Vinod Krishnan: Strategies for digital transformation in India

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Vinod Krishnan, Chief Information Officer, Usha International

Vinod Krishnan, Chief Information Officer, Usha International

Vinod Krishnan has more than two decades of corporate IT leadership experience. Over that long career, he has worked for some of the world’s most recognized household brands, including Unilever, General Electric and Walmart. Now CIO of the Indian consumer durables company Usha International, Vinod also heads the company’s eCommerce division. We asked him how IT can help a storied brand open up new avenues for growth and innovation.

Usha International is a trusted, 80-year-old brand in India. For our global audiences, can you summarize Usha’s business and how you are evolving?

Usha International is a trusted household consumer durables company. Our key products include electrical kitchen appliances, fans, sewing machines, power products, water coolers and dispensers, inverters (electronic devices that convert power currents) and auto components. Building on our heritage and applying the knowledge and vibrancy of today’s rapidly evolving distribution models, we’ve built up an infrastructure of 16 location offices, 64 company showrooms, 34 warehouses and 220 service centers backed by an in-house customer call center. To most Indians of a particular age – I’ll say over 30– we are the foremost brand in fans and sewing Machines.

Over the decades we’ve grown based on a traditional distribution model and have acquired a level of geographic reach that kept conventional competition at bay. Our challenge now—and the shared vision of our Chairman, CEO and our board– is to scale that reach further to compete with e-Commerce marketplaces and platforms through our own e-Commerce initiatives. It’s a strategic move that aligns with the behaviors of newer generations of consumers who regularly shop online.

What is the eCommerce landscape like in India?

India is, in my opinion, one of the most overheated e-Commerce markets in the world. That’s mainly because of the huge logistical challenges we have in this country. Barring a few fast moving consumer goods companies such as Unilever, very few organizations have widespread secondary and tertiary distribution reach into the smaller towns. And I’m talking small in Indian terms. For us, a small city may have half a million people. The larger part of our country lives in towns and cities such as these and traditional distribution networks don’t reach those areas or serve them well. That’s creating an enormous gap, since those populations have been acquiring discretionary income, but they’re starved of choice for brands. E-Commerce is addressing that challenge. It has introduced people to the convenience of shopping and given them much wider access to a variety of brands.

You mention that your brand is largely more popular with older buyers. For a country with one of the youngest populations in the world, what role can technology and e-Commerce play in making your business and products relevant?

It has been exciting for me personally (and for our company) to see how we can use technology to reinvent decades-old concepts like lighting and cooking, in ways that feel fresh and contemporary. Our new halogen oven, for instance, has proven a hit with young people. It’s a tabletop gadget that can cook, fry, roast, bake, all with a push of a button using a high-powered halogen lamp. It reimagines the cooking experience in a way that seems practical and cool. Likewise, our newest sewing machines are almost self-driving thanks to their digital features. Users can simply scan a photo and the machine will do the stitching for you. We’re also doing a lot in the digital marketing area, using social, running online events and engaging with our customers in more conversational, content-driven ways.

In advocating for more widespread digitization, what kind of pushback did you receive?

I spent over thirteen years in GE and three years in Walmart. Culturally and from a business point of view, associates are just as smart at Usha, if not smarter. But those organizations began their e-Commerce and digitization efforts much earlier. So for them the debate was never “should we digitize?” Instead, it was always “what’s the best way to do it?” There, the most anguished debates were around the approach. We’re just at the beginning of Usha’s e-Commerce journey, so the discussion is still centered on making the business case for why and how. That discussion must fit within the cultural context of the business. At GE, for instance, it was perfectly okay to have heated discussions. But Usha has always placed a strong emphasis on building and sustaining strong relationships both internally and with partners. That shapes how we advocate, and that’s mostly through education and sharing the experiences from companies that have been there and done that.

What helped you in making the case for change?

In many respects, market and customer pressures did a lot of the heavy lifting for us. We now have more mobile phones than toothbrushes in India. Nearly everyone at every economic stratum has one. Our employees all have one. Educating our customers and our employees about the advantages of digitally-enabled applications is made much easier because they have personal experience of such tools and can see how convenient and intuitive they are to use.

It also makes it easier for us to explain what we’re trying to do in our eCommerce division—and that is to create pull from the end customer and have that pull work its way through the layers of distribution. Our commercial teams know that customers can quickly access pricing information from other vendors online and over their mobiles, so our teams need to think like an online customer when it comes to pricing. Those insights inform their pricing strategy. The more customers we get interested in the brand, the more cross-selling opportunities we create.

How would you rate Usha’s relative digital maturity?

We are good in patches. There are places where we are very mature, such as advertising. We have an active social presence. We have engaged digitally and promote a range of sporting and other sponsorships on- and offline.

Where we perhaps haven’t been as strong is in the management of our dealer networks and our connection with the end customer. We’re a business that has been primarily used to working with a great group of distributors but until recently, we have never felt the need to know very much about how those distributors and the rest of the chain interact with the end customer, how much inventory they’re moving and where, and how customers are responding to our new product offerings. That information has become much more important—if distributors aren’t moving as much inventory as we’d expected, for example, will we be forced to discount any oversupply down the line? It informs what we make, what we ship and how we plan.

What area would you most like to improve?

The biggest is probably our mobile app strategy for end customers. I’d love to have a simple but elegant consumer-facing app to engage customers on products and solicit their input, build awareness and seed conversations. Internally, I’d like to see us increase the use of internal collaboration tools like Yammer. That would transform our ability to work across business silos, avoid duplicate workstreams, and partner more efficiently.

Senior Writer

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