Striking Oil | Book Review — Harsh Realities: The Making of Marico by Harsh Mariwala and Ram Charan

An insightful account of how a popular FMCG brand was built

Readers are told never to judge a book by its cover, but the transparent jacket of Harsh Realities is an attempt to reflect the transparency with which the authors have tried to elucidate the trials and tribulations of Harsh Mariwala, the founder of renowned FMCG brand Marico.

It is an illustration of the challenges one had to face in pre-globalised India while breaking free from the traditional structure of a typical Indian family-run business to make products like Parachute, Saffola, Mediker, Revive, Setwet and Livon part of the popular parlance in the country.

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The Mariwalas got their surname by their virtue of being known as pepper merchants in pre-independent India. While narrating this story, the authors paint a vivid picture of contemporary India as well, and how the Mumbai-based traders dealing in coconut and spices from Kerala founded the Bombay Oil Industries in 1948. By the 1960s, the main products of the company were Parachute coconut oil, Saffola edible oil and spice extracts.

The book provides an intriguing insight into the typical business environment of the post-independence era, when traditional business houses had to align themselves with the national stance of non-alignment and precariously walk a tightrope to cater to people’s socialistic leanings and consumeristic wants. It was not without reason that Parachute, the Mariwala family’s most popular product, had to be sold in 15-kg tins.

It was difficult at that time to imagine that one day the same product will be present on the shelves of households in blue, round plastic bottles. In fact, for that to become a reality, Harsh Mariwala had to overcome multiple resistances put forward by retailers, and had to convince the elders of the closely-knit family-run business to ratify the proposal of introducing 100 ml and 500 ml Parachute oil packs.

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New age readers may find it interesting to know how unconventional it was at that time to use advertising agencies to popularise or change perceptions of popular products. By roping in doctors and health professionals to promote the idea of health in diet, Harsh Mariwala was successful in disproving sceptics and naysayers by carving a niche and creating a captive consumer base that was ready to pay a premium for Saffola ‘healthy oil’.

All decisions of such businesses were made by the ‘family’, which then de-facto meant only the male members.

The book describes how Mariwala had to overcome family resistance in his attempts to introduce changes—now considered rudimentary—such as shifting the location of Bombay Oil’s office in Mumbai from the dingy streets of Masjid Bander, recruiting high-salaried professionals and investing in public relations campaigns.

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To change the top-heavy organisational structure of the business, crowded with relatives, several meetings had to be organised among family members through two long years to finally convince all the elders to accept the fundamental fact that the company would run better if separate subsidiaries were formed to look into specific business verticals.

The title Harsh Realities itself is a wordplay that establishes the autobiographical nature of the book co-authored by the Marico founder, while simultaneously drawing from the common linguistic expression denoting the struggles of the entrepreneur in his endeavour to create one of the largest consumer brands in the country.

The relevance of the book in present times has been corroborated by other scions of business houses, including the likes of Adi Godrej, Harsh Goenka and Rajiv Bajaj.

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The evolution of the family business led to the genesis of Marico, and this journey is juxtaposed with the transition of the economy and the industry in a subtle yet palpable background.

Interesting anecdotes are sporadically encountered across the text—be it from young Harsh’s post-college foreign trip with his friend, or his several journeys across India to understand the market and consumer sentiment—and though the tone is not didactic, these do provide insightful learnings and lessons for entrepreneurially inclined intellectuals.

Readers would possibly have been more enlightened if some topics like the failed business ventures of the company, such as Whistle toothpowder and Parachute groundnut oil, had been touched upon in deeper detail.

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Harsh Realities: The Making of Marico
Harsh Mariwala and Ram Charan
Penguin Business
Pp 215, Rs 699

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