THE FRON­TIER­SWOMAN

Ms. Apurvi Sheth thrives on chal­lenges and rev­els in am­bi­gu­ity with the con­fi­dence that op­por­tu­ni­ties lie where the ground is not even

Portfolio - - PORTFOLIO - ART DI­REC­TION VC CHONG PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY CHINO SARDEA AS­SISTED BY JR TU

The re­cep­tion area at the Di­a­geo head­quar­ter in Sin­ga­pore clearly be­longs in a bou­tique ho­tel. The re­cep­tion desk is a tall es­critoire that hides noth­ing; you can see its legs as well as those of any­one stand­ing be­hind it. It faces a long cock­tail ta­ble on the other side of the the re­cep­tion desk is a neon sign that reads “Cel­e­brat­ing Life Ev­ery Day Ev­ery­where” – in case the Di­a­geo goal is not clear to any­one who saun­ters in – and on the op­po­site wall are bot­tles of Di­a­geo liquors massed in spe­cially lit re­cessed shelves. In front of the re­cep­tion desk are two tablets where vis­i­tors can leave their par­tic­u­lars in ex­change for a pass that will al­low them in­side – although there re­ally is no bar­rier, just a pair of per­ma­nently parted heavy drapes in­di­cat­ing the pas­sage to what is be­yond. This foyer is the thresh­old. Stand­ing be­hind the desk is a young woman. She cheer­ily greets vis­i­tors as she re­ceives de­liv­er­ies from mes­sen­gers, glid­ing from the desk to nudge a frozen key­board back to life, and then to the ta­ble op­po­site to sign a de­liv­ery slip. As far as mod­ern hubs of ef­fi­ciency and pro­duc­tiv­ity go, Di­a­geo’s of­fice is up there with the best of them. As APAC head­quar­ter, it houses 174 em­ploy­ees in flex­i­ble spa­ces that to­tal 17,000 square feet. Although not in the whim­si­cal Pee-wee Her­man style of cheery col­ors and toy-like fur­ni­ture, it has a sense of fun all its own. Past the en­trance, on the right, are the of­fices where the staff in ‘stylish ca­sual’ work around hot desks. Mod­ern of­fice touches are ev­ery­where: Pods for mak­ing pri­vate calls, couches where staff can put feet up as they work, walls printed with cor­po­rate mes­sages, lock­ers for ev­ery­one to keep their per­sonal be­long­ings. Fur­ther in is a qui­eter workspace – ‘the Study’ – for more fo­cused deskwork and small break­out meet­ings, and still be­yond are work­sta­tions ar­rayed like in a con­ven­tional of­fice. Out­side the of­fice, in the hall right at the heart of the space, arm­chairs and set­tees are grouped around cof­fee-ta­bles. Along the side where the win­dows are is a row of meet­ing rooms, and op­po­site is a pantry with high com­mu­nal ta­bles and al­coves. The staff take turns us­ing these for small meet­ings, to brain­storm or work singly on their lap­tops, to meet guests, and per­haps to de­com­press. At the far end of the hall to the left is The Bar at Di­a­geo, a large space fit­ted with a well-stocked, com­mer­cial-grade bar where pro­fes­sional bar­men serve drinks to staff and their guests on some nights dur­ing the week. “Some em­ploy­ees bring guests over, and they or­der chicken wings to be de­liv­ered here. The drinks are on the house,” some­one whis­pers to me. A space be­yond the bar con­verts into an en­ter­tain­ment area where mix­ers and talks have been held, but dur­ing the day, with the cur­tains drawn around it, func­tions as yet another place for work. Fi­nally, hard by the bar is The House of John­nie Walker, ac­cess strictly by in­vi­ta­tion, where the rarest and most pre­cious whiskies in the Di­a­geo port­fo­lio are kept and en­joyed by very spe­cial clients and very few lucky guests. It is some­times re­ferred to as ‘the mil­lion­dol­lar room’ for the price of the whiskies stored in it eas­ily comes close to that fig­ure.

