Nagpur: Its a long drive to the Haldiram’s Corporate Office on Bhandara Road on the outskirts of Nagpur. Easily takes us an hour from Shankar nagar/ Dharampeth to get there. At the gate, when we tell the guard we are here to see ‘Madam Asha’ he asks tersely if we have an appointment? When we reply in the affirmative and Asha tells him to let us in at once, he is properly impressed. We take the lift to the 2nd floor where all the Haldiram Honchos have cabins. The Chairman and the Directors – 3 generations of the Agrawal family. Amidst them is Asha’s cabin too; why not? She is the Quality Control Director of the multi-crore Haldiram empire after all! Lots of responsibility comes with this position – taking care of all the certifications required in the Food industry, in India AND Europe, USA, Australia etc. etc. where Haldiram products are exported. She inspects not just all their products – be it restaurant food, packaged snacks, mithai or frozen foods, she also ensures the quality of the raw material, the packaging, the design and also acts as a Management Representative with Buyers, Sellers and Govt. officials. In fact she is a approved ‘Certifier’ by the Government – she can sign all the Health certificates the company requires. She has been trained and tested by Govt. agencies to do so. She has not just a few but – hold your breath, 70-80 Chemists and executives reporting to her!
How did a Maharashtrian lady from a average middle class background make this amazing journey?
“Just my liking for the food industry. I am not a graduate of Food Technology or Hotel and Catering Management or any such fancy degree. I am a Science graduate (B.Sc.) who began a job with Parles in 1984, at a ‘grand salary’ of Rs. 400/ ! I took the Red Bus ( State Transport bus) to office. I was a Chemist. In my 10 years with them, I got promoted to become the Quality Manager doing inspection of their bottled cold drinks like Thumps Up, Gold Spot, Limca etc.
Later I joined Dinshaws which was then just into ice creams. I had the opportunity and privilege of working shoulder to shoulder with their M.D. Jimmy Rana in developing their milk business. I learnt a lot from him!”
How did she make the change to Haldiram? We asked.
“It was not easy! Took me 6 months to make the decision and then implement it” she chuckles.
“Dinshaws weren’t ready to let me go; then lots of my ‘well wishers’ warned me against joining a family run, Marwari Company – but I had met Babuji (Shivkisan Agrawal) by then, I had seen and felt his passion, devotion and talent for running a Food Company and I was determined to learn from him. So I took 15 days leave, went on a long holiday and came back and joined Haldiram without telling anyone. ”
“It was the best decision of my life – I haven’t looked back since then!” Says Asha .
This was 16 years go.
Haldiram was already a very well known brand then, with some super successful food joints like ‘Hot Spot’ in Sadar.
But the new factory with all the Safety and cleanliness requirements and systems; the labs with their ultra modern testing equipments, and the certifications like ISO 9001, ISO 2200, FSSC 2200, BRC ( for British markets); the authentication of ‘Kosher’ ( for Israel markets) have been largely due to Asha’s diligence, ideas and follow up.
The MD and all Directors are very open to ideas and take all suggestions very positively, she says.
Asha has to divide her time between the office and the factory further away on Bhandara road.
She prefers to drive herself ( no more Red bus!) and is probably the only Haldiram Director who does so.
“My husband fights with me everyday about hiring a driver, but i like to drive! This way, I am boss of my own timings and can come and go as I want. I often work long hours, I am a complete and total workoholic” she says. (Point to note is that she says she takes just 15 minutes to reach office everyday – a trip that took us over 45 minutes!!)
Has she ever felt insecure as a woman, or been subjected to sexual abuse/ harassment at any of her jobs? We ask.
“Never! In none of my three companies did I ever face such a situation” Asha says categorically.
” I firmly believe that your experience is molded by how you present yourself, your demeanor,
your appearance and also the perceived support you get from your spouse.” She goes on to explain that when she was with Dinshaw’s she often had to go at odd hours at night, like 2 or 3 a.m. to check the quality of milk that had arrived in tankers from nearby towns and villages. Her husband Mohan Vyawhare always accompanied her on such midnight ventures without once complaining about the disturbance to his sleep.
When she was with Dinshaws their milk business went up from a daily supply of 5000 litres to 70,000 litres. She had to go on many tours when they were in discussions with farmers’ groups, village co operatives etc. but she never felt insecure while doing so.
What is Asha’s typical day like? We ask.
“I wake up at 4.45 a.m.” ( My God! even before the birds??) ” Am at my Yoga class frm 5.30 to 6.30 a.m.” (Earlier used to go cycling too after that, but has given it a break now).
“Then I make breakfast, cook lunch, pack tiffins for me and my husband and am at my work station at 9 a.m.”
That is why they say Genius is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration!!
Her daily drive is 25 Kms one way.
But does she really cook herself?
“Yes, have always done so, even for my daughters when they were in Nagpur and going to school.” (They are both married now, the elder Minoti lives in Dubai and the younger Purva, lives in USA).
“But till my mother in law was alive and well, she took care of the kitchen completely. She took care of breakfast and handed me my ‘dabba’ in my hand when I left for work. So I am just continuing her tradition!” (A different take on ‘Sans bhi kabhi nahu thee!’ Ekta Kapoor, why don’t you show such examples??)
Finally, we wanted to know how the ‘workoholic’ Asha relaxes and re charges her batteries?
“Music and travel. Twice a year we go on vacations – once within India and once on some foreign jaunt where we are often joined by our daughters too, and our close friends.”
“At such times, I am completely disconnected from anything to do with the Food industry – including placing orders for Room Service!” Asha replies jokingly.
.. As told to Sunita Mudliyar ( Associate Editor )