Smriti Mandhana, Vice-Captain of the Indian Women’s National Cricket Team, and Ajay Khanna, Managing Director, Herbalife Nutrition India, at an event to announce Mandhana’s association with Herbalife Nutrition India in Mumbai last week |
Growing up in Meerut, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, Ajay Khanna saw his father, a fitness freak, play squash, swim and take early morning walks. He also saw his mom cook amazing meals, always ensuring he was eating healthy. This instilled in him the concept of decency, which he firmly adheres to to this day. Healthy and frugal, Khanna, 61, literally talks about his role as Senior Vice President and Managing Director in India for the global nutrition company, Herbalife Nutrition, even as he leads the company’s No. 2 global market for steady growth.
Ajay Khanna, Senior Vice President and Managing Director, Herbalife Nutrition India |
Within your 14-year relationship with Herbalife, how have you seen the brand evolve? Can you share some of what you’ve learned over the years?
Herbalife Nutrition has been operating in India for more than two decades now. Globally, we have been around for about 40 years. I’ve seen this brand evolve since it started 14 years ago, with just a few distributors and products until today, when we have over 1 million distributors, and over 1 million preferred customers. In 2017, we split our business into distributors who are business builders and people who love products. So, today we have favored customers who only want to consume products, and we have distributors who are willing to seize the business opportunity. In India, we are the No. 1 nutritional brand. Also globally, according to Euro Monitor, we are the number 1 meal replacement brand.
How has Herbalife India fared as a company? Where does it fit in the scheme of things in the global hierarchy of Herbalife’s major markets? Can you share any numbers?
India has experienced double digit growth over the past three years. We see a lot of people joining the business opportunity. And yes, today India is Herbalife’s No. 2 market globally. Next to the US, for sure, but we see an opportunity, because India has the potential to be No. 1. In India, you’ve seen massive acceptance of our products by Gen Z.
There was this concern about direct selling for some time until the government regulated it in 2019. How do you see that business moving in? Are there still obstacles in the way of direct selling?
I would like to thank the government for regulating the industry. Like I said, there was concern about this industry for a few years but in 2019 direct selling became part of the Consumer Protection Act. So it’s a regulated industry, although people are still slowly coming to terms with it. But it’s becoming a much more respected industry right now.
Speaking of Herbalife as a sports nutrition brand, it has been associated with many sporting events like Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022, Ironman in Goa and Tokyo Olympics, as well as athletes – Virat Kohli, Mary Kom and now Smriti Mandhana. What do these brand associations do?
We are a scientific organization. Our goal is to talk about a healthy and active lifestyle through all these sports personalities associated with us, be it Virat, Mary Kom, Lakshya Sen and now Smriti. These are all vivid symbols of sports representing fitness and health. Moreover, the Indian government is also promoting Khelo India, so our efforts are in line with the government’s mission.
What other brand associations are on the anvil?
We are working with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the food regulator for the Fit India campaign. Therefore, we train students in different institutions such as schools and colleges. To date, more than 40 institutes have been associated with the Eat Right campaign, and we work closely with them. It’s not just about the products, it’s about promoting hygiene, good nutrition, and an active lifestyle.
What do you think of Targeted Nutrition? How did the consumer adapt to the concept of meal replacements? You have competition in the market from Ayurvedic companies, the likes of Patanjali and also food brands… How do you differentiate?
The nutraceutical industry is bound to grow because with all the challenges of the past couple of years, people are becoming more health and nutrition conscious. If you are talking about Ayurveda, we are also into Ayurveda with products for physical ability, brain health, etc.
Herbalife’s biggest USP is that we are a nutrition and wellness company. Our approach may be direct selling, but our focus is nutrition with research and development centers around the world. Last year, we opened our own Center of Excellence in Bangalore.
How does the Center of Excellence in India contribute to global and local growth?
India has a huge opportunity and the R&D center in India helps us understand the requirements of the India market. A lot of products are made specifically for India, for example, Formula One Shake becomes Formula One Shake Kulfi here, and Kahwa which we just launched. Research and development is why we are able to release these unique products. Our Bangalore facility has a wing dedicated to Ayurveda research where we plan to expand our Ayurveda.
Can you talk about the focus of your marketing and advertising strategy?
Our primary focus is holistic wellness. Our entire marketing and advertising strategy is based on educating Indian audiences about active lifestyle, wellness and nutrition, and what will take them on their journey of holistic wellbeing. This is why we are associated with sports personalities like Virat Kohli, Smriti Mandhana, Manika Batra and Lakshya Sen.
What is your favorite story from your career at Herbalife?
The man who used to work as experts is today one of our best distributors. This man was not even able to speak English, and today he goes on stage and gives presentations. When I joined this company, I was witness to this life-changing story. You have greatly influenced me, and that is why I am here, striving to change people’s lives for the better.
Going forward, what are your plans for the business in the long and short term?
When we look at the business plans for India, I can say that we haven’t even scratched the surface, because the kind of opportunities that exist in India with a population of 1.3 billion is massive. We will continue to invest in research and development and local products that cater to the Indian market. We will also continue to work with the government on the mission of Fit India (Swastha Bharat) and Atmanirbhar Bharat.
What is one of the principles that guide you as a business leader?
I have been working for almost 30 years now. One thing I tell my people is that Keep learning, no matter your age. I’m still learning every day. Learning never stops.
“One thing I remember is that whenever we used to play squash, my father used to give us bananas to eat to recover from fatigue, because bananas rejuvenate you. Even when we would get up in the morning, the first thing he would bring us was a cup of tea and two bananas. This habit stayed with me – I still eat bananas.”
“I am very committed to my fitness regime. First of all, I love Herbalife products and have been a user of them over the years. I have seen the difference, and this is something we actively promote within the organization. I start my morning with a Formula One drink, my favorite is Formula One Kulfi. In the company, we have Lots of activities related to fitness and wellness training and education for our distributors and employees.”
Ajay Khanna on bike |
“I’m an avid biker. I live in Bangalore and we have a group of 10 mates who go for a bike ride every weekend. Our next trip is to Chikmagalur – a 300km one way ride. This is what keeps my adrenaline going – being with people, getting in In the arms of nature… holistic wellness is also about connecting with nature.”