March 29, 2020
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The Noble Milkman

If there was one thing Dr Kurien was brutal about it was integrity—there was no second chance given.

The Noble Milkman
The Noble Milkman

Everyone knows Verghese Kurien made milk his life mission, which led to India becoming the largest producer of milk in the world. Remember, this was at a time when every international expert thought it would never be possible. The catch was that India was predominantly buffalo country (unlike the rest of the world)—every expert said buffalo milk could not be converted to milk powder. As the first can of buffalo milk powder came out, the only celebration Kurien allowed himself was sprinkling milk powder on the hair of his colleague H.M. Dalaya, who had assisted him in this unique feat.

The Sardar Patel-inspired milk cooperative movement in Gujarat is unique in many ways. Membership was equal, irrespective of caste, religion or the number of animals owned. Imagine the sight every morning: women queuing up to pour milk into a collection centre, not knowing whether the person ahead was a Hindu or a Muslim or the person behind was of a higher caste or lower. Imagine this being practised for over 50 years and the social change brought about in those villages. Imagine also the respect this would have fostered in men for women (who earned the same as them). However, what was most amazing was that lakhs of women were paid twice a day in cash for milk and there was no instance of any wrong-doing. If there was one thing Dr Kurien was brutal about it was integrity—there was no second chance given.

I first met Dr Kurien in 1986, when our advertising agency (Ulka) was called by him. Sensing an opportunity (and not knowing enough about the great man) our then CEO introduced us by extolling the virtues of the team—MBAs from premier institutes and work experience in MNCs. At this Dr Kurien flew into a rage, saying that it was people like us who were letting India down. MNCs, he said, were teaching us how to sell blue soap and if that failed red soap and if that too failed then green soap—and that’s why he had created a different kind of management institution, IRMA (Institute of Rural Management, at Anand), to cater to the needs of the country. I’m sure he must have been immensely proud when R.S. Sodhi (from IRMA’s first batch) became MD of GCMMF a few years back.

Dr Kurien also realised that to ensure good and sustainable returns to milk farmers, he had to eliminate middlemen who sold and distributed milk products. That’s why he created a strong marketing and distribution organisation, GCMMF, and a powerful brand in Amul. Most of my interactions with Dr Kurien over the last 26 years were to discuss advertising strategies for Amul, which is now a Rs 13,000-crore brand. While having a clear vision and direction, Dr Kurien was open to the views of professionals. Once, in the mid-’90s, he called us to say that we should create a campaign around the good virtues of milk, telling mothers that milk had a lot of nutritional benefits. We went back to him saying the goodness of milk was known, it was just that kids felt milk was boring and dreary. He readily changed his views and thus was born the famous ‘Doodh Doodh Doodh’ campaign.

In his mind, Amul stood for an umbrella brand which straddled many categories, and stood for the ‘Taste of India’. He relentlessly focused on this; it was reflected in everything we did—that’s why such a big brand was built on less than one per cent marketing outlay, while other companies spent upwards of seven to 10 per cent. He was conscious that this was farmers’ money and had to be judiciously spent. We use to look forward to our meetings with him as the advertising work would be disposed of in minutes—normally he would agree to whatever we presented unless we violated his tenets of being truthful and being Indian. Afterwards, he would give his perspective and vision on larger issues, which really opened up our minds. He also had a terrific sense of humour—we would thoroughly enjoy ourselves as long as we were not at the receiving end!

(Shashi Sinha is CEO, Lodestar, and closely interacted with Dr Kurien for over a quarter century)

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