Being McQueen

Smita Jatia has gone from being a homemaker to managing McDonald’s India, and she’s lovin’ it!

There is a sight to behold at the Mumbai headquarters of McDonald’s. The beaming clown Ronald McDonald is seen standing with folded hands doing Namaste, a hat tip to the way the brand has been Indianised. And the mascot isn’t the only thing that has been desi-fied. Be it the menu, pricing or advertising, each aspect of the fast food brand has been customised.

The brain behind this Indianisation is Smita Jatia, who is the MD of Westlife Development, which operates McDonald’s in West and South India. Expanding from one store in 1996, the company currently owns and operates 300 restaurants in the country. Between 2014 and 2019, sales have also grown to Rs.14.01 billion at CAGR of 13.82 %. And, all this has been under Jatia’s watch who has been heading the business over the past two decades.

Hailing from a conservative Marwari family, she was married at the age of 18 to Amit Jatia, in 1989. After encouragement from her in-laws, she completed her graduation, but had no plans of working in an office. “I was happy taking care of my children — twin boys Akshay and Ayush — and being a housewife and a mother,” she recalls.

Life, of course, had other plans. In October 1996, Amit opened the first McDonald’s India outlet in Mumbai. Busy with supply chain functions, he asked Jatia to organise the launch events. “This was my first brush with the brand,” she says. At one of the events, a visiting expat suggested that Jatia would be perfect for marketing the brand and helping it grow in India.

“Why not,” she thought. Off she went to USA’s Hamburger University, to do a 15-day course in marketing. In 1998, she joined the business as the director of marketing. Jatia laughs as she recalls her first promotional activity. It was a buy-one-get-one offer on fillet-o-fish burgers as they had imported excess stock of the patty.

Besides marketing, Jatia was also in-charge of the vegetarian menu at McDonald’s. To respect religious beliefs in the country, they had a strict ‘no beef and pork policy’ and started serving a variety of vegetarian burgers that fused international expertise with local tastes. For instance, the popular McAloo Tikki was launched in 1999, inspired by the local ‘vada pav’. Soon, Pizza McPuff, Aloo Naan and Coke Float followed.

Power couple: Smita Jatia calls her husband her mentor

Though the brand was beginning to gain acceptance in India, Jatia believed she could do a lot more if she studied further. So in 2000, she went to pursue a three-month executive management programme from Harvard Business School. It is here that she learnt the importance of keeping oneself abreast of