Manu Chhabria, the marketing maverick

Manohar (Manu) Rajaram Chhabria (1946 – 2002), or MRC, was perhaps the most discussed business tycoon during the ‘80s and’90s. Rising like a Phoenix from the electronics shops of Lamington Road in Mumbai, the mercurial corporate gadfly dropped anchor in Dubai, founding his flagship Jumbo Electronics. Whence he proceeded on an acquisition spree of blue chip companies during the latter half of the ‘80s. Shaw Wallace, Dunlop, Mather & Platt, Hindustan Dorr Oliver and Gordon Woodroffe were among his stunning trophies. The Indian media couldn’t get enough of him. He was their controversial poster boy, headlining the business narrative.

MRC was a one-off. They broke the mould after him. No respecter of reputations, he would freely speak his mind, often in a tone and language that would make an inebriated sailor blush. His fellow corporate honchos, many of them captains of industry in their own right, never quite knew what to make of him. He kept them constantly off kilter. Utterly charming one minute, apt to fly off the handle the next. A chronic diabetic, he would lapse into fits of choleric rage at the slightest provocation. A Janus faced chameleon. A PR manager’s nightmare.

MRC was nothing if not compelling. He had his own, self- taught way of expressing himself. His English was not straight out of the hallowed portals of Oxbridge, but you had no trouble following his thought process, once you got past the polyglot sprinkling of profanity. Or perhaps, because of it! He was always nattily turned out, blue pinstripes being a particular favourite. The vertiginous vicissitudes of his journey have been well documented, and do not bear repetition. Suffice to say that his meteoric rise and untimely demise are now an indelible part of India’s business and corporate folklore.

This piece describes an extremely personal and unique experience that your chronicler had with MRC. One of many, but one that accurately portrays the man’s native sapience and brilliant turn of originality.

It was mid -1987. Manu Chhabria had wrested total management control of Dunlop India in Calcutta, the consequence of an uneasy partnership with a reputed industrial group. I was a middle level manager, looking after advertising at the tyre major. Normally, I would have least expected the Chairman of the Board to want to interact with someone of my humble station. He had Directors and Vice Presidents aplenty at his beck and call. But call me he did, and what followed is the prime raison d’etre for this amusing anecdote. Allowing for some inevitable garnishing, the telling is accurate. I remember it vividly.

On the day prior to our scheduled meeting, MRC’s secretary called me up to say that he would meet me at his plush, oak-panelled office in Shaw Wallace in Bankshall Street, Calcutta. I was commanded to make a presentation of Dunlop’s recent advertising campaigns, after which he wished to brief me on a highly confidential project. The meeting was scheduled for 11 am. We met at 6 pm, which was par for the course with him. To his credit, he inquired solicitously if I had lunched. I answered in the affirmative, and he waved to me to proceed. On asking him if anyone else was attending the meeting he responded tartly, “Is the Chairman of the company not good enough for you?” That went straight home and rammed me in the solar plexus, and I learnt a salutary lesson – do not ask needless questions.

I proceeded to take him through the recent history of Dunlop’s advertising. The presentation was made with the aid of a Kodak Carousel projector with a tray containing 80 plastic mounted slides. We were still eons away from laptops and Windows Power Point. As the room was darkened, the better to read the slides and view the pictures, I couldn’t actually see my boss’s face. While I kept droning on about radial tyres and market shares, there would emanate from his direction, a gentle, rythmic snore. At first, I thought it was a stray gnat or bee or some such winged insect, come to join the proceedings. When I realized, it was the Chairman enjoying his post prandial nap, I would stop my rambling, and wait uneasily for him to wake up. Given his impossible flight schedules, I was attributing his nodding-off to jet lag. When he realized my comforting, soporific prattle had abruptly ceased, he would open his eyes and bid me to carry on, adding gratuitously, “Sometimes, the presentation gets boring, so I just close my eyes. But you just go ahead. I am absorbing everything. You are doing a good job.”

In this strange manner, we continued for another half hour or so, when he abruptly stood up and announced, “That will do. I get the general idea. I will come and see you in Dunlop tomorrow on a most important matter.” I was relieved to have been stopped in my tracks. Tomorrow is another day. The venue for our meeting was shifted to the Shaw Wallace HQ, though I would have preferred to beard the lion in my own den at Dunlop House. Slotted for 12 noon, the Chairman waltzed in ‘promptly’ at 4pm, with a couple of obsequious henchmen in tow. I took the strategic precaution of requesting a creative boffin from our advertising agency to accompany me, but only after timorously seeking MRC’s assent, lest he should rap me on the knuckles for being presumptuous. With the benefit of hindsight, it turned out to be a wise decision.

