Dilip Gokhale, a phenomenon 1947 – 2020
Federation of Seed Industry of India expressed its deep condolences at the passing away of Shri Dilip Gokhale one of the early professional managers of the industry which laid foundation for the growth of the industry. The prayer meeting was held virtually, on 19th October at 4.30pm. Most of the FSII members attended the event.The agenda consisted of some of the persons who worked closely with him, sharing the experiences and sentiments that they shared with Shri Dilip Gokhale with opening message by Mr.Ram Kaundinya, followed by tributes from Dr.Ramasami- FSII chairman, Shri Nand Kishore Kagliwal- Chairman of Nath group, Shri Raju Barwale- Chairman of Mahyco, Shri Pravin Dravid- Former CEO of JK Agri. Syngenta colleagues of Shri Dilip Gokhale has shared their experiences and thoughts which are put together as below.
A rookie seedsman
Dilip Gokhale has a special place in the evolution of modern, worldclass seed industry of India. In 1987, when policy relaxations allowed the companies regulated by MRTP and FERA, to enter into the business of seeds, Sandoz India Limited that was operating in India since 1947, decided to get into it and entrusted Mr Gokhale with the responsibility of running it.
Born on November 26, 1947, Dilip was an Economics graduate and gold medal recipient from Fergusson College, University of Pune and Postgraduate in Business Management from IIM Ahmedabad. One of the reasons for Sandoz management to ask Dilip for this particular new role was possibly his experience in India’s leading private sector seed company Mahyco, where he had worked as a Senior Manager.
The times of late eighties and early nineties, as veterans of the Indian seed industry may recall, were rather turbulent for the industry. On the one hand, there seemed to be opportunities galore, on the other, some successful big business houses, who for the first time ventured into this activity, were perplexed by its uncertainties and risks. Several of these new players wound up their operations early, not being able to cope up with such unforeseen shocks.
Although Dilip understood the overall scenario better than others, he did not have much of a wherewithal to make a strong entry into the business. He was also conscious of his responsibility of not letting the high reputation Sandoz enjoyed in Indian agribusiness market because of its premium grochemical products to be tarnished. Most of the channels through which seeds were to reach farmers were common. He also knew that Sandoz were not used to seeing a bottom-line in the ed. Therefore, he intelligently chose his product portfolio and adopted a cautious business strategy.
He placed selected products with proven field performance into a few targeted markets that he and his tiny team were familiar with. He did not believe in spreading too wide, too thinly, nor in carrying extra baggage of “me too” products.
He never ignored or underestimated the competition; as he used to say, he always kept his “ears to the ground”. Dilip’s grit and strategy enabled the new-born seeds division of Sandoz to achieve profits from year one that went on getting better over time.
Although Dilip would sometimes say jokingly “there were times (during those formative years) when I felt my chair rocking”. He was like that ace pilot who would ably manoeuvre the aircraft through the odd turbulences and bring all his passengers and the crew safely to the ground. He gave high importance to teamwork and had the eyes to pick and choose people based on his gutfeel about their ability to deliver. It is no exaggeration when many people unhesitatingly say, “I am what I am today, because of Mr. Gokhale”.
O Captain! Our Captain!!
By mid-nineties, a Sandoz seed was a name to reckon with- in the market. In some pockets, it became a market leader for some of its products. There was a place in north Gujarat that was nick-named as “Serrano village” where everyone grew that cauliflower. By the way, Serrano was the first commercial hybrid cauliflower in the Indian market. In another part of Gujarat, a farmer had to fence his field of ‘Picador’, as hundreds of curious villagers from all around came to see its prolific bearing and also to verify whether it was capsicum or chilly. In the Nilgiris, there were fables spun around a cabbage variety named ‘Quisto’. Meanwhile, Sunbred-212 had already established itself as the most reliable rain-fed sunflower hybrid. That was the time when the second wave of Sandoz seeds happened. A new tomato hybrid called ‘Avinash-2’ was launched. Trials in farmers’ fields had shown that it was not only field-tolerant to a certain leaf-curl virus disease but also had better heat tolerance, high yield and bore very nice fruits that were liked by the market. There was nothing like it in the market till then for the late rabi/summer segment. Considering its vast benefits, at its
product-launch meeting with his teammates, Dilip proposed to put its seed price four times of that for other tomato hybrids prevailing in the market. Avinash-2 was a trendsetter. The phenomenal success that it achieved is now history. Riding high on the brand power of Avinash-2, Sandoz seeds, under the leadership of Dilip Gokhale, fortified its efforts in all spheres, especially in research and product development. As the company’s business grew from strength to strength, the team also grew in size and increased Dilip’s responsibilities considerably. Despite being a management professional, educated at a premier institution and working for years in an MNC, Dilip had his own style of management, which he sometimes called “organic”. He had a tremendous knack of connecting with people – within the organization and those associated with the business. He would spend time with people chatting, even encourage get-togethers with their spouses to make them feel free and be able to express their views well. In that respect, his natural flair in picking up different languages, helped a lot. Once in an Asia-Pacific regional meeting of the company, he even addressed the gathering in Chinese! During the “season” time for seed business, he would talk in the morning with several traders in the market and compare notes with his sales team members. Getting ready for the season and ensuring efficient logistics to keep the customer satisfied, were his priorities which each team member understood well and complied. His time management was exemplary. He was pragmatic and yet was never willing to compromise with his high ideals which he said he inherited from his father Mr. S.G. Gokhale, a former IG of Police. In 1996, a global merger was announced between Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy leading to the emergence of a new, much bigger entity named ‘Novartis’. That exposed the Indian seed business to two new aspects. One was the business of biotech crops, as Ciba-Geigy was the first to make a successful commercial launch of European corn borer-resistant maize, in the USA. Secondly, with the help of Ciba-Geigy’s strong research backup in tropical maize, the company too could look forward to improving its market presence in that crop.
