Sankaranan is definitely drinking coconut water this afternoon, because the summer is early in Mumbai. The Bombay Gymkhan bar is closed in the afternoon, but a light breeze blows over the Azad Majdan on the ground floor. Constant ambient noise, except for children playing cricket on historic Geumkhana Square, or from a nearby table and then from a domestic phone right behind Sankaran. But she is fully focused on the call, her mobile phone quietly charges from a distance.
Additional information about Abanti Sankarananan
The use of Sankaranarayanan vodka as an employee of the company, which produces Johnnie Walker, Royal Challenge and Black Dog whisky, Smirnoff vodka and Ciroc among others, is strictly limited. She said she had achieved a great deal, including membership of the National CII Committee on Consumer Goods, the Indian Advertising Standards Board, Arvind Fashions Ltd, the British Business Council of India in India and the International Spirits and Wines Association of India.
A 50-year-old girl grew up in Patna and Delhi; her father served in the Indian civil service and gave her a taste of small and big cities. When she felt a sense of strength through the aura of Bihar’s civil service, Delhi brought her back to earth.
We were so close to the power that there is less fear or anxiety, she says. My dad would have just kept it up. What I have taken from her is humility, awareness of her status, but not to wear it as a badge of honour or use it inappropriately, says Sankaranaran, dressed in a handmade green cotton Hajji sari, she has been wearing saris for 25 years because she loves to wear and collect them.
She studied economics at St. Thomas University. There was a café at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi, while there were canteens on other campuses at the University of Delhi. The Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, was a natural development, although for a time he considered financial journalism a career. In 1992, having worked in Tata’s administrative department for 17 years, she met her future husband Govind Sankaranan before her boss asked her why she had chosen a distillery to work in Tata.
She’s a bit abnormal, or regressive as she says, because she only works for two companies. She joined Diageo in 2010 as Director of Marketing and Innovation before moving to Managing Director simply because she needed experience in a global company. At that time, Diageo was facing upheavals, including accusations of corruption and poor performance in India, which allowed it to shape the future of key companies. In 2012, Diageo Plc entered into a $2 billion (currently approximately ₹14 600 Crores) agreement to acquire a majority stake in United Spirits Ltd, which subsequently led to the conflict with the company’s president, Vijay Mallia, his subsequent rejection of the dismissal and associated court settlements.
Sancaranaran believes that much of the luggage transported by the distillery industry, including the hangover from the Mallya trials, has been washed in accordance with best practices, which heralds significant changes. In particular, the sector has managed to attract top management talent and has increased the number of women on the lists from 7.5 percent seven years ago to 18.5 percent. The eight-member executive committee of Diageo India consists of three women, including themselves. Of the company’s 50 managers, 32 percent are women, which normalizes the alcohol level in the blood, she said.
Most of the industry now works clean. When such a big player in a big industry takes pride in running the business, it’s a tectonic shift, she says, and she’d rather talk about the lifestyle than the business of alcohol.
Duality and contradiction are at the heart of the environment in which the alcohol industry lives and works, she said. We make important economic contributions, both directly and indirectly, by creating jobs, maintaining feedback from the agricultural sector and promoting links with the hospitality and tourism sector. The fact is that alcohol is a cultural mainstream.
But their existence is recognised in a very offensive way, because the industry has had a corrupt image in the past. Inappropriate use of alcohol through harmful or excessive consumption is a real social problem.
Another area of alcoholic beverage processing is refocusing on premium brands, and consumers have turned to premium brands – single malt whisky, for example – rather than buying more.
I ask her how she manages to find the time to sit on so many boards and committees to raise twins of 21 – a boy and a girl – and balance their professional careers. She could inhabit several worlds at the same time, she says with a smile, because for her it was less an exercise in balance, which she considered to be utopian, almost academic, than a simple act. It can be a non-vegetarian dinner when the children are at home, or a phone call from the cook when she is in the middle of an intense discussion in the meeting room.
It is also afraid of major changes in the world – be it global warming, politics or political change – of which it is constantly aware.
Simple statistics show that it has broken the trend. India is still one of the countries that have ignored the global trend of an increasing number of women in the world of work: Here the participation of women in the labour market has declined, with GDP growth declining from around 35 per cent to 25 per cent in 15 years. A broader view is that women should only work when they need it and when the family needs extra income. Few women continue to demand a career for themselves, says Sankarnarayanan.
Although she’s one of the few people who stayed on the career path, it hasn’t been easy. There have been times when she has disputed her choice, for example on a Wednesday afternoon at a business dinner at the Taj Palace in Delhi, where she flew out of Mumbai at 7am and returned at 9pm. She saw a group of six perfectly groomed women come to dinner with friends. This is a stereotypical but real example. She says that nobody gave me a reward that day because I flew with red eyes (to work). They seemed as happy as me, if not happier. They’re not jealous of me, but I can envy them. In times like these…
There would be other cases, such as the exam period when the children are in high school. The girl wouldn’t come, but she would have to run to the office and leave an important conversation halfway through. His daughter Kamya rolled her eyes and told him about the many mothers who came to train their children in tennis. Who knows, maybe if I was there, the coach would be more interested… She’s awesome.
These doubts arise, but there are so many others that indicate that the road was the right one. The family won’t give you a certificate for giving up your career. In fact, it’s the performance, the intellectual adrenaline, the awards and the recognition of professional achievement – the lasting satisfaction that comes from knowing that I’ve done my best to reach my full potential.
Today, the twins are proud of their mother because they understand each other better now that they are older. Your son, Vinayak, was recently interned at a law firm… And with his big eyes, he said: Now that I see women in law firms, I know this is the way to be in an office. My waist went up in her eyes, otherwise I was just a mother going to work and doing something, she says.
Ms Sankaranarayanan stresses the importance of family support and her husband Govinda Sankaranarayanan, former director of Tata Capital and currently vice-president of ECube Investment Advisors Pvt.
My husband is an absolute supporter for many reasons. The man usually has to be prepared for the fact that the woman, who is just like him, has meetings, similar roles, phone calls and outings, the cook does not show up and all these little things. A marriage between two active people can only be strengthened by a good relationship. If you make the right choice with your spouse, you can support each other. I got married when I was 25, he was 26, we grew up together and learned from each other. It can evoke an entire Malachi saddle of over a dozen vegetarian dishes usually served on a plantain – the impact of a 25-year marriage to a Kerala man, but not much of his Bengali cuisine.
His stepfather was also in the civil service and his mother-in-law has a good bar. My father-in-law is so kind and proud of me. He keeps three or four of my business cards in his pocket and hands them out to people he meets. You don’t have to give your Abanti card to everyone, my mother-in-law often laughs.
I was lucky. It’s a truism, I don’t take relationships for granted. We need to invest in these companies. It’s a merit, not a right.
Arun Janardhan is a journalist from Mumbai who reports on sports, business and lifestyle.