Painting the town red with Asian Paints

Jagdish Acharya was posted as the commercial manager of Asian Paints’ unit in Fiji in 1987, when there was a military coup and the local populace began targeting Indians.

Acharya, then one of four expatriates based at the factory, briefly joined the protest against the new military government. But he soon realised that even though Fiji had a strong ethnic Indian population and he’d been in the country for two years, he was still an outsider.

“I learnt an important lesson then that an executive representing a multinational company should never meddle in local politics,” says Acharya, who is now Asian Paints’ Brisbane-based regional vice-president (south Pacific & China).

We met Acharya while he was on a two-day visit to Mumbai to meet his company directors.

A few days later, when we touched base with him over the phone, he was in a downtown hotel in Auckland and informed us that he would be heading for Samoa the next day and to China the week after. Acharya spends half the month travelling; making puddle-jump trips, often on single-passenger aircraft, to the numerous Polynesian island-nations like Tonga and Samoa.

From his second floor office in Brisbane, which houses a showroom on the ground floor, Acharya manages Asian Paints’ business in nine countries. In his 19-year career as an expatriate executive, Acharya has lived in four cities — Luakota (Fiji), Port Villa (Vanuatu), Downsville and Brisbane (Australia).

Born and brought up in Mumbai, Acharya had first thought of becoming an engineer and later an academician, but had ended up studying economics at college, and business management at IIM, Calcutta. Specialising in marketing, he was one of the six selected by Asian Paints from the campus and was packed off to Agra to “unlearn the management jargon and learn the art of retailing from uneducated but powerful dealers”.

Posted as a branch manager in Calcutta in 1984, Acharya was justifiably proud when Asian Paints asked him to join its first overseas venture in Fiji. With five months left till he was scheduled to fly to Sydney on his way to Luakota, the town where Asian Paints factory was located, Acharya decided to put the time to use — he found a girl and got married.

The 47-year-old Acharya has consolidated Asian Paints’ operation in Fiji, started the company’s operations in Vanuatu and built the business in Australia and other Polynesian island-nations. He has also overseen two acquisitions, Pacific Paints in Australia and Taubman’s Paints in Fiji, and integrated the business of Berger International, which Asian Paints acquired in 2002.

He fondly recollects setting up the facility in Vanuatu, which was the first manufacturing unit in a country that, till then, only had a beef, a beer and a milk-processing plant.

Soon thereafter, the landscape of the 10-kilometre road from the airport to the city changed, with more industries being set up and Acharya became an unofficial consultant to development agencies like ADB in Vanuatu. “It’s the freedom to build businesses and be an entrepreneur in different countries that I enjoy most. I can trade off anything for that experience,” says Acharya.

Living in politically and culturally volatile island-countries in the Pacific can be a challenge. In Australia, Acharya says anything Asian has a negative connotation, a reason why the company changed its name to Apco Coatings in that country. Acharya has always had the option of returning to Asian Paints’ offices in India, but he’s refused every offer.

He’s become a expatriate at heart and enjoys mixing with the local population, learning new languages and customs. “It’s important to understand and appreciate other cultures,” he says, “Communication is the key as you need to emotionally integrate every employee so that the whole company speaks in one language,” adds Acharya.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere at the Acharya household in Bridgman Downs, a Brisbane suburb, may be more Indian than many homes in India. His 15-year-old daughter learns Bharatnatyam and his 13-year-old son plays the tabla. They, along with other kids from the Indian community, attend Sunday classes on Hinduism, where Acharya is a teacher.

Coming back to India is still not an option in the near term, for Acharya says: “I’ve forced my family to move from country to country every few years. But now that my children are grown up, I’d prefer to settle down in Australia till they complete their education. Everybody misses India, but no one complains.”

By Dipayan Baishya
The Economic Times - Times News Network
Friday, September 10th 2004