As a cub reporter with Indian Express in Ahmedabad in 1991, my first national byline was courtesy an interview I did with Verghese Kurien. Before that, my only contact with the man was when he delivered the convocation address at the Indian Institute of Management, while I listened rapt in the audience.
Kurien was not an orator in the Shakespearean sense, but he was a great speaker. He urged the graduating class to eschew jobs with multinationals and join co-operatives like Amul, where they could work for the benefit of farmers. It was a fantastic speech in both senses of the word: powerful and stirring, but at the same time, totally fanciful. Like a Hindi movie. Everyone in the audience had a lump in their throats, but nobody actually gave up their jobs with Citibank and Unilever to join Amul afterwards.
Meeting Kurien for that first interview, I expected to be floored, but he was remarkably friendly and gentle. The interview went for an hour and somewhere along the way, I actually asked him if I could smoke. He said, sure. You could do things like that in those days.
Though we met in his office at the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), where he was the chairman, most of my questions to Kurien at that time were about the Amul brand. The transcript of the interview is lost to posterity, but I do recall one memorable quote. Towards the end of the interview, when I was wholly at ease, I threw him a provocative question about Amulspray, the powdered milk food for babies: Why is Nestle the market leader in baby food, though Amulspray is 25% cheaper? For a second, Kurien seemed to be at a loss, but then he barked: “Because Indian mothers want to feed their babies multinational milk!”
Then onwards I became the Kurien correspondent for Indian Express. Some six months later when Kurien got into a controversy over some statements he had made to a Gujarati publication, my editor asked to go interview him again. When I called NDDB, I was told the chairman was in Delhi and would be returning next morning. My editor, who had a penchant for drama like Kurien, asked me to go receive the flight at Baroda airport.
I still remember Kurien coming out of the terminal, accompanied by his protégé and future NDDB chairperson, Amrita Patel, who was carrying a big bag of oranges. Kurien was more than a little surprised when I pounced on him, demanding an interview. He packed me into one of the cars that had come to take him home and we did the interview at Anand. It made it to the front page of the Indian Express Ahmedabad edition.
Later, when I moved to The Economic Times (ET), I continued to report on the happenings at Anand, which were many. When Amul launched its brand of pizza to much fanfare, I went to meet Kurien at his new office at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (he had resigned from NDDB by then). The one quote I remember from that interview was to do with BM Vyas, then the managing director of Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation, which owned the Amul brand. Vyas was the prime mover behind Amul’s successful foray into ice cream and now, pizza. Using him as an example of inspired leadership, Kurien said, “We pay him a pittance, just Rs – a year. He could make ten times more at Unilever or Nestle.” I felt a bit bad for Vyas, mentioning the exact pittance amount, but hey, I wasn’t about to censor my own story.
Kurien was never boring. During the course of an interview, he was guaranteed to say something interesting, even sensational. Like all the great people I’ve interviewed, he never hesitated to speak him mind, even if it ruffled a few feathers. In that sense, he was never a politician. He cultivated the milkman and servant-of-the-farmers image, but really, he gave off the vibes of a professional CEO.
The last time I met Kurien was when he was presented with the lifetime achievement award (along with Dhirubhai Ambani) at the Economic Times Awards for Corporate Excellence. I was specially flown down from Ahmedbad to Mumbai for the event, since I knew him better than any other reporter in ET. My job was to ‘shadow’ him throughout the event. I remember him walking into the lobby of the Oberoi Hotel, looking resplendent in a red silk shirt. When he saw everyone else was dressed formally in dark suits, he said, “On no, they won’t let me in!”
In truth, he stole the show that evening. I stood behind him like an Aide de Camp as every major CEO of India Inc, from Rahul Bajaj to Mukesh Ambani, queued up to pay their respects. Later, sitting in the audience, I listened to his acceptance speech, which was only a slight variation to the convocation address I had heard him deliver some ten years ago. Like the audience at the Indian Institute of Management, this audience too gave him a standing ovation.