He got straight to the point. “The Chhabria Group is to make a presentation to the Board of Directors of The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. In Hong Kong. We are seeking some financial gearing from them, and need to make a favourable impression. I want you to produce a film on our Group that will impress the hell out of them. You have exactly 15 days.” I was foxed and flustered. Some brief this! It was brief all right, but I was struggling. What about the content? Where will I get all the information? What tack should I take? He could sense my discomfiture. “Oh don’t worry, my dear. I will instruct my CEOs to give you all the information you want. For now, you are the boss, as I will be away in Dubai.”

“Thank you Sir,” I sputtered. “Given the tight schedule, I may have to bring the film directly to Hong Kong.” He winked at me knowingly and said, “Trip maarna hai, kya? No problem. You come.” I stuck my neck out and said, “Sir, it would help if you could let me know what kind of people will be sitting on that board, so I can capture the right tone.” I thought he was about to explode, as patience was not one of the Chairman’s prominent virtues. Surprisingly, he turned all amicable and said, “That is a very good point, mere dost. I think we understand each other. Ok, I will tell you what I want.”

“I am going to talk to you about suits,’ he opened, opaquely. “Not the legal types, but the suits we wear. See, if I want to get myself a smashing suit, I can approach three different types of tailors.” I was not sure where he was going with this, but I found myself, ridiculously, writing the words ‘pinstripes’ and ‘charcoal grey’ in my notepad. The sartorial angle was rife with creative possibilities. My ad agency friend went all rigid early in the proceedings. Rigor mortis had set in. He had never attended a meeting like this in his young life.

Mr. Chhabria pressed on, warming to his subject. “You can go to a highly respected tailor like Barkat Ali in Calcutta. He will take your measurements, call you for a trial one week later. Are you following me so far?” “Yes Sir,” I said dubiously, illegibly scribbling words like ‘Barkat Ali,’ ‘one week trial’ and similar inanities. He continued. “When you wear this suit and walk down Park Street, people will stop you and go, ‘Arre wah Chhabria Saheb, what a lovely suit. Must be Barkat Ali’s.’ You get my point?”  I nodded weakly. My legs had turned to jelly.

“Now imagine a Chinese tailor, Ching Chong Cho in Hong Kong,” he continued animatedly. He was in his elements. “You can go to his showroom on Nathan Road, get measured out at 11 am, come back at 2 pm for a trial fit out, and collect the finished suit the same evening. Next morning, when you walk down Causeway Bay, people will look at you admiringly and say, ‘What a fantastic suit, Mr. Chhabria, must be Ching Chong Cho’s.’ Are you still with me, young man?” I was with him all right, literally, but still groping. However, I was starting to get the drift. I was all intense concentration, my eyebrows knit so close together they had become one straight line!

“Finally,” said the Chairman, shooting his cuffs excitedly, ostentatiously revealing his luxury Patek Phillipe chronometer. “Gieves & Hawkes of No.1 Savile Row, one of the most famous tailors in the world. They make suits for billionaires and royalty.  They will decide if you are fit to wear one of their suits. Get my meaning? Naturally, they will accept someone like me, but not you,” he said, reassuringly. “They will take their own sweet time for trial and delivery. Otherwise, they will politely show you the door. When you finally wear the suit, and take a stroll down Regent Street, the English gentlemen will nod in silent approval. No word spoken. Now, do you understand what I am talking about, meri jaan?”

“I think I get it, Sir. You are looking for understated elegance. Rather like the British directors you will be meeting at The Hong Kong Bank.”

Mr. Chhabria stood up, pumped my hands warmly and said, “Corrrrrrrect, my friend. You have fully understood my thinking. Now I have nothing to worry about.” We were shown out of the office. My ad agency friend made straight for the nearest bar.

The film got made in ten days flat. The content of the film, the group company results and so on were totally irrelevant. When we played it to the predominantly British members of the Hong Kong Bank board, a couple of whom were Peers of the Realm, they loved it for the background score containing some of the finest passages from the works of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin et al. They warmly congratulated Mr. Chhabria, and I was on cloud nine for the next few weeks.

I have no idea if Mr. Chhabria’s financial objectives with the Bank were met as a result of my efforts. I rather doubt it, given the way things unravelled later on for him, his rivals wallowing in their schadenfreude. This much, however, I can say. Nobody that I can think of could have provided such a uniquely original brief for such an important presentation. Granted it was all instinctive, gut feel, seat-of-the pants stuff, but it was completely out of the box, and enabled those of us receiving his instruction, to get inside his mind and deliver a product that made sense and everyone happy. If I had my way, I would have this experience included as a case study at all our leading management schools.

Extracted from my book ‘A brush with Mr. Naipaul (and other stories).’

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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