WOMAN AT THE FRON­TIER

I’m here to meet Ms. Apurvi Sheth, Di­a­geo’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor for South­east Asia, who leads the com­pany’s business across the re­gion as well as in Sri Lanka and other emerg­ing mar­kets. Her cur­rent role is a cul­mi­na­tion of sorts that emerged from 23 years in lead­er­ship po­si­tions at Nes­tle, Coca-Cola and Pep­sico. Even at Di­a­geo, which she joined 2007 as in­no­va­tion di­rec­tor for South­east Asia and In­dia, Ms. Sheth has shown her métier in var­i­ous posts, in­clud­ing in­no­va­tion gen­eral man­ager for Asia Pa­cific in 2010, and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor for South­east Asia emerg­ing mar­kets and joint ven­tures in 2014 –a newly cre­ated role that she sin­gle­hand­edly de­fined. If there is a run­ning theme here, one need not look far­ther than the ti­tles she has held. A cham­pion of business trans­for­ma­tion and growth, she tells me ca­su­ally, “In­no­va­tion and new fron­tiers have al­ways been part of my ex­per­tise.” In per­son, Ms. Sheth ap­pears sim­ple. Her im­mac­u­late face pro­vides no clue to her age, her de­signer clothes ex­trav­a­gantly plain. She

weighs her words care­fully but at the same time she is full of can­dor and en­ergy. She likes to use the in­clu­sive ‘we’, and credit any suc­cess to ‘the team’. In­side the John­nie Walker House, she calls on mem­bers of her team to see to ev­ery­one – to an­swer ques­tions, to con­duct an im­promptu tast­ing, to ex­plain how things work. Ev­ery­one plays an im­por­tant role. But it’s clear to see who is call­ing the shots. When Di­a­geo ac­quired a Chi­nese white spirit, the bai­jiu brand Shui Jing Fang, they got Ms. Sheth on board to cre­ate the aware­ness cam­paign. “It was a white space both for me and for Di­a­geo,” she re­mem­bers, “it was daunt­ing but it was also very ex­cit­ing be­cause of the tremen­dous pos­si­bil­i­ties.” Ms. Sheth ad­mits she had “no prior ex­pe­ri­ence in al­co­hol, but I have the abil­ity to flour­ish in am­bi­gu­ity, to thrive in the face of chal­lenges.” Her plan suc­cess­fully launched Shui Jing Fang to new promi­nence, and although pre­mium bai­jius went through in­ter­est­ing times when China im­posed aus­ter­ity mea­sures, it is clearly a well-es­tab­lished and very promis­ing category for Di­a­geo to­day. Ms. Sheth would even­tu­ally build in­no­va­tion lega­cies in other cat­e­gories in­clud­ing Scotch whiskies at Di­a­geo and non­car­bon­ated drinks at Pep­sico, but her most re­cent moves to set up Di­a­geo’s first pri­vate client team, and es­tab­lish The House of John­nie Walker showed her dex­ter­ity and skills to be of another cal­iber. The woman’s got game. When I quizzed her about the source of her en­er­gies and ideas, she sim­ply gave me a two-word an­swer: Creat­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties. “My life pur­pose is to cre­ate pos­si­bil­i­ties for growth,” Ms. Sheth says em­phat­i­cally, “not only for my­self and the com­pany but also for those around me.” ‘Creat­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties’ would come up sev­eral times in our con­ver­sa­tion, along with ‘life pur­pose’, an idea that she claims to have picked up at the Di­a­geo Lead­er­ship Per­for­mance Pro­gram, which she at­tended and be­came a part of. “No one had asked me what my life pur­pose was be­fore then. When you go to a job in­ter­view, you of­ten get asked what your ca­reer goals are – but they are not the same. A life pur­pose is much big­ger,” she elab­o­rates. “Your life pur­pose is your core. Very of­ten, you lose sight of your life pur­pose; you learn to com­pare your­self with oth­ers, and you aspire to be­come some­body you are not. But your life pur­pose is not what you do or where you are – it is who you are.” Ms. Sheth says that one’s life pur­pose is of­ten al­ready there, although it may not be man­i­fest. By con­stantly go­ing back to what one thinks is im­por­tant, how one per­son­ally op­er­ates, one re­al­izes it.

