In August 2019, Ayush Sharma, 24, a final-year student at the Indian School of Business, received the job offer of his dreams. He was to be a management trainee at Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL). He had hustled for it for months, clearing one problem-solving contest after another that the company throws at the graduating students at India’s top business schools.
“Initially, one of them tested us on precision marketing for a generic brand like Dove. Later, in the semi-finals between four teams nationally, we worked on situations such as ‘how do you get the youth to vote for LGBT interests’,” Sharma says.
On November 20, 2019, he received a letter from the company asking him to join its legendary training programme in May. Between those two dates, the coronavirus struck and millions lost their jobs. The professional class became especially vulnerable as the economy reeled to its lowest growth in decades. Companies weren’t only retrenching but also putting off annual hiring and cancelling job offers made before the pandemic.
For the young men and women all set to join the white-collar work force, this spelt doom. Sharma remembers his anxiety: “Most of us were wondering: what happens to my job? Several companies had put off the joining ‘until further notice’. Every day, we were hearing of top companies like Uber rescinding job offers. So many students had taken [study] loans that they were supposed to start paying off.”
Sharma’s worries were short-lived. “We are in this for the long term,” says HUL’s chief human resource officer, Anuradha Razdan. “In April, 101 interns and in May 50 management trainees were scheduled to join the company. We were determined that there was no way we wanted to cancel that. We knew students across the country were worried. We began by writing to campuses and parents to say that the training programme would proceed as scheduled. For 60 years we have followed the same process.”
The company itself is much older than that. Lever Brothers was set up in 1885 by two British brothers, William Hesketh Lever and James Lever. They are credited with manufacturing the world’s first branded soap, Sunlight. In 1930, Lever Brothers, which had grown into a soap-making empire, merged with the Dutch margarine company Margarine Unie, which was equally reliant on animal fats, to create Unilever.
The company became a prolific manufacturer of domestic goods, from tea to toilet cleaner. Over the latter half of the 20th century, Unilever opened many foreign branches to further the phenomenon of fast moving consumer goods (FMCG).
In 1931, the company launched its first subsidiary, Hindustan Vanaspati Manufacturing Company, in colonial India, and two years later, another one called Lever Brothers India Limited. In 1956, Unilever’s three local subsidiaries merged to form Hindustan Lever, which became a household name as it catered to a newly free people’s needs, ranging from shampoo to ice-cream.
In 2007, the company took on the name by which it continues to be known, Hindustan Unilever Limited. Many Indians of older generations still regard HUL as a ‘box-wallah’ company. The term dates to the colonial era when European salesmen travelled with boxes full of items to sell.
By the time of independence, a boxwallah could mean any European businessman or company operating in India. Indians companies of that era too aspired to the box-wallah corporate culture — synonymous with ambassador cars, club memberships and company quarters. Joining a box-wallah company was considered the perfect start to a career, and only a handful made the cut every year.
“In 1980, when I applied for jobs fresh out of college, the top companies were of foreign origin – ITC, Levers, Nestle, Brooke Bond, Lipton, Lakme and Ponds… At that time the only attractive Indian company was Asian Paints. In the ’80s, India had a tiny economy. If someone was offering you a princely Rs 1200 plus a house, you didn’t turn it down,” says Subroto Chattopadhyay, 62, a veteran box-wallah who has worked with companies such as PepsiCo and ITC in a 40-year corporate career.
Getting in wasn’t easy. “These companies would send printed application forms to the principals of top colleges, who used their own choices.” At Calcutta’s St Xavier’s College, which he attended, only two forms came from Brooke Bond, running over six pages each. Typically, he said, “you had to write an essay, provide scholarship record, enumerate interests and show leadership skills.”
That was followed by three or four rounds of interviews. “You were in your 20s and the interviewers in their 50s, three of them current company directors. They took this very seriously. The questions were wide-ranging. I was asked, ‘how many litres does a barrel of petrol have’. Finally, the chairman himself interviewed you. These companies sent 15 or 20 forms out every year and took in two or three people. For that year, ITC sent out 14,000 forms and hired four,” Chattopadhyay says.
Chattopadhyay’s first job was with Brooke Bond, where he was one of two new hires in 1980. (The company was later acquired by Unilever).
The initiation was grand. He described his own at the ITC — his second job: “You were given accommodation that came with a cook and a bearer.” But you didn’t live there straightaway. “The boss and wife came to receive you at the airport or train station along with your team and took you out for a fancy dinner. For two weeks, they hosted you at their house, the boss’s wife standing in for a mother figure. He’d take you to the office in his car.”
Then, the grind began. In his 2019 book on HUL, The CEO Factory, company insider Sudhir Sitapati writes, “If there is one differentiator between HUL and every other company in India, it is the totality of business exposure of the management training stint. The underlying principle of the yearlong management training stint is to allow trainees to live the life of the lowest-ranking company functionary in every large department.”
Instituted in 1955, the process has continued. Sitapati’s own training started in central Madhya Pradesh in 1999, with a sales stint. “We would clean the grimy Dalda packs in the shelf with a piece of cloth we had brought along and put up a poster of the new Rs 2 jam sachet outside the shop,” he writes. Raised in Mumbai, Sitapati terms his management training stint at HUL “the most formative year in my life”.
THEN AND NOW
Today, HUL takes in up to 50 management trainees every year. The training regimen remains the same. “We look for the same standards of leadership, problem-solving and commercial acumen,” says HUL’s HR chief Anuradha Razdan. For 15 or 16 months, the trainees then circle the “nuts and bolts of the organisation”. For at least six months, they live in villages and interact with rural communities.
“Then there are sales stints, factory stints, stints in the accounting department. They get a tutor and a coach,” Razdan says. The pandemic didn’t disrupt the process, at least not fully. “They still have to learn what a day is like in the life of an area sales manager or a brand manager. Projects remained the same, and the tutors and coaches were ready to welcome them. Their training started with office-based work which they could do from home. The sales and factory stints are supposed to take place either virtually or after the pandemic.”
The assignments on which they will be tested are closely linked to ongoing developments in the FMCG industry. “As the largest procurer of raw materials, we are having to come up with a new strategy post India’s tensions with China. Our trainees have had to come up with local supply chain options,” Razdan says.
Vamika Singh had heard a lot about the HUL training programme before the company came to the Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad) campus in October 2019 to select interns for 2020. “I was clear that if I was to go into marketing, it had to be HUL,” says the 22-year-old.
On April 1, she was among 101 interns from across the country who joined the programme virtually. Only a few of them would be asked to join the company the following year, depending on the progress they made in their two-month exposure. “In view of the pandemic the stakes became very high,” Singh says. One of her first tasks was to market HUL’s detergent brand, Wheel. “I had to get the feel of Tier-2 towns and villages virtually,” Singh says.
Singh was added to a WhatsApp group consisting of 50 rural women in Gujarat and a translator. “I had to figure out what the brand meant to them, the advertising options beyond television spots, and distribution networks other than mom-and-pop stores. It was a humbling experience,” she says. Singh made it in. “At the end of May, I received a formal offer asking me to join the company in June 2021.” She can hardly wait.