The Economic Times reported on 6 August 2013 that Sameer Suneja will take on the global leadership role at confectionery major Perfetti Van Melle. He is a little over 40, the story informs us. A closer look at his LinkedIn profile tells us a little more about his rise.
He finished his MBA from IIM Bangalore in 1994. He was Brand Manager at Colgate Palmolive thereafter for a year and eight months. He became brand manager at Frito Lay post that, in a stint that lasted all of a year and two months. Then he moved to Perfetti Van Melle India, and stayed for 15 years and seven months, last as MD. He headed India operations for four and a half years.
There are three takeouts for me, from the rise of Suneja. One is the fact that the employer identified his potential and entrusted him with responsibilities befitting his capability unmindful of ‘number of years’ put in. It has paid the company, as is now evident, rich dividends. It has given them a leader who can do the job for a few years from now; one they have courageously nurtured and groomed.
Secondly, being in a brand role in a category where branding is paramount, must have helped. And it was something he was goddamn good at.
Suneja climbed the ranks on the brand and marketing ladder to lead the organisation. I don’t see too many CEOs who have taken the marketing route to reach the top. It’s not that he was not an excellent brand head – elsewhere in this issue (of Campaign India), McCann Erickson’s Rahul Mathew talks of a client who had a creative (Big Babool) bubbling from his chair. That client was Sameer Suneja. From Happydent White ‘Palace’ to ‘Aam Zindagi, Mentos Zindagi’s evolution, there is everything to suggest that Suneja took the right bets and encouraged his agencies to bring on the game changers. And his climb to the top job proves that it is possible for a marketing head who backs great creative work, to also have a business head firmly on his shoulders.
Another lesson for those in a hurry to get to the top is that he stayed invested when he found the right fit - and has been given the returns. Fifteen years is a long time for a ’94 pass out in marketing, I am told. There are some people (and I can tell you from experience) who didn’t try too hard but got pushed to the top perhaps a tad too soon.
I wrote the headline ‘Aam zindagi, Perfetti zindagi’ (yes, I know, not very original) while editing another magazine in the media and advertising space a few years ago. That was when Suneja was yet to take on the country leadership role in India. And I was not yet 30. So were the editors of Headlines Today and Maxim back then. I look back now and then and wonder if I may have been too young for the job when it was handed to me - as some of my seniors suggested back then, much to my annoyance. The counter is that I could not have taken some of the risks I did take along my career, had I been as old as I am today. Irrespective of that internal debate, what remains a takeout is that I haven’t stayed in a company long enough to reap the real rewards of my efforts.
Suneja’s case is radically different – among other things, on sheer scale. His career graph is a graphic example that goes to prove that there are large organisations willing to incubate leaders. And that there are young leaders willing to invest what seem to be the best years of their lives doing what they must, rise on the strength of their contribution, and build on those foundations over time.
The hunger to rise must be matched not just by skill; it must be backed by endurance that tests one’s other facets as a professional. Two great campaigns, three big stories or four new business wins are positive signs. Only staying the course consistently can get you all the way up, as the Perfetti head’s rise tells us.
This is certainly not the last time Sameer Suneja makes the headlines. The foundations are such. And he has age on his side.
(This article appears in the issue of Campaign India magazine dated 9 August 2013)