A WORLD OF POS­SI­BIL­I­TIES

“I think there’s more rest­less­ness now,” Ms. Sheth de­scribes the pace in which they op­er­ate cur­rently. “Con­sumers are mov­ing faster, so the rest­less­ness right now is about mov­ing with agility.” But how does one teach a be­he­moth to dance? Doesn’t size – be­ing large, be­ing big – pose an im­ped­i­ment to agility? “Our cul­ture en­ables us to be ag­ile,” Ms. Sheth coun­ters. “It’s all about the cul­ture – what you’re en­cour­ag­ing, how you’re role-mod­el­ling, how you’re cel­e­brat­ing ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, open con­ver­sa­tions, and tak­ing risks. We like to re­ward the be­hav­ior rather than the out­come be­cause once you’ve built the be­hav­ior we trust that the out­come will be there,” she says with op­ti­mism and cer­tainty. “We like to re­ward the peo­ple who cel­e­brate thought­ful and pur­spose­ful ex­per­i­men­ta­tion that in turn drives our agility. If the out­come is not what was ex­pected, that’s fine too.” Ms. Sheth con­cedes that mov­ing too fast can make one lose sight of cer­tain things. “That’s why we in­sist on learn­ing as we go. When we move fast there are times when we may un­wit­tingly make com­pro­mises on key com­po­nents.” On the other hand, she ad­vo­cates cel­e­brat­ing the process as much as one cel­e­brates “the ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, the cre­ativ­ity, and the flair for creat­ing” to find the right bal­ance. “Some­times we get it wrong, but in­creas­ingly we’re putting in more process to bal­ance that.” Some mis­takes that have been com­mit­ted in the past were huge, Ms. Sheth ad­mits. “It has hap­pened; some of our global in­no­va­tions have failed, and we ac­knowl­edge that. We got this wrong, so what are the learn­ings from this? We can’t do this ev­ery time; we can’t make the same mis­takes. We are al­ways learn­ing from con­sumers who prove to be our deep­est source of in­sight on teh occasion we make mis­takes. We learn as a team and we en­joy the jour­ney.” We don’t have a ‘blam­ing cul­ture’ here. That one can be even more harm­ful be­cause it pulls back peo­ple from tak­ing risks, from en­gag­ing in ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and mov­ing ahead with cre­ativ­ity. For us, it’s ‘Go out and do it’.”

She re­peats her fa­mil­iar lines: “You will make mis­takes and that is fine. Learn from them it so you don’t make them again. Mean­while, re­spect the learn­ing, re­spect the process be­cause that is the foun­da­tion that you build up from.”

CAL­I­BRAT­ING THE FIT

What type of tal­ent fits into the cul­ture that al­lows mis­takes while ex­pect­ing results? “Our team is di­verse,” of­fers Mr. Les­lie Chong, cor­po­rate re­la­tions di­rec­tor for South­east Asia, who joins us for an after-hours drink at the John­nie Walker House. “Di­ver­sity pro­vides the best ac­cess to a rich pool of tal­ents,” he points out, em­pha­siz­ing how it of­fers the mul­ti­plic­ity of ideas and points of view. “In an in­dus­try that is in­tensely client-fac­ing as ours, hav­ing di­ver­sity means hav­ing ac­cess to a broad range of think­ing about clients.” Along­side her com­mit­ment to de­vel­op­ing the cul­ture, Ms. Sheth keeps an eye on profit and growth tar­gets. “All our con­ver­sa­tions are out­come ori­ented. We ex­per­i­ment with clear goals, not just for the sake of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. We are cre­ative but not for its own sake. It goes back to be­ing pur­pose­ful. If you are ex­per­i­ment­ing, what are you look­ing to ac­com­plish? De­fine your pur­pose and be ac­count­able for that,” she ex­plains. “We see cul­ture as an en­abler of per­for­mance.” Around us in the John­nie Walker House ex­am­ples of suc­cess­ful ex­per­i­ments are high­lighted. A cabi­net built into a wall dis­plays a col­lec­tion of rare whiskies from ac­tive and silent dis­til­leries owned by Di­a­geo. One bot­tle is beau­ti­fully en­graved by the of­fi­cial ar­ti­san to the Queen of Eng­land, another sits in a pre­sen­ta­tion box in the form of a book, yet another is spe­cially blended for the Asian palate. These bot­tles have been sit­ting on the Di­a­geo shelf, but Ms. Sheth, with her deep un­der­stand­ing of the nar­ra­tives that make Di­a­geo’s brands spe­cial, has brought to life sto­ries be­hind the liq­uid’s crafts­man­ship to share with dis­crn­ing con­sumers. Di­a­geo’s rev­enue comes from sales of al­co­holic bev­er­ages, and Ms. Sheth has de­vel­oped highly in­no­va­tive ways to do it. One is through the sale of the con­tent of en­tire casks through the Di­a­geo Casks of Dis­tinc­tion pro­gram. See­ing how these sought-after, fi­nite-stock and rare whiskies do ex­ceed­ingly well at auc­tions, she as­sem­bled a highly knowl­edge­able team to ser­vice pri­vate clients who may want to pur­chase casks. Her team presents clients with im­mer­sive and be­spoke ex­pe­ri­ences at an un­precen­dented level of cus­tomiza­tion such as through the John Walker & Sons Sig­na­ture Blend, and also of­fers in­vited guests ad­vice on whisky cel­lar cu­ra­tion, and di­rect ac­cess to Di­a­geo’s blend­ing rooms, dis­til­leries and crafts­men. This is made pos­si­ble as Di­a­geo owns a di­verse prot­fo­lio of 50 dis­til­leries that can cater to con­sumers of all taste pro­files, and en­sures that they have the wide va­ri­ety to help whisky en­thu­si­asts build their cel­lars or pri­vate col­lec­tions.

