The FMCG world is going through an unprecedented yet exciting period of transition, with a strong focus on sustainability and digital technologies !

Koushik Sreedhar, our next pathbreaker, Director, India R&D Hub at Beiersdorf (the company that owns brands like Nivea, Eucerin and La Prairie amongst several others), leads a team that is responsible for developing skin care products for countries across the world.

Koushik talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the importance of getting comfortable with the uncomfortable especially in such a dynamic industry which is driven by innovation.

For students, the jobs you will eventually do might not even exist today! So, always focus on the fundamentals, and get the basics right after which most of the problems are easy to solve !

Koushik, tell us what were your early years like?

I come from Bangalore. My father used to work at the HMT factory, and I grew up in the worker’s colony that they had. 

My primary and secondary education years were not very remarkable, which was very typical for the times. We spent a lot of time playing and paid little attention to studies. It was only during my 12th (I took up physics, chemistry, math and biology) that things got a bit serious. I chose to study biotechnology for my bachelor’s degree and chose to continue studying the same subject for my master’s as well.

Most of my time outside the university was spent with friends. And when not with friends, I spent a lot of time with books. I had convinced my father pretty early on to get me a membership at the British council library near M.G Road and I used to make regular trips by bus to borrow books. That was my real introduction to science. From Hawking to Penrose to Goodall, I read them all. That is what eventually drove me to take up science seriously later on. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I took up biotechnology for both my bachelor’s and master’s degree (much to my parent’s chagrin – they wanted me to take up engineering which I was not interested in).

What were the primary influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career.?

I was always interested in science. Most books that I read during my teens were to do with science. I used to be a regular at science conferences that were open to the public (I fondly remember an event where both Jane Goodall and Roger Penrose addressed an enthusiastic crowd in an open-air auditorium in Cubbon Park). So, when I had to choose my area of specialization after my 12th, science was an obvious choice. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted?

I’ve worked for three companies so far. While I would like to say that it was all planned from the beginning and I knew exactly what I wanted to do, it would not be true. I knew the general direction, but had to choose the path I took, as and when the opportunities came by.

What I knew very clearly was that I wanted to head an R&D organization one day. That’s all. 

My first job was with ITC. I started way back in 2005 after my master’s when I joined their R&D Center as Junior Research associate. ITC had just decided to venture into skin and personal care, and had set up a small team for which I was recruited. This is where I learnt my craft. 

While I imagined doing cutting edge research on skin biology, I started off doing the rather mundane job of weighing shampoo sachets for stability for the first few weeks. But eventually things got interesting. In the seven and half years I spent there, I worked on almost all aspects of skin care R&D. From establishing novel assays to genomics to product development, I had the opportunity to work on several areas of R&D. 

A key decision I took here was to move from basic research to product development. While I found basic research interesting, I felt disconnected with the business side of things. And as a biologist, I had little experience in developing products and was always curious about how it worked. So, when a position opened in one of the product development teams, I applied and got the job. Looking back, this was a very good decision. My experience both in basic research and in product development helps me do my current job well.

For students who might not be aware of the finer differences between basic research and product development (as it happens in FMCG companies), let me elaborate briefly. Companies like Beiersdorf, Unilever etc make money by selling products to consumers. Now, there are teams within these companies that develop and test the products that need to be launched. Their work takes anywhere between 6 months to 2 years (and sometimes longer). Products that are launched in the market are a direct result of their work. But these are products that use existing technologies and solve problems where solutions are already available. What about those problems where there is no technological solution? How do you develop and work with technologies of tomorrow? How about areas where the science itself is not established yet? These problems are dealt with by teams that are involved in basic research. Every company calls them differently. Some try to generate new knowledge and some work with technologies new to the industry, but the common thread amongst all is that there is a large unknown component to their work. This also makes the outcome of their work uncertain. Many of their projects don’t convert to product launches. But the few that do, bring in big profits to the company. 

So you see the difference? The product development teams work on existing technologies to bring quicker solutions to the consumer while basic research teams work on new things that may or may not work in the market. Both are incredibly important to a company in the long term. And both are incredibly fun in their own ways. 

Tell us about your career path after ITC

So, after more than 7 years, I decided to leave ITC. Though I had done well in the company, personal reasons along with a curiosity to explore bigger opportunities drove me to RB (Reckitt Benckiser) in Gurgaon. 

