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A coffee-man's 'circle of influence'

February 04, 2003 16:41 IST

Ravi S Deol, managing director, BaristaIn 2000, Ravi S Deol, then the 37-year-old national distribution manager for Coca-Cola India met with Amit Judge of the Turner Morrison group and ownder of Barista.

Judge wanted to do a Starbucks in India and he wanted Deol to head it. Deol liked the idea what he heard.

Today more than two years later, Barista is one of the largest retailers of speciality coffees in South Asia (105 cafes, sales of Rs 65 crore -- Rs 650 million).

In an interview with Sunil Jain, Deol -- Barista's managing director -- mixes religion with management to stir up a heady brew.

"The problem is that most of us live within our circles of concern, few of us really try to live in our circles of influence."

Ravi Deol is trying to describe what he is really trying to combat as Barista's chief.

"Often, you can't do too much about issues that concern you (like, say, the weather outside), so why waste time on this? Great men, like Mahatma Gandhi and Mandela, by contrast, spent their time trying to influence events around them, and eventually their circles of concern and reason were overlapping."

The philosophy, Deol explains over a salad at the Hyatt's La Piazza, is from one of his favourite authors, Stephen Covey, and while it is management jargon, it is actually similar to what 'all our religions teach us.'

Hullo? What is this, I say to myself, digging into my potato ravioli. Is this the same person who took all of a second to respond, "La Piazza, my favourite," when I asked him where he'd like to lunch? And perhaps even less to order his  fettucini  -- "What options do I have for the sauce? Okay, make that Arabiatta, very lightly tossed, with some oregano."

Or the same person who, on his own confession, took just a couple of hours to decide who would head his group's first global foray, into Sri Lanka, last fortnight.

Dig a bit deeper, and you find that Deol manages to use his reading to great effect in his business as well -- perhaps also why his favourite readings are biographies of people like Starbucks's Howard Schultz and Body Shop's Anita Roddick, people who Deol says he can identify with.

"I circulate a lot of material I read -- just before I came here, I sent five photocopies of stuff I found interesting." Vippan Kapur, Barista's supply chain head, Deol says, is constantly getting hassled and routinely says he can't work with someone or the other.

"I explained Covey's concepts to him and it's helped. I have a deal with him -- come and cry on my table once a week. Vippan feels lighter and carries on with his work."

Deol, eventually, is the ultimate marketer, using every tool possible to reach his ultimate goal. He doesn't waste time arguing with people, or even taking a stand in any discussion -- it's a waste of time, he feels, but eventually he ends up doing what he wants most of the time.

"You could call me a bit ruthless," he agrees.

His wife, Alka, he says, is constantly telling him to at least once tell someone he is wrong! Why, is his standard response.

What is the reason for Barista's success, I ask him, and how did you come up with the idea.

First, the disclaimer. It wasn't really his idea, it was Amit Judge's, and the first time Deol heard about Barista was when, while being pursued by Judge's head-hunters to head the firm, he went there to read his newspaper and have a croissant -- then, Deol didn't touch coffee, now he savours (you don't gulp good coffee) eight cups a day.

But, basically, he explains, the Barista formula is simple, it's an affordable luxury -- you can have a good meeting at Barista while spending around Rs 150 to Rs 200, whereas the same at a Taj will cost at least Rs 500.

Hence, the trappings -- all Barista bars are located at up-market properties, places you wouldn't feel embarrassed going to with your date or business partner, for instance. And since Barista's focus is up-market, Deol brushes away the suggestion that its prices are too high.

That, in fact, he argues was the problem that leisure-wear firm Lacoste (also owned by Barista's owner Judge) got into. "It got into the functional trap," explains Deol, and is then forced to explain what that bit of marketing jargon translates to in English.

Do you know, he asks, that you can get clothes at Lacoste that are actually cheaper than those in Colour Plus? But if you ask people, they'll say they don't go to Lacoste because it is too expensive.

Essentially, Deol's message is, if you've got an image, stick with it, don't play around with pricing to try and be someone else.

Isn't Barista very top heavy, I try to rattle him. After all, I elaborate, if Barista has to sell several million cups of coffee just to pay the annual salaries of heavies like Deol (who refuses to say how many coffees need to be sold to give him his pay cheque), how is it going to be profitable?

"Sure, sure," Deol brushes aside my crack with a big grin, and then settles down to a more sombre tone. "I told Amit that if you're looking at a small operation, then I'm not your man."

Deol, it appears, asked Judge if he was willing to set up 100 bars (then, Barista had two stores, today, it has 130 and serves 35,000 customers on a daily basis).

"That's for you to decide," Judge parried, "If you can convince the board of its viability, it will back you."

That was 30 months ago. "If you're going to set up a large organisation," Deol gets back to my question, "You've got to set up systems, and for that you need people who can grow the business. Call it the cost of being ambitious."

What's it like being the head of Barista, and why would someone leave Coke to join an unknown, a mere dream, I ask.

A multinational like Coke, where Deol helped set up the distribution chain by buying over bottlers, is a great place to learn, but when you need to grow, Deol argues, you need to get out.

To my crack of how Atlanta will tell you what colour your billboard should be, Deol adds, "They'll tell you not to do something because it's failed somewhere else."

Being head of Barista, he says, is like running your own business, so there's ownership. And yes, his 30 months here have been very intense, may be equal to 60 back at Coke.

Sure, he worked his butt off at Coke, but with a rich parent backing you, things were always easier. At Barista, they make their own mistakes everyday, and learn from them.

Deol  worked every Sunday in the first 18 months, but has now resumed his golf -- his handicap's probably higher than what a mocha costs, so he refuses to say what it is.

So where is this Stephens-FMS graduate going next? Right now, just abroad, to try and snatch up the niches in speciality coffee retail left out by Starbucks that is in "just 18 countries" right now.

Barista was launched in Colombo two weeks ago, and it'll be in West Asia soon -- all told, there will be 25 Baristas abroad by the end of the year. Cutting costs is another big need, and professionals like Kapur are very focused on it.

In fact, eight months ago, a full-time chief operating officer, Yogesh Samat, was lured from Hindustan Lever to run the business on a daily basis, to give Deol time to figure out where Barista was headed.

And to see how to get Barista in your home and office, which is where 95 per cent of coffee is drunk today.

And to realise his New Year resolve: to get himself a life outside Barista.

How's he doing, I ask, 15 days into the new year. Not bad, actually, he's had two days off where he's gone jogging behind six-year-old Simar, while she speeds off on her cycle, listening to 18-month-old Mehar's prattle, basically getting to know his family better.

Alka, who's given up on her fashion designing to take care of the family on a full-time basis, has told Deol that five years hence, his daughters will have no time for him, so it's now or never.

A five-day annual holiday at Ranthambore is also on the cards. Also on the agenda is to complete reading Steve Olson's Mapping Human History, a book that, Deol exults, "tells you why people are the way they are, why Indians look the way they do, why a south Indian is the way he is."

Knowledge which, knowing Deol, will come in handy setting up coffee bars in West Asia and even faraway South Africa.

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