MAIN­TAIN­ING THE LEAD­ER­SHIP

There’s ab­so­lutely no rea­son to think that Bri­tish com­pany Di­a­geo is just knee-deep in a pond of back-pats and en­cour­age­ment ex­pressed in ab­stract nouns. It has a keen eye on the num­bers. The pub­lic lim­ited com­pany is a business be­he­moth, listed on both the Lon­don and New York stock ex­changes, op­er­ates in over 80 coun­tries, and sells its range of al­co­holic bev­er­ages in over 180 mar­kets. Its brands in­clude John­nie Walker, Smirnoff, Tan­queray, and Guin­ness; it owns 37 per cent of Moet Hen­nessy, and is just be­hind China’s Kwe­i­chow Moutai as the world’s largest dis­tiller of spir­its. Its growth am­bi­tion is well-es­tab­lished: “Glob­ally, we im­proved to grow five per cent in or­ganic net sales in 2018,” Ms. Sheth shares. That feel­ing of rest­less­ness on the back of a rapidly de­vel­op­ing mar­ket that Ms. Sheth men­tions is backed by macro fac­tors. Through­out South­east Asia alone, 7 mil­lion as­pir­ers are reach­ing le­gal drink­ing age ev­ery year. “They may have reached the le­gal age (for al­co­hol con­sump­tion), or may be look­ing for a new ex­pe­ri­ence, and are fi­nally able to af­ford some life­style choices - they are here and they are evolv­ing. We want to give them qual­ity prod­ucts and brands, and the best ex­pe­ri­ence.” In­creas­ingly, Mr. Chong says, they are see­ing a more di­verse con­sumer pro­file that in­cludes women and young pro­fes­sion­als, pro­vid­ing an im­pe­tus to con­sider them in de­vel­op­ing new prod­ucts and en­gage­ments. The fla­vor pro­file map of­fers a glimpse into the di­verse fla­vor pro­files our whiskies have to of­fer, he says as he points to a framed list on the wall. Di­a­geo is uniquely poised to of­fer fla­vor pro­files ca­ter­ing to a di­verse con­sumer pro­file and cor­re­spond­ingly a wide va­ri­ety of palates given our un­par­al­leled ac­cess to 50 dis­til­leries span­ning four cor­ners of Scot­land. “We cre­ate fla­vor pro­files or even sig­na­ture drinks – sweet, com­plex, re­fresh­ing,” ex­plains Ms. Sheth, em­pha­siz­ing that this comes from a clear un­der­stand­ing of the cul­tures of their cus­tomers. Ms. Sheth pos­sesses a strong be­lief in business trans­for­ma­tion to drive growth. She and her team are al­ways seek­ing out new mar­kets, new con­sumers and new cat­e­gories for which they can cre­ate win­ning propo­si­tions.

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