I was with RB for two years. I lead a team that worked on Dettol and Veet (the hair removal cream). It was two short but very intense years. The role was very close to the business (unlike my previous roles in ITC) and I learnt a lot about managing big projects, various complexities around supply chain and other aspects around launching products across various markets. 

More importantly, RB is where I was first exposed to other cultures. I had a Scottish boss and I worked very closely with colleagues from the UK and other European countries. We even had projects with colleagues in Brazil, Japan and Pakistan! Though all this was new to m, these experiences prepared me well for my next role.

In March 2015, I joined Beiersdorf (the company that owns brands like Nivea, Eucerin and La Prairie amongst several others). I started as a manager for developing skin and personal care products for Nivea. For the first time, I was also responsible for markets outside India. We developed products for Africa, the Middle East, Russia, Turkey and of course, India. The job was based out of Ahmedabad and three years went by very quickly. After this, I moved to Hamburg in Germany. I was to lead a team that developed new ideas for body cleansing globally. A year into my new role, I also got the additional responsibility of heading the hair care and styling lab for Europe. 

I spent close to three years in Europe during which, along with my team, we relaunched the entire hair care range with sustainable formulations, launched a refill machine for body cleansing in Germany and worked on several “crazy” ideas that pushed the envelope of body cleansing in general. 

It’s been a bit more than two years since I came back to India. I’m now the director for R&D for the Indian hub. My team leads the development of Nivea Baby products globally, and the hub is a center of excellence for skin of color amongst other strategically important topics. 

How did you get your first break?

Finding my first job was not easy. I sent out emails to several companies, did walk-in interviews and everything else that a beginner would do back then. I did not hear back from most of them. 

It was my father who then helped me get my first job. He knew someone in ITC and said maybe I could send my CV across which I did. A few days later, I got a call for an interview! I can confidently say it was the most difficult interview I’ve ever done. But I got the job. And a few weeks later, I joined as a Junior Research Associate at ITC R&D Center in Bangalore. Looking back, it was an incredibly lucky break. I owe pretty much everything I am today to the 7 years I spent there. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Several !, but let me highlight a few that I think are important when one is starting out– 

  1. Specialize – The world is run by generalists. And there is a good chance that you will eventually end up in a general management role as well. Nothing wrong with it. But it is incredibly important to learn at least one thing really well. Specialize in one area early in your career (either on the job or through a PhD). You are then free to diversify your skill set later on. This is especially important if you choose a career in science. I chose to focus on aspects of skin and hair biology for a good seven years before I diversified into other fields. 
  2. Communicate – India has a very strange problem. Especially in fields related to science. We have no shortage of people who understand the subject – lots of brilliant people that come from all parts of the country. But unfortunately, many of them lack good communication skills. This is not just an Indian problem though. This is true for many non-English speaking countries. Like it or not, we live in a globalized economy and the medium of communication is English. This can be hard for students who come from other mediums of instruction. 

Make an effort to master the language. Reading helps a lot. Use every opportunity to converse in English. I spoke little English until I was fourteen or fifteen years old. But I made friends who were willing to help. Later on, books helped. 

  1. Get uncomfortable – The world is moving at an incredible pace. Knowledge that you take for granted today will be obsolete tomorrow. Businesses are more reactive to external stresses than they have ever been in history. This means you need to upgrade your knowledge and your skills constantly. You will be uncomfortable. Get used to it. My first job had me do some pretty hardcore biology that I had never learnt at university. I deliberately chose to move from biology to product development and then to project management. Every single time I chose something new, I was nervous and uncomfortable. My last role had me leading a project that involved developing a machine that automatically dispenses shower gels – far from the biology I did during my first job. My current role involves leading a large team and managing a huge budget to run the organization. All new things. I’m still not very comfortable and there are always surprises. I’m just used to it and sometimes, I even enjoy it. 

Where do you work now? 

I currently work for a company called Beiersdorf. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m the Director for R&D for the Indian hub. 

What problems do you solve?

I lead a team that is responsible for developing skin care products for countries across the world. My role predominantly is to manage the teams that are involved in research and development, ensure the organization is run smoothly, develop short- and long-term strategies for categories I’m responsible for and help the teams deliver their projects. 

What skills are needed in our role? How did you acquire the skills?

