“When I saw the ISB Campus, it was like love at first sight! The rigour of PGPMAX continues to be the key reason why leaders should choose the programme over other EMBA courses.”

– Rajiv Nair, Class of 2011 (Founding Class)

Rajiv Nair is the group CEO of Kaya Limited, India’s leading chain of dermatologist-backed clinics committed to delivering flawless skin and healthy hair. Equipped with state-of-art safe technologies, Kaya Clinic provides a wide range of hair, skincare solutions and dermatologist formulated retail products.

With over two decades of experience in the retail sector, Rajiv Nair has worked in nearly all retail formats serving key leadership positions in Celio, Hypercity Retail India Limited & Shoppers Stop. Be it departmental stores, specialty retail, hypermarket format or catalogue retailing, Mr Nair’s areas of expertise include Buying & Merchandising, Retail Operations, Private Label/Brand Development and overall P&L responsibilities.

A proud ISB alumnus, Rajiv Nair was among the founding class of PGPMAX in 2011. After almost a decade after graduating from ISB, Mr Nair reflects on his time pursuing PGPMAX – the life, learnings, experience & lessons he still cherishes to this date.

Tell us about yourself, your role in the current organization and your professional journey so far.

My professional journey began at the age of 21 when I applied for a role in India’s first departmental store “Shoppers Stop” as a Graduate Management Trainee (to kill time as I was preparing for competitive exams!) This turned out to be very lucky for me as I spent the next 15 years with the Shoppers Stop Group.

I had an amazing run of 15 years at Shoppers Stop, growing from a trainee to the Business Head.  I took up many challenging leadership assignments in this organization including my role as the Trading Head for Women’s & Kidswear, Head of Men’s Own Label, Business Head of Mothercare (UK based brand for Mothers & Babies), Business Head of General Merchandise & Apparel at Hypercity (Big Box Hypermarket) & Argos UK.

Sometimes things just happen for a reason & my entry into Retail was sheer chance. I grabbed this opportunity with both hands. Along the way, I completed an MBA in Marketing from the University of Mumbai to understand the nuances of consumer marketing after 3 years of working at the Department Store.

ISB PGPMAX was my second MBA at the age of 37. After ISB, I joined Celio (French Apparel Retailer) as CEO for their India business (joint venture with the Future Group). For the last 4 years, I have been Group CEO of Kaya Limited which runs over 100 dermatology clinics across India and the Middle East. Kaya is a brand promoted by Mr. Harsh Mariwala, the Chairman of Marico. We are India’s largest dermatology chain and one of the best Dermatology Clinics in the middle east in countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia & Oman.

On the personal front, my wife, Bakul is a passionate retailer & a keen marketer. I have two lovely daughters – Ananya (14) & Aditi (8) who are studying in School.

What inspired you to join the PGPMAX programme? Why ISB?

I spent 2 years in Hyderabad between 2002-2004 as Unit Head (Operations) for our Department Store at Hyderabad. During that stint, I had the chance of visiting the brand new ISB campus to look at some tie-up opportunities.  When I saw the ISB Campus, it was like love at first sight!  I interacted with a bunch of students who did a project at our store that year. They made a strong impression on the quality of education.

After completing over 18 years in Retail, across multiple formats, I felt that I was ready to take a leap and manage a business as its CEO. To grow further from an EXCOM (leadership team) to CEO, I felt the need to upskill myself further in Business Strategy & Leadership. Business Environment in retail was becoming more complex & uncertain posing many challenges to our Hypermarket business.  I was therefore contemplating a second MBA & hence was looking at both Indian and Foreign universities.

When I saw the ISB PGPMAX advert, it checked all the boxes. My Primary considerations were a classroom setup, world-class faculty & working while learning (no career break). My prior exposure to ISB made my decision easy. I did not even have to attend any info sessions & dived right in taking a leap of faith.

How has the overall ISB experience affected your career direction?

I have always aimed and envisioned myself to be at the top job in my field of work but felt I lacked some crucial skills. To lead well, you need to learn well. ISB PGPMAX helped me learn as well as polish skills especially in terms of Leadership, Strategy, Finance & Entrepreneurship.

Tell us about your ISB days, specifically about the course and the faculty. What ISB memories do you connect with most profoundly?

I loved every minute of the ISB experience. If I must pick a few, the first without doubt were my batchmates. Thanks to PGPMAX, I’m in the company of some of the most brilliant minds in the industry. We meet every year & reconnect. Our banter on WhatsApp goes on every day!

The classroom experience is the highlight of PGPMAX. The eminent faculty members from the best B-schools globally make learning fun at ISB. The rigour of the programme continues to be one of the key reasons why EMBA aspirants should choose PGPMAX over other EMBA courses.

Of all the modules and subjects, I enjoyed Strategy, Finance, Economics, Leadership & Entrepreneurship. I cannot forget my interactions with our Work Group viz. Group E (Excellence). We virtually spent our days and nights together as a team. They were my best buddies during my time on campus. The Gala Events in the evenings were a welcome break & so were the drinks & dinners with friends.