By the end of the year, in India too, biotechnology gathered greater interest – both among the scientists and the public at large. One started hearing about a commercial BT cotton product (not of Novartis) passing through the Indian regulatory process that was then evolving. Some activists had begun voicing their concerns against this new technology. In late 1997, the Government decided to hold a series of stakeholders’ dialogues on all issues relating to biological and environmental safety of biotech crops and their end products. On hearing this, Dilip Gokhale went forward and made an offer to the Government to co-sponsor the event to be held in six cities across the country during 1997-98, starting with the one in New Delhi. His offer was accepted that enabled the first of its kind biosafety workshops on GM crops to be held across the country in which experts from scientific institutions and Novartis also participated. That shows another aspect of Dilip’s vision to stay ahead and his ability to act proactively, without an imminent commercial gain in mind. He pleaded successfully with the global management to allow rice to be included in Novartis India’s product portfolio and also to initiate transformation in cotton using Novartis’ unique proprietary Vip 3A gene. Meanwhile, the seeds business of Novartis India kept growing by leaps and bounds – both in terms of product diversity and market outreach and of course, profitably.
Soon, by adopting Dilip Gokhale’s formula, Novartis South Asia’s seed business acquired a leading position in the Asia-Pacific region (APAC). In 1999, Dilip Gokhale was inducted into the global seed leadership team of Novartis and was relocated to its headquarters in Basel, Switzerland. In India and South Asia, he left behind a healthy and prosperous business in the hands of his able successors, many of whom are today in leadership positions in India and across the globe. In Basel, among several other things, Dilip focused on new crops like rice, cotton and tropical sugar
beet. Under his leadership and 3 close monitoring, the transformation work in cotton with Vip gene at the company’s research facility in North Carolina gained momentum. Meanwhile, in India, the company submitted its first application to the regulatory authorities to allow it to research transgenic cotton. In 2000, another significant change occurred in the company’s organization. A merger between Novartis’ agribusiness and Zeneca’s agrochemicals led to the formation of a new company, Syngenta. The merger resulted in a major organizational transformation – changes in global leaders and their priorities, changes in operational locations, reshuffling of personnel, etc. As a senior member of the global leadership team, Dilip played a key role helping the management
to cope with situations arising out of such changes, besides handling his own unique portfolios. However, at no time did India and the APAC region go out of his radar and focus. He seized the opportunity of meeting and interacting with his old teammates whenever he happened to be visiting this part of the globe. He felt happy to see that the small operation of Sandoz that he had started in 1987-88, had grown into one of the leading and most reputed seed companies of India. Meanwhile, Dilip’s dream project ‘Vip cotton’ had progressed satisfactorily through the Indian
biotech regulatory process. Anticipating a commercial release of the product in a year or two, a critical stakeholders’ dialogue was held in New Delhi in December 2003, which among others was addressed by Dilip Gokhale. Around 2004, Dilip Gokhale returned to the region as the head of APAC, which until then was headquartered in Kuala Lumpur. He redefined the role of the regional office and shifted its base to Bangkok, where the company already had significant business operations. Dilip aimed to allow the country operations to grow stronger with only essential oversight and support to be provided by the regional office. As a part of that process, he initiated an internal assessment of the Indian seeds operations and based on its findings advised the country organization to revamp its organizational setup to achieve higher and more efficient growth in its business. In 2005, when Syngenta’s Vip cotton received regulatory approval for large-scale field trials, the media
hailed it as a breakthrough from what was until then regarded a single company’s monopoly. The credit for that goes mainly to the zeal with which Dilip Gokhale had pursued the Vip cotton project.
Around 2007, as some restructuring was taking place in the global organization, Dilip Gokhale opted to relocate to India and handle some special assignments given to him by the company; one of them being the promotion of tropical sugar beet. He vigorously undertook that project and was successful 4 not only in establishing successful production of sugar beet in western Maharashtra and other parts of the country but also in tying up with the industry in the commercial manufacture of ethanol from locally grown tropical sugar beet.
At the end of his tenure with Syngenta, he became involved as a chief advisor to Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA), a non-profit organization, and during that period played a lead role in organizing the National Seminar on Agriculture Extension in February 2009, in New Delhi, as a cooperative initiative between the Government of India, Ministry of Agriculture and SFSA – the first instance of such kind of PPP in India. He remained associated with the Foundation for a few years. He was a part of the study undertaken by a research team that resulted in the publication of the book titled ‘Transforming Indian Agriculture: India 2040 – Productivity, Markets, and Institutions’, which was released in January 2013 by Montek Singh Ahluwalia, then Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. Subsequently, Dilip Gokhale travelled around the African continent, delivering lectures on building locally suited seed systems, on behalf of AGRA and other international programmes. It was during that period that he developed an interest in starting a seeds activity in East Africa. That early interest culminated into a desire to establish his own
seeds enterprise in Tanzania. In the beginning, he was dividing his time between Pune and Arusha (Tanzania), but over time as the business grew in size, he along with his dear wife Shubhada started living permanently in Arusha.
Dilip, an exceptionally versatile personality, unfortunately, passed away on October 16, 2020, in Arusha, Tanzania. He has left behind
a void that can never be filled.