At an operational level, there are several aspects – a good understanding of how the FMCG business works is important. In terms of skills, it helps if one has good product development experience. This means one needs to know how a skin cream or lotion or a deodorant (or any other format) is developed and how they work. A good working knowledge of packaging materials is also helpful. We do a lot of consumer studies and clinical trials. So, a good understanding of how these are done is also helpful. One needs to have a very good understanding of skin and hair biology. There is a lot of chemistry involved too. So, one needs to understand how all the raw materials work. 

In addition, my current role also demands leadership in several aspects including managing long and short-term innovations, managing several large teams, managing budgets etc.

Almost all the skills I mention above are acquired on the job. The thumb rule in the industry is that you pick up about 70% from projects you do, 20 % through coaching and 10 % through course work. This is as true as any other generalization. 

What’s a typical day like?

My typical day starts when I reach the office by around 8:45 in the morning. I spend the first hour or so clearing emails from the previous evening. Sometimes I grab a quick cup of tea with a colleague. But the first hour is mostly spent on clearing my inbox and catching up on any urgent topics from the previous evening. 

The rest of the day is generally split between reviewing projects, troubleshooting when needed, budget and people related issues, talking with marketing and supply chain partners on various topics etc. I also make it a point to talk to everyone in the team regularly. Of course, I cannot talk to everyone every day, but I ensure that I have recurring appointments with everyone. 

The sheer diversity of topics that one gets involved in is what makes the role interesting. But I do confess I have more meetings on a typical day than I would like. 

What is it you love about this job? 

Two things. 

  1. Other than all the general management stuff, I get to really explore new ideas that push the technology envelope. We generate new scientific knowledge and consumer understanding constantly and this is what makes it exciting. Many of these make a real difference to consumer’s lives.
  2. Leading an incredible team. It’s the team that makes all the difference. And I get an opportunity every day to work with people who are so much better than I am. To work with them and learn from them constantly is just an incredible experience.

How does your work benefit society? 

The world is going through an incredible phase of climate change. The number of droughts, wildfires and floods are a testament to this. Sustainability is more important today than it has ever been and the FMCG world is going through an exciting period of transition.

Skin and personal care is important. They are an essential part of one’s life. But the technologies that the industry has been using for several decades are known to cause damage to the environment. This is now slowly changing. New technologies not only deliver consumer benefits but also are safe to the environment. Beiersdorf has several commitments towards sustainability and is strongly transitioning towards sustainable technologies. 

Digitalization is also making big inroads into the FMCG world. Soon, the humble laboratory in which products are developed might be completely unrecognizable. Robotics and AI are changing how we think of experiments. There are startups that diagnose skin problems through mobile phones and several big companies are experimenting with new business models. 

Exciting times ahead!

But as one can imagine, this is hard work. Not all issues are solved and not all new technologies are scalable. Students who chose to work in the area not only get to develop exciting products for consumers but also get to be a part of this technological revolution within FMCG. Nivea just launched its first product that is made with carbon captured from industrial emissions! This was unthinkable even 5 years ago! I think we are living through the most exciting phase the FMCG industry has seen in decades!

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

It is hard to choose one. There have been several projects over the years that I hold close to my heart. But the most recent one that comes to mind is the development of a refill machine in Germany. I had the opportunity to be part of an incredible team that developed and launched the product in record time! While it was a pilot project that was launched to learn consumer behavior and new ways of doing business, we did a lot of things for the first time and defined new ways of working. Here is a link if you are interested to learn more about the idea. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

For the young ones – the jobs you will eventually do doesn’t even exist today! So how do you prepare for an uncertain future? Whatever field you choose, focus on the fundamentals. Get the basics right after which most of the problems are easier to solve. Think first principles. 

For the grads – get some industrial experience if possible. Internships help a lot! No amount of university experience prepares you for your first job.

Speak up – One of the things our culture teaches us is to be obedient and not question the elders. This will kill your career. Speak up. Ask questions when you don’t understand. It’s ok to disagree. But always remember to do so respectfully. 

Nothing replaces hard work. All that talk about working smart and not hard is all fine. But in my experience, even the smart ones have to work hard to see progress. 

Future Plans?

For now it’s Nivea. I’m part of some incredible projects and I would like to see them through. Like I said, the industry is going through an incredible phase of innovation and it’s exciting to be a part of it right now.