What are the ways through which business leaders should manage the current unprecedented times?

I would like to share some of the learning that I had as a CEO in the early days of the pandemic.

  1. Prepare for the Long Battle: Manage a tight ship & prepare for a long battle where the environment will remain uncertain. Take tough decisions but with empathy, people will understand. Constantly communicate & engage with the people. Covid has left many employees Mentally & Emotionally stressed. Take initiatives to help the team in dealing with the health crisis and losses by providing Healthcare & Mental support.
  2. Plan for Business Continuity: Survival & continuity are key during such a black swan event. Ruthless decision-making to sacrifice short-term to gain in the long term is the need of the hour.
  3. Collaboration is Key: One cannot fight this battle alone. Collaboration is key and hence spent a large amount of time working with Industry forums like RAI, FICCI, CII to help in advocacy initiatives and putting issues across as an industry to government officials.
  4. The Future is Digital: Businesses will not survive if their enabling ecosystems are not digital in the next few years. Retail would have survived the pandemic period better if 30 to 40% of business revenues came from the digital stream. We must create businesses that are accessible to consumers 24×7. India is on the cusp of a Direct to Consumer (D2C) revolution. Online and offline boundaries are disappearing, and consumers will interact with brands at both levels. Companies need to strengthen their core tech stack to level up their digital transformation journey.
  5. Transform Organisation Structure: While retailers are looking to build strong digital moats to stay relevant, organizational structures will call for version 3.0. The future retail organization would include Chief Growth Officers, Customer Experience Managers, Product Managers (technology), Chief Digital Officers all of whom would work on creating a platform experience that enables more consumers to interact with the brand and buy through online and offline channels. The days of outsourcing Digital to external marketing agencies are over. Skills like SEO & SEM must be in-housed to gain a competitive advantage.

How significant is PGPMAX during the pandemic? Should one pursue executive education programme such as PGPMAX in these times?

The Covid 19 pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime event & challenges every fundamental of business planning & strategy of BAU. No one had plans for business shutdowns of the scale that we have seen in the last 2 years. The ISB PGPMAX trained us to adapt to the ever-changing business environment. The first subject that we learned at ISB was called Decision Making under Uncertainty (DMUU). I would recommend this programme to all aspirants during the pandemic. The sheer wealth of experience of the faculty and the cohorts gives you a perspective that can never be gained through on-the-job experience. There is no right time to join PGPMAX. The programme deals with the best knowledge in the current context and brings to bear the collective experience of the global faculty & seasoned professionals from the industry. In this complex & uncertain environment, all of us need guidance and coaching. What better place than ISB!

What is your philosophy of a good leader? What nuances of leadership did you pick up during the programme worth applying in your professional life?

The concept of a Level 5 leader, which I learned in the ISB class on Leadership, is something that has stuck with me till today. Empathy in a leader is a crucial trait & in this pandemic era, it is perhaps the most important trait. The program helped me realize the need to balance performance & people focus.

Great leaders have always had a keen ability to listen and learn from their people. The other key learning is the ability to create a leadership team that will complement your strengths. Surround yourselves with people who are better than you at their core functions & channelise their energies to drive excellence.

With the digital & social media revolution, I am learning a lot from my juniors as some of the new-age disruptive ideas come from the younger teams. The ability to try, fail fast & move on is something that I have also inculcated over the years. No plans are perfect. Pilot ideas and learn.

What does it mean to you to be part of the ISB Alumni community? The value you have derived and how has it benefited you?

I cherish the lifelong friendship & bond that we created at ISB. I have made many friends & built a great network through the Alumni. We meet our class group at least once a year when we go for a two-day trip to a new destination every year. Our trips to Hyderabad, Kolkata, Kochi & Galle were memorable.

The Alumni network has been a constant companion in helping us reconnect with the school and some of us still contribute in our small ways in helping the school. We also have access to the larger ISB community through platforms like Workplace & LinkedIn networks. ISB also conducts lifelong learning sessions for us to benefit from the best faculty through webinars.

What is it that keeps you buoyed and relevant? What do you cherish doing in your spare time?

While I have always loved the outdoors and my favourite holidays have been in the mountains, I picked up a very healthy habit during the pandemic. I aimed to cover at least 50 KMS per week with a mix of runs and brisk walks to improve my fitness. I have done this for almost a year now and I am thoroughly enjoying it. The pandemic also helped me spend more time with my wife & kids which has been wonderful. Reading, spending time watching movies & OTT shows have been my favourite pass time in the last year.

What advice would you give to the current classes?

Cherish every moment, create friendships for life. Partake in the great learnings and contribute to the learning environment (as it is two-way). Do not fret over your future career moves after ISB. Focus on the time that you spend at ISB and make the best out of every single day as you will miss them!

If you must encapsulate ISB experience in just one word, what would that be?

Enriching