Thursday, April 19, 2012

Johnnie Walker and K Bala Ram

I was astonished to read in a tabloid, The Pune Mirror, a Times of India group newspaper (of 19.4.2012) a report supposedly quoting a web site NDJ World that the world’s largest Scotch whisky brand Johnnie Walker is being killed by its owner, Diageo Plc. I could not fish out the report from the source mentioned. So I browsed the Johnnie Walker website, registering as a visitor. I expected a farewell to the international customer-base of the most loved whisky brands in the world. Nothing of the sort.  

A couple of hours later came the press statement from Diageo, the owner of the brand Diageo Plc through its subsidiary, Diageo India Private Limited. (Diageo operates in 180 countries, has brands like Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, J&B, Baileys, Captain Morgan, Tanqueray and Guinness in its product portfolio.) The London-headquartered global alcoholic beverages company wanted to clarify that reports appearing in the media about the premier whiskey brand Johnnie Walker no longer being bottled or manufactured by a factory in Kilmarnock, Scotland, were completely inaccurate. The statement saiid: "Recent media stories on the 'end of Johnnie Walker' are completely inaccurate. The fact is that the bottling of Johnnie Walker has just moved from Kilmarnock to a new state-of-the art facility in Scotland."

"This is in keeping with an announcement that Diageo plc, the makers of Johnnie Walker and the world’s largest spirits company, had made in 2009, regarding the restructuring of its production operations in Scotland. With a view to upgrade and expand bottling capacity and in anticipation of future growth in demand for its brands, including Johnnie Walker, the plan included the closure of a bottling plant in Kilmarnock and an investment of 86 million pounds in a new bottling hall at one of Diageo’s other packaging plants at Leven in Fife," the company spokesman further said in her statement. Before the closure of the Kilmarnock bottling plant, 80 percent of Johnnie Walker was already bottled at Diageo’s other Scottish bottling facilities and the brand will continue to be distilled, blended and bottled in Scotland.

Johnnie Walker is a brand of Scotch whisky owned by Diageo and originated in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland and being bottled since 1820. Its range of Scotch whiskies are Red Label, Black Label, Green Label, Gold Label, Blue Label. Johnnie Walker is the largest Scotch whiskey brand in the world, selling over 18 million nine litre cases per annum.

I have not just watched the short film Johnnie Walker – The Man Who Walked Around the World but I have learned about Scotch, Champagne, beer and such beverages because I happen to be a former sales person of a couple of the famous Scotch brands (Black & White, Bells) in India to the Duty-Free business and the licensed importers like First Class Restaurants and Five Star Hotels in the nineties. I have tasted Scotch, like most other drinks, and fortunately never liked any of them. Well, I liked the Campari, with orange juice and also the thick beer, Guinness Stout. I have sold Heineken the Dutch beer and Tuborg, the Danish one and Martini without ever tasting them. Years later, I used to get imported Heineken in cans in the port town of Kandla in the dry Gujarat. Menon Impex Limited, of which I was a Director, had an export unit in what was then Kandla Free Trade Zone. Indian brands were under surveillance, the duty-free stuff like foreign beer Heineken came smuggled from ships, obviously with the help of Chief Stewards who falsified stock registers on ships. A couple of years back I consumed the Danish beer I used to sell in the nineties from the remote Mumbai suburb of Vasai. In Pune occasionally I buy Tuborg and Carlsberg on these hot summer days.

I was tempted believe in the death of Johnnie Walker because of reading about questionable business practices of its owner. Sometime last year the US market regulator  SEC charged  Johnnie walker owner with paying bribes worth more than $1.7 million (Rs 8 crore) to government officials in India between 2003 and 2009 to push sales of its famed Johnnie Walker Scotch whisky. The Securities and Exchange Commission alleged that Diageo had made the illicit payments that led to an unjust enrichment of the London-based liquor giant by over $11 million through increased sales. The charges against Diageo (formed in 1997 through the merger of Guinness and Grand Metropolitan Plc) stemmed from many violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a US federal law designed to stop illicit payment to a foreign official, foreign political party or a candidate for political office in order to obtain an unfair advantage in the conduct of business. Of course, Diageo was in august company for unfair business practices, with Daimler AG, Siemens, Monsanto and BAE Systems.

