Hina Nagarajan has been named as the new managing director (MD) and chief executive officer (CEO) of India’s largest liquor company, United Spirits Limited (USL), which is owned by British drinks giant Diageo, from July next year. With her elevation, she becomes the first woman to head the ₹28,500 crore-alcobev (alcoholic beverage) behemoth. And the industry is elated.

“The first woman to lead India's largest liquor company is indeed symbolic and may bring a more positive narrative to the industry,” says Sanjay Jain, a financial adviser in the Indian spirits industry. “Calls for the bubbly only to see yet another capable, multifaceted leader take the challenge at the helm of a very visible company. And I like it,” adds Priya Chetty-Rajagopal, managing partner, Multiversal Advisory, a CXO search and advisory firm. Chetty-Rajagopal expressed hope that Nagarajan's elevation was done because she has a history of successful stints behind her. “I’m guessing the focus will be on a spirited, effective leader, [and] not a pink checkbox,” she adds.

But Hina Nagarajan isn't the first one in the industry. The alcobev sector in India is usually seen as primarily being male-dominated, with the erstwhile head of USL, Vijay Mallya and Kishore Chhabria of Allied Blenders and Distillers, seen as the industry's poster boys. Puncturing this myth are also other women who have broken the glass-ceiling for a C-suite role in this sector.

In fact, it was Diageo that had first appointed a woman as the MD of its erstwhile India business entity (prior to the integration with USL) in Abanti Sankaranarayanan in 2012. Presently, Sankaranarayanan is the chief strategy and corporate affairs officer at USL—the company’s corporate identity is Diageo India—and has featured four times (2012 to 2015) on Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women in Business list. The other woman executive in the alcobev space is Roshini Sanah Jaiswal, who took over the reins of her family-run business Jagatjit Industries Limited, the makers of Aristocrat whisky, in 2015.

Coming back to Nagarajan, since joining Diageo in the summer of 2018, she has led the company’s Africa Regional Markets (ARM) comprising operations in Ghana, Cameroon, Ethiopia, the Indian Ocean, Angola, and several other countries. Prior to that she spent over 30 years in the consumer packaged goods sector and held several senior marketing and general management positions at Reckitt Benckiser (RB), Nestlé India, and Mary Kay India. Before joining Diageo, she was MD China & SVP North Asia with RB. Under Nagarajan’s leadership, said a USL statement, ARM became a “significant growth driver” for Diageo Africa. According to the company, Nagarajan is known for “her passion and drive” to deliver results and her ability to build strong teams that deliver “outstanding outcomes”.

“If a country can be run by a woman so can a company, be it liquor or armaments,” says Vijay Rekhi, the former managing director and president of USL. “The function and art of management are gender neutral. What is critical is how effectively an organisation is built and driven for its objectives and kept future ready by the leader,” Rekhi adds, who now runs his own advisory firm Vizanar Alcobev & FMCG Advisors.

The alcobev sector in India is usually seen as primarily being male-dominated, with the erstwhile head of USL, Vijay Mallya and Kishore Chhabria of Allied Blenders and Distillers, seen as the industry's poster boys. Puncturing this myth are also other women who have broken the glass-ceiling for a C-suite role in this sector.

But many would argue that the Indian liquor industry has changed dramatically over the past two decades: it’s more mainstream and is now completely dominated by multinational corporations. As a consequence, “the industry is much bigger with many more professionals,” says Jain.

Nagarajan would join USL on April 1, 2021 as CEO-Designate and would assume the MD and CEO’s role from July 1, 2021. She would also join the Diageo Executive Committee, reporting to John Kennedy, president, Diageo Europe & India. She takes over the USL’s reins from Anand Kripalu, who has helmed the company since 2014 after Diageo had acquired controlling stake in USL. Nagarajan would move to Bengaluru in April 2021 and would work closely with Kripalu as part of the transition phase. Under Anand’s tenure, USL made considerable improvements in operating performance: margin growth, working capital and cash generation. Following Diageo’s acquisition of USL, he led the integration of both companies.

For Nagarajan, her entry into the company would come at an opportune time as India and the world slowly begins its exit from the Coronavirus pandemic, given that vaccinations have already begun in countries like the U.K. “Growth may be back in the premium spirits segment in India which is the focus for Diageo,” says Jain. The impact of Covid-19, with liquor retail stores having shut shop during the lockdown months, and subsequently, restaurants being barred from serving alcohol, took a toll on USL’s April to September earnings. For the first half of the ongoing fiscal, USL reported a consolidated net loss of ₹121.5 crore as against a net profit of ₹339 crore in the year ago period. Revenue from operations was down 22.35% to ₹11,330 crore.

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