Industry mourns passing of FMCG veteran Suman Sinha, who got fizz into Pepsi


NEW DELHI : Priya Mohan Sinha, or Suman Sinha, an executive who acquired a formidable reputation as a business leader through his stints at the top rungs of Hindustan Lever and PepsiCo as India went through economic liberalisation and witnessed a resultant consumer boom, passed away in Gurugram on Wednesday, aged 82-years.

Sinha, who became the face of PepsiCo during the onset of the cola wars in India, serving as its chairman between 1992 and 2002, was reputed both for driving business results and for his ability to navigate the corridors of the government, at a time when much of the policymaking that would shape India’s FMCG sector, was underway.

Tributes poured in on alumni groups of these companies through Thursday. Colleagues recalled how Sinha bridged the gap between managers and the frontline salesforce, how he spent time in the marketplace, travelling routinely into the hinterland, braving all kinds of inconveniences.

“I joined PepsiCo in 1994 and over the next decade, got to know Suman the person… a great leader, a mentor and coach, a master politician, a loving husband and father who then became a trusted advisor and a friend to me,” former PepsiCo chairperson and CEO Indra Nooyi told Mint.

“He steered the PepsiCo business in India masterfully, in spite of the headwinds that foreign companies faced then and the intense competition in the beverage space. Suman showed up at work… looking stern and earnest, but behind that exterior was a warm, caring, dedicated person who had great followership from everyone he touched. I was privileged to have learned the India beverage business from Suman,” she added.

Sinha’s decade at PepsiCo saw multiple business challenges—foreign companies trying to foray into the market were faced with resistance. Meanwhile, rival Coca-Cola too was making aggressive bets in India. Under Sinha’s reign, the company launched some of the beverage companies most iconic marketing campaigns including “Yeh Dil Maange More” and “Nothing official about it”. He was also credited with launching bottled water brand Aquafina in India. He also helped the company acquire local beverage maker Duke’s in Mumbai.

However, under his reign, rival Coca-Cola ended up acquiring homegrown beverages Thums-Up and Limca.

R Gopalakrishnan, who spent three decades at Hindustan Lever Ltd., and whose association with Sinha dates back the early 1970s, said Sinha was a skilled networker who was also demanding and task oriented.

“At HLL, he joined Aspie Moddie’s department in Delhi. Very soon, he became ‘Delhi’ to all Lever managers. There was not an officer he did not know—IAS batch number, college, cohorts, interests and so on. He was the first to establish to me what I later came to understand as less than six degrees of separation,” he said.

Sinha and Gopalakrishnan worked together when Sinha became general sales manager, detergents; Gopalakrishnan was general sales manager, foods. “So, we worked together a lot. He had an indefatigable field and people orientation, which could be perceived by his critics as bordering on fulsomeness. However, Suman had a heart and intent of gold for the company’s interest,” he added.

Harish Manwani, former chief operating officer of consumer goods giant Unilever, recalls Sinha as a “towering” and “legendary” leader.

“He was responsible for some big watershed moments in HUL’s history—notably the retention of 51% majority and generally raising the profile of HUL as a responsible company and integral to India’s nation building efforts. I got to know him when he was the Sales Director—demanding and rigorous, yet caring and a lot of fun after office hours,” he said.

Varun Berry, now executive vice chairman and managing director, Britannia Industries Ltd, who worked with Sinha in PepsiCo India between 1993 and 2001, said Sinha would often take on the toughest of tasks, suggesting a great appetite for risk.

Sinha his survived by his daughters Pooja and Anjali.

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