Diageo had distributed more than $2.7 million to government officials in India, Thailand and South Korea — with more than 60 per cent of the money going into the hands of Indian babus, for securing import permits and other administrative sanctions, and to CSD employees (Canteen Stores Department in charge of supplies to the armed forces).  Diageo’s wholly owned indirect subsidiary called Diageo India Private Limited based in Mumbai making the payments recording them as legitimate expenses for third-party vendors or private customers, or categorising them in false or overly vague terms.  Johnnie Walker is the biggest-selling Scotch whisky brand in India. Diageo agreed to pay more than $16 million to settle the SEC’s charges without admitting any guilt.

Johnnie Walker’s Malayali connection
Not many people would know that Johnnie Walker’s Indian agent for a long time (before Diageo came in the picture and its Indian subsidiary was established) was a man from Mundur,(Thrissur) in Kerala, K. Bala Ram, who also used to sell Heineken beer, Courvoisier Cognac and brandies and Kraft Cheese in India. I was sales manager in his company that represented these exotic products (he got Johnnie walker after I quit) and also did an indenting business in pharmaceutical fine chemicals for which we represented the Hungarian firm Medimpex and the French giant Roussel Uclaf, among many others. Bala Ram, alias Balaraman Menon was the most brilliant sales person I have come across in my life. Though not very tall, he was a stocky, handsome man with an impeccable style close to that of his friend RK Karanjia, owner-editor of the Blitz. A brilliant conversationalist and a great communicator in writing, he could produce a market report on any product his company sold, whether beverages or chemicals in a jiffy and dictate to his secretary, Rosebud in sparkling English. That is what put him in charge of marketing such world renowned brands representing great companies. Mr.Bala Ram loved the long distances, I used to say (much to the annoyance of his three brothers who were my junior colleagues and who considered their Unniettan a demi-god for good reasons); and was abroad 300 days in a year. The remaining days if he lived in Mumbai, he had tickets booked for his national air travel, and clocking no-shows more often than not.

Big Boss Bala Ram and I had a love-hate relationship because of our political views. He was a die-hard supporter of Indira Gandhi even during and after the infamous Emergency. We used to have arguments in the office where some of us used to sit late to communicate by telex with the companies in Europe. He would say something nasty or brilliant against my views and I would retort immediately as he walked towards the lift and he would be back with another argument; and this walk back and forth will continue delaying his other engagements outside. I still remember him calling Justice JC Shah, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India, a “damn fool” for indicting the Emergency regime of Indira Gandhi for the unconstitutional undemocratic excesses of the PM and her younger son who was an extra-Constitutional authority in those black days. I had bought a copy of the ‘Shah Commission Report’ from a roadside old books market and happened to have it in my briefcase, because i had not finished reading it and wanted to complete it during the Church Gate-Borivli train journey. So I asked him: “have you read the report?” He agreed he had not. So I suggested that he should read it, and took it out of my brief case. Then came the classic retort: “You keep it; you can use it to wipe your ass!” As I said that was making faces when you lose an argument, he walked off, roaring in laughter
My memories of K.Bala Ram have been always fond, though a little bitterness crept into our relationship thanks to one of his relatives who was senior to me in the company. Well, Bala Ram lived to see the fellow ditching him too. I saw him at Chennai Airport where both of us were flying to Mumbai, and in Executive Class too. He did not see me. I thought of paying my respects, and backed off worrying how he, a strong-willed man and ill-tempered when he chose to be, would react to my overture. He passed way in diabetic coma, before his friend Russi died.

So as Diageo asserts, the death of Johnnie Walker was a highly exaggerated news story. Good that Johnnie Walker walks on. Those who drink it tonight can say a toast to its long life!

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