After a few good years of managing the operations of French beauty conglomerate L’Oréal in Malaysia, Mumbai-born Ashwin Rajgopal was ready for a new challenge as long as it would not require him to leave the country he and his family had grown to love and consider home. His next assignment would be chief operating officer of luxury retailer Valiram Group, where and his wife Vimi would continue to endear themselves to Corporate Malaysia. Likeable, articulate and fun, the Rajgopals became a staple of KL’s social scene.
Last year, Ashwin switched paths yet again and is now the regional CEO of Suntory Holdings.
Very quickly, he dispels whatever romantic notions one might harbour about a job that could involve copious whisky-drinking all day. Although Suntory is the name behind the world-famous, award-winning tipples Hibiki and Yamazaki, Ashwin’s purview is the non-alcoholic beverage division. Surprised there is one? We were too.
“People often only associate Suntory with its alcohol division because the whiskies are so famous, and rightly so,” he says. “But in actual fact, its non-alcoholic division is bigger than the alcoholic division, and my mandate is to grow that segment in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore.”
He does, however, admit a particular penchant for Hibiki, cultivated long before this current assignment. What kismet, we suggest, and he laughs.
Founded in 1899, Suntory is a unique consumer goods company offering a diverse portfolio of beverage products enjoyed by millions around the world. Although it started out manufacturing whiskies and distributing wines, a series of mergers and acquisitions of companies like US bourbon producer Beam and the drinks division of London-based GlaxoSmithKline expanding its product arsenal to include a large number of non-alcoholic drinks — Orangina, Lucozade and Ribena, for example — have made Suntory one of the largest makers of distilled beverages in the world.
Interestingly, Ashwin was headhunted to join the Osaka-headquartered company. Before then, it was not even on his radar. “The offer came my way last year and it is one of the best decisions I’ve made in recent times,” he shares. “There were two things that really drew me to this organisation. The first is its basic values, which is best described in Japanese — yatte minahare, which is ‘go for it’. This also means you need not fear failure. It’s a very strongly imbued culture. We are also extremely decentralised, which puts a lot of trust in individuals. If this is your workplace, you know it best. I would have almost total autonomy and that was very enticing.
“The second is that we are in global acceleration mode now and are in the process of bringing the various brands together under the Suntory umbrella. Many people know our brands, but not who we are. Trying to bring everything under a single ecosystem was very interesting to me. The company is poised for massive growth, and I was eager to be part of it.”
The mandate Ashwin was given upon joining was quite clear — grow the business and accelerate profitability in the regions that fall under his jurisdiction. “Suntory always takes a long-term view of anything that it does. So, even if acceleration was the mandate, the ignition is to grow for good. This means we need to ensure that we are a good employer and continue to contribute to the community in which we operate. There is profit and growth, but there’s also this part which really gives another dimension to the organisation.”
During his tenure with L’Oréal Malaysia, one of Ashwin’s personal goals was to create a comfortable work environment that engendered growth and passion. Those values are very much mirrored by Suntory as well, and I ask if this was by chance or by design. “I am very fortunate, but these values are something I actively look for,” he muses. “This is an organisation that so strongly believes in giving the best to its employees and society, and I find it very easy to work in this environment. It’s a great fit and quite wonderful when your personal ideals match those of the company you work in.”
When Ashwin joined the company, it was apparent to him that its full potential was far from being realised and there was great opportunity for him to come on board and maximise the possibilities. “What I see is the potential that can be unleashed — the full force of Suntory can come here. It’s what we are working on now. We haven’t had any major launches in recent times but we are gearing up for lots of big things, including more consumer-focused products.”
Suntory’s entire inventory of non-alcoholic beverages includes water, juices, coffee and tea, all of which are wildly popular in Japan, and the company invests millions in consumer research, which results in new products being unveiled all the time. The question is which of these products would do well here. “Malaysians can relate to most of Suntory’s beverage categories, which makes it an open market for us,” he observes. “What’s most important to us is on the one hand, serving our consumer’s existing needs, but on the other, continually introducing new and innovative products.”
Ashwin’s three to five-year plan for Suntory across the region hinges on growth and profitability, which is underwritten by a commitment to making strategic investments in human resources, product categories and partnerships. “Our gameplan is to become the leading name in the non-alcoholic segment,” he states proudly. “We’ve embarked on the One Suntory programme, which aims to bring together the complete suite of brands and companies. Week by week, I can see Suntory getting bigger and bigger. It’s really an amazing time to be part of the company as it embarks on this.”
He is positive and eager for the challenges that are to come, but then again, Ashwin is backed by an enviable career that has given him a great deal of experience. “L’Oréal is a very entrepreneurial company, and I see those values in Suntory as well. You decide what you want to launch, what category you want to get into, how the company is going to be structured — that is where I thrive. So, what I bring to Suntory is the agility that is needed for a company to be quick and responsive. I’m also very committed to people development. It sounds hackneyed, but to see local talent performing so well at international levels never ceases to inspire me.”
Valiram Group is also intensely entrepreneurial. Founder Jethanand Valiram’s three sons continue to run the business today and Ashwin was deeply taken by how hungry they were. “They were always ready to jump into the next big thing. Here at Suntory, we are always looking at how to unlock new doors and the constant ‘what’s next?’ sentiment is a way of life here. It’s something I like and I am very comfortable with, fortunately.”
The job has become a way of life, in some ways, as Ashwin has caught himself looking out for Suntory products when he is out grocery shopping — which products are available where, and who is putting what into their shopping cart. Although Suntory has no direct competitors as such — no other beverage company has quite such sizeable stakes in two opposing ends of the field like it does — the innovation never stops. Indeed, Suntory’s quest for perfection is ruthless and relentless. “Anyone in the business of beverages is a competitor, to me.”
Ashwin has made KL home for a total of six years now and is not planning on leaving anytime soon, especially since he has been making such good inroads into the local market with Suntory. Our mid-morning coffee arrives and the conversation changes gears a little as Ashvin talks about life in KL and how much his entire family has come to call it home. “My wife loves it. My son, who just moved to the US to study, also adores it. Whenever we talk about the best country we’ve lived in, Malaysia always come out tops.”
Ashwin has had more time to enjoy his adopted home as well because of Suntory’s concerted emphasis to have work-life balance. There is no compulsion to reply emails on the weekends, for example, and any employee who moves countries on the job is supported both personally and professionally. “We’ve got so much to do here, and it’s so exciting. I enjoy coming to work every day, driven by a sense of urgency and hunger to grow,” Ashwin says. “To me, work-life balance is a philosophy and I think that when you love what you do, that balance is automatically achieved.”
This article first appeared on Jan 14, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.