Managing director, Moet Hennessy India
Hi!' A man in a smart black suit smiles back at you when you enter his suite at Mumbai's Taj Mahal Hotel. That's the customary informal greeting that Ashwin Deo, managing director of Moet Hennessy India, throws at everyone. His frank, easygoing style and direct personal relationships have got him this far in his 17-year-old career. In the distilled world of spirits and liqueurs, champagnes and cognacs, and of course, luxury vodka, your personal style counts a lot.
Deo is in Mumbai to launch an ambitious new product ' Belvedere luxury vodka. Moet Hennessy India is a subsidiary of the world's leading luxury goods group ' Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. The Euro 12 billion company makes some of the world's best known international wines and spirits including Dom Perignon, Moet & Chandon, Brut Imperial and Krug Grand Cuvee.
For the 40-year-old Deo, the current assignment is not only his biggest, but also his toughest. He has set up and steered the Indian operations of this international company for the past four years. 'The lifestyle segment has changed radically in the past few years in India, and it holds great promise,' says he.
Born in Mumbai in a Maharashtrian family, Deo spent his childhood in Nagpur and completed his commerce degree from a local college in 1985. He then moved to Pune for a two-year MBA in marketing from Symbiosis. 'My father was in the army and I grew up in a protected family. Moving to Pune gave me an exposure to multi-culturalism,' he says.
Deo started his career as a client service executive in Everest Advertising. But, he soon realised that advertising was not really where he wanted to be. He joined the sales and marketing division of Carew Phipson & Co, a Vijay Mallya company.
'The next few years, I worked in some dangerous territories ' Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Chandigarh. Working in Punjab at the height of militancy was an unforgettable experience. I was just 24 then,' says Deo. His next assignment was in Calcutta for the same company. 'Calcutta was memorable for I fell in love with and married a Bengali girl,' he says.
In 1994, Deo moved to International Distillers & Vinters (IDV) as part of its start-up team. Within a year, he was promoted as IDV's country manager in Myanmar. 'I had to set up and expand the business in Burma. By the time I had finished the assignment two years down the line, our brand of whisky was No. 2 in the Burmese market,' he says.
On his return in 1998, he joined United Distillers & Vinters (UDV) as marketing controller of the domestic market and soon became the general manager for UDV's international brands for South Asia. His job was to strategise and market brands like Johnnie Walker, J&B and Smirnoff. A year later, Deo joined Foster's India as vice-president, sales and marketing.
But, within seven months, Deo was offered the responsibility of setting up the Indian subsidiary of Moet Hennessy. In April 2001, Moet Hennessy became the first international wine and spirits company to officially start marketing and distribution of 'Bottled in Origin' products in India. Deo handled the pricing of the products, set up the distribution system and the organisational structure of the subsidiary.
'Our biggest challenge is the duties on our products. The government has levied duties of more than 200 per cent ostensibly to protect the indigenous liquor industry. But, the fact is that foreign products cannot ever compete with Indian products on pricing. So, two markets exist in India, and something is obviously going wrong in the taxation policies,' says Deo.
Priced at Rs 2,600 a bottle, Belvedere luxury vodka is a high-end, high-society product which will be sold at select hotels, restaurants and clubs. 'Belvedere has a tradition dating back 500 years and is named after Belvedere House, Poland's historic royal palace,' says Deo, who politely refuses to discuss the company's turnover and profits. 'I can't talk about that, but I can tell you that we have doubled our business since we set up,' he says.
Deo believes that a sense of honesty has been the character trait that has helped him in his career. 'I believe that honesty has resulted in excellent interpersonal relationships ' at work and life in general,' he says.
He believes that money is not the differentiator in judging people and is not the only element that drives him. 'Ultimately, one is remembered for one's thoughts and not because of one's wealth. I would like to be remembered as a good man,' he says. Wise words.