Tracing the new normal: Inside HCCB
What seemed like a crisis at hand, may have just paved the way for a new normal at HCCB. Here’s a thrilling account of how people at the company took the bull by the horns.
Everything seemed to have come to a halt. No crisis manual could have survived the situation on the ground. Understandably, there was an uneasy silence. For Amer Hussain, a veteran in India’s FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) sector, the change was more than what the most reasonable amongst his ranks could digest. As the Head of Supply Chain for the western region of Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages (HCCB), keeping the eight factories running like clock-work had always been his top priority. And here he was asking his people not to report to work!
India had gone into a lockdown on March 25, to start her war against COVID-19.
“It appears very basic but this instruction itself was contrary to what I have been focusing on, all this while. A crisis often lays the fastest path to evolution,” Amer weighs. Soon, all HCCB’s factories and its managers had learnt how to follow every guideline on social distancing and daily hygiene and run a factory or send products on the back of a skeletal workforce.
There was churn in other quarters too! By pouring over the data sheets and an array of dashboards, teams at HCCB had quickly realized there was a fundamental shift happening. The good old local grocery store and new born e-commerce was emerging as big points of sale, for daily essentials. This shift was understandable, given that the other two major channels E&D (eating and dining or simply restaurants etc) and convenience stores (like chai shops) were temporarily out of business.
With severe restrictions in place, vehicles at a standstill and #stayhome #staysafe being in vogue, a crack team of experts – lawyers, public affairs experts, logistics wizards, distribution experts and local sales teams – swung into action. Packaged foods (including liquids) being essentials, the focus moved to serving what was available, versus serving by the manual. Permissions secured, the delivery routes had just been re-programmed. It was now all about conforming to permitted traffic paths and about catering to the short time windows for which outlets would remain open. Drop sizes had gotten smaller but the “drops” had become more frequent. The predictable was the preferred, partly because the trade wouldn’t want to spread their capital thin on each of the 200+ packs that HCCB offered, across its very wide portfolio.
“Along with clean air, clear skies and chirping of birds, we were beginning to re-discover the joys of small wins and smaller numbers. Safety of the workforce and the products took centerstage,” says Dinesh Jadhav, Executive Director, Market Operations.
In the meantime, the customer (trade) profile too started to change. There was a new base of customers like pharmacies who wanted to stock water and juices. There was also a demand for products from housing colonies and resident welfare associations that were front-ending large apartment complexes across the country. “HCCB was quickly learning to manage the orders coming in, instead of filling the order book by reaching out to the standard base of distributors and retailers”, elaborates Dinesh Jadhav.
Meanwhile, in a sudden turn of events, a lot of HCCB employees outside of the sales teams, had been forced to turn into makeshift sales managers in their respective residential complexes. Unable to come to terms with a sudden lockdown, neighbours had come seeking help from HCCB employees to get their quota of water, juices and other beverages. Interestingly the first to have been approached was Christina Ruggiero, CEO of HCCB. Her neighbours had started taking rapid turns to ask her for HCCB products. She had then managed to aggregate all the demand in her apartment complex in Bengaluru and voila, it was good enough for a mini truck load.
So successful was this model that today HCCB has dedicated lines to service orders procured by its employees. It has helped the employees too. Not only have they become immensely popular in their resident complexes, they now have a better grasp of how the vast and intricate FMCG network in India works. “I sold some 40 cases to my neighbors and almost every building where our employees live, is generating sales for our beverages. And this is a direct consequence of the lockdown,” says Indrajeet Sengupta, Chief Human Resources Officer, HCCB.
“The lockdown across the country, forced everyone to ignore departmental priorities and come together as one big team”, he says. “We were quick to frame cross-functional milestones which superseded the functional goals for the year. Collaboration became the new normal,” he elaborates.
While changes in customer demand was still predictable, it was much harder for the senior management to anticipate the employee emotions in the wake of the lockdown. Staying in confined spaces, away from the daily bustle of a very vibrant workplace, would surely make people anxious. Therefore, one of the earliest decisions that the company took was to launch online learning, wellbeing and engagement sessions, across the board. And in no time 4,000 people had taken these sessions.
The second and the boldest decision was to announce that every employee would get their salary, incentive and bonus, on time. More importantly that all its 7,000 would get a pay raise, notwithstanding the economic and social chaos. “It was a very big decision. We knew that we would have to make sacrifices elsewhere to honour this commitment, but we were open to doing so. The announcement worked like magic. It was as if from that point onwards, every employee had become the owner of a brick in the company. Everybody wanted to do more than they had ever done,” sums up Kamlesh Sharma, Chief Communications Officer at HCCB. The results have begun to trickle in.
There was one other thing that still needed to be done.
A sizeable majority of India’s daily wage earners were stranded in the lockdown. On the other, several groups had been called in to manage the quarantine on a 24X7 basis. HCCB wanted to do its part in easing their travails. Tie-ups with NGOs to offer food and beverages, donations of personal protective equipment and general help for “corona warriors” followed. A lot of it led by employees themselves! A 100-crore relief plan had taken shape.
While India continues to remain under lockdown, so does the determined march of the changes within HCCB. What seemed like an existential challenge for a business that depends on an intricate and complex network of people, infrastructure and technology, is perhaps paving the path to a new normal.
Kayan S, Head of Operations for HCCB’s Eastern Zone, responsible for 12 states, says, “When all this is over, I think we will remember it as HCCB before and after COVID-19.”