One of the few FMCG companies I have some interest in

is HLL. Yes, I know its HUL now. But I haven’t quite made the switch in my head. And whether HLL remains an iconic FMCG company in India or not, it is the one name in a headline that is sure to grab my attention in a newspaper or the internet.

Why? well, its silly. I had my first ever job interview with HLL. In 2003. HLL used to offer a rather attractive trainee-ship programme to undergraduates (in their final year) in select few colleges in India. SRCC was one of them. In my final year, sometime in the last few months of college-life, placement season started. Of course, placements in SRCC have now expanded way beyond what it was back then. Click here for a quick glimpse

Back then, there were a few random companies on campus, HLL was the prized catch. I cant remember for sure, but surely over a 100 students applied. I did too. I was short-listed. Big first step – we were down to six or so. Then, I  gave the first job interview of my life. It was great fun.

I clearly remember the panel pleased and nodding their heads when I mentioned how integrated HLL’s products are in the day-to-day activities at my home. That we often didn’t know that the products we used regularly were HLL, but knew only the brands of the specific products like Surf, Sunlight, Vim, Rin etc etc. We talked about ethics – of factories without pollution clearance not shutting down (not realising ever that HLL was in fact embroiled in a controversy in Kodaikanal – the story pretty much as described by the interviewers).

Long and short of it – I made it through that round. One among the two candidates chosen from SRCC to go on to the subsequent rounds. Big ego-booster. The next round was to be in the Gurgaon HLL office. That interview, it turned out, was a day before my IRMA interview for which I had to travel to Anand, a 16 hour train journey. Luckily for me, when I proposed that I could go to Bombay (6 hours from Anand) and appear for an interview at the HLL head office at Backbay Reclamation a day after my IRMA interview, HLL agreed. I was even impressed by the name – Backbay Reclamation!

Armed with blessings from parents and the good wishes of friends, the IRMA interview was smooth. I wasn’t quite sure if I would make it, but I liked the campus and the people and the questions at the interview. I talked a lot about the little I knew of Kerala and explained the (now-silly-sounding) logic of how the ‘Development Economics’ class in my final year at SRCC had spurred my interest in Development and convinced me to run away from the latter part.Anyhow – mission completed and as I would later know – with success. Began planning the train ride to Bombay – the first of many on that route – and all of them easily rank among the toughest train rides I have ever been on.

I had never been to Bombay before (I think). But I was out, on the designated date, in full-sleeved shirt (blue Vaish), pleat-ed trouser (dont remember which one. With my expanding waist line, I have had to discard many trousers over the years, but I still have that shirt) and a tie borrowed from my cousin – tied, but kept safely in the pocket for the duration of the commute by the Bombay local.

Earlier that day, at breakfast, my cousin asked me – what are some examples of FMCGs? I started with TV, washing machine…! That was my level of preparedness for this mission. I also remember, later that day, walking around in circles in and around Nariman Point for over half-an-hour before I could find the famously reclaimed backbay. Now, with the tie in the right place and wiping sweat off forehead, I made my way in. I had to focus so hard to finding my way to the place that by then, I had all but forgotten about the interview.

The interview itself was hilarious. I of course do not remember exactly in how many ways I made an ass of myself in there. I tried making a pitch about why sales excited me (my friends would have laughed even at the thought of me doing sales). But I was mixing it up with ‘development’ and improvement in quality of life of the poor and whole lot of bull. The HR head was there. And so was another very senior manager. I was much less savvy back then, or else, I would have taken their business cards and gotten in touch with them a decade later.

The senior guy asked me – What are the three main problems faced by an Indian farmer? Damn, why, IRMA had not asked me that in their interview. If they had I probably would have never made it there. Here at HLL, I felt what it was like to sweat in a air-con cabin. As I fumbled and struggled and said something about fertilisers, I could clearly see the panel sympathizing with me, probably thinking – “there is no way in hell we can give him this job. And he probably wont make it to IRMA either. The other topic I remember was one about career choices. He asked me what my second choice of career was (sitting in there, my first choice obviously was selling FMCG). I said – ‘civil service’. Why did I then choose sales over civil service? I started with all the negatives of civil service that I could think of. Turns out, the interviewer’s daddy was a civil servant. He said he was going to play the ‘devil’s advocate’ and defend civil service. He won. I lost.

By the time the interview got over, everyone was done even pretending that I had a vague shot at the job. I had looked up the HLL website in some detail before this interview. None of it had been of any use. I consoled myself thinking that I got screwed because I had to face the real tough guys, a choice I made by opting out of Delhi and scheduling a Bombay slot. Anyways – IRMA worked out and life took off in a completely different direction. But I never forgot HLL…


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