new business as a commercial director. It was a joint venture for manufacturing and marketing biscuits. I ran it for two years. I realized that that business would never make it and I convinced them to close it. It was a beautiful business but it was not set up correctly. While we were closing it, they were looking for another assignment for me. But I beat them to it as I found a good opportunity in Mattel.

Though you have worked with iconic brands like Mattel and Tata Tea, your most satisfying stint seems to have been with Nestlé, and the Maggi business.

The success of Maggi is unparalleled even now. It created marketing history in the country. We had managed to bring a lot of firsts together. It was a very powerful launch. Nothing else can come close to that in terms of impact.

We are yet to see the explosion of the packaged food and snacks category. What ails the category?

To do real orbit-shifting innovation, you need to preserve, keep your neck on the block; you need leadership commitment. At Nestlé, we had to make the product work. Today there is pressure on profitability—the commitment, the investment, the clarity of thought with which you stand behind the product is missing. Also, the foodscape has changed a lot. We now have a lot of opposing trends. I am not sure whether the companies are being able to see something that is really big and stand behind it. Moreover, even the market has fragmented due to digital.

Do you feel start-ups are doing better work than more established food companies?

The space is very exciting. Start-ups is where the action is. Look at the kind of products they are coming up with. There is a lot of conversation. And because we are a part of the digital population, we see it. However, I take a contrarian view on that. Look at the large companies, they are slowly and steadily innovating. They are making money. But this doesn’t get spoken about as much. There is a disproportionate amount of time and attention that start-ups are able to grab.

Where are the new opportunities in the food space?

Beverages is one area where there is a lot of scope. There is dairy. Health and fitness is another one. Then there is Ayurveda. Look at what companies like Patanjali and even other brands in that space are doing. There is a lot of scope.

Any advice for today’s young managers?

Whatever job you are doing, do it in a way that makes you proud. Recently, I read that the biggest problem facing companies these days is that as many as 70% of the employees are not engaged. That has a negative effect. It impacts your self-confidence and you fall into this loop. Doing well helps build confidence. If you are deeply engaged in what you are doing, it is almost like meditation.

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