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Spirited ventures: Diageo India GC Mamta Sundara

Sundara: No bar too far
Sundara: No bar too far

When a call from the makers of Johnnie Walker interrupted an evening of drinks for Mamta Sundara four years ago, she had to politely ask them to introduce themselves beyond their name which she’d never heard of.

“Diageo,” said the world’s largest spirits company, “We are an alcohol company.”

Sundara, a former BT (British Telecom) counsel was not shy to experiment and had previously said “pretty cool, let’s do it!” to shops including a dot-com company, entrance examination preppers Law School Tutorials (LST) and a legal regulatory website.

So, Diageo presented yet another opportunity to ride the waves and learn the insides of a whole new business. This time -  her first as a “market lawyer” - she says that she also expected “a certain level of chaos” and was glad when her expectations were met.

“One thing you’ve got to say about working in Diageo and therefore by extrapolation in the alcohol industry is that the same issues arise again and again and yet each time there’s a nuance and complexity that makes it completely different,” she explains.

By way of illustration, she describes how the labels for any alcohol products sold in a state have to be registered every year in that state with the excise department.

This is complicated and repetitive and can not be automated since product specifications change frequently. Then again, Sundara’s career choices have proved that she loves starting from scratch.

Another day, another country

After graduating from NLSIU Bangalore in 1999, spending a year at Kainth & Associates, a month at a dot-com company which was her “grand retirement plan” until it crashed, and two years setting up India Law Info - a legal regulatory database website - she joined J Sagar Associates Bangalore in 2002.

At JSA she accepted a secondment to BT in Singapore to work on BT’s first ever outsourcing contract with the Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever that was expanding its business in South Asia.

During this time she first realised how the in-house environment fostered a level of “familiarity and understanding” with the client that was not possible in a law firm. In 2005 the opportunity presented itself to join in Singapore as the second person in BT’s South East Asia legal team.

“It made sense”, she says, “to start afresh.”

After facing a gamut of regulatory set-ups in South East Asia for four years, including developed countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, emerging ones such as Thailand and Indonesia, and under-developed markets such as Vietnam, Sundara explains she received a “serendipitous” offer from Diageo.

All throughout, between 2000 to 2004 she was also a partner in LST – the first ever national law school entrance tutorial business in India, which was set up by three NLSIU graduates. She joined as the fourth NLS alumnus and remained until the business was sold off to Career Launcher.

Mind your own business

Each of those choices was, to Sundara’s mind, an educational voyage into inside a new business model and her “chance to set up the legal team from scratch exactly the way I want it to be”.

“I never evaluate any experience in terms of money. I always value what I learn from the experience and the people whom I work with along the way,” she says.

“I am not a qualified trade person, I am not a qualified finance director, I am not a qualified marketing person but I know a little bit of everything because [of my experience with LST].”

While at BT Singapore, she stuck to the company’s engineers and internalised the technology behind the product she was selling; when at Diageo, her initial two years were spent reading anything she could find on alcohol.

Leveraging beverages

“I am very curious as a person, I want to know how things work and I am a firm believer that unless you understand the product you sell, unless you understand what you’re in, you can be a lawyer and you can give good advice but can you give advice that’s tailored to the business context? Perhaps not.”

Sundara started out as Diageo’s European supply and procurement legal counsel, supporting the liquor supply to Germany from January 2009 until November 2010. The aim was to increase her understanding of a developed market and use the relationships fostered there to build the business in India’s developing market.

The support function, she recollects, was “very back-office”, compared to her current role with Diageo in India, but “a very good way to learn all about Diageo, the making of alcohol, interesting things about scotch and vodka”. Moreover, an FMCG company role was a first in her career. For the very first time she learnt about distribution and marketing on this scale, “and how it fits together with the tapestry of the business”.

When she finally made her way back to India in late 2010, taking over from US-qualified regional counsel Philip P Sheridan, she was armed with domain expertise but faced a deeply regulated and diverse alcohol sector as the new Asia general counsel.

India presented “a steep learning curve”, she says, but she was well prepared to take it on.

Alcohol – within states’ domain under the Indian constitution – is not only subject to several local laws, but its production needs to be tailored to suit a huge array of local markets. Add to that India’s “cobweb”-like tax regime of which “there’s simply too much”, in her opinion.

Diageo India – Legal

Diageo employs 300 professionals across India, and has a modest legal function in place for three legal heads, of whom only two are currently with the company.

Overseen by Sundara, one would assist the sales, finance and human resources functions, while the other looks at marketing, supply and procurement.

Her role also includes going beyond pure legal advice into the wider “business aspects” such as corporate relations or brand assurance. One full-time employee and one legal consultant also report to her.

This is all supported by a “pretty tight cover” of external counsel. Economic Laws Practice’s (ELP) partner Rohan Shah has been acting for more than five years on the lion’s share of external advice – indirect tax.

Platinum Partner’s Mumbai head and partner Nihar Mody has acted on Diageo’s corporate mergers and acquisitions. On general corporate advice the company has engaged Bangalore law firm MMB Legal – founded by Mahesh Madan Bhat - for the last two years.

Finally, Diageo also goes to recently established law firm Mani Chengappa & Mathur, according to Sundara.

A process for periodic empanelment and review of external counsel is not yet in place, but Sundara selects help on an ad-hoc basis factoring in both problem-specific experience as well as economics.

“We are fairly conservative in our legal spend,” she says.

Being me – a day in the life of the market lawyer

Sundara’s guilty pleasures at work are to-do-lists of which she can cross things off, but some days “the reality of being a market lawyer” denies her even this simple act of hedonism.

“If you spoke to anybody who was a general counsel for a market like I am, they would tell you that despite your best laid plans the day ends up hijacked because something happens. You go along, do your fire-fighting, come back to the original thing and realise that you have to start all over again.”

“It teaches you to leave the plate in the air,” she notes. “Some days are very normal and routine. Some days you are presented with an interesting and complicated problem to solve, which will help the business.”

For a company that is constantly wading the depths of colourful but rigid local spirit markets in India to allow international brands to penetrate, there is no dearth of “interesting” new challenges, the unclosed United Spirits acquisition not the biggest of them.

Fortunately, for Sundara’s work-life balance, the legal advice on that deal is not handled in-house in India but headed up by Diageo’s global legal function.

Finally, when with Diageo it is obligatory to pop the burning question about its most famous tipple: why is there no Guinness beer in India? And when will we have it please? “I’m not sure why,” admits the can-do lawyer.

“But you’ll be the first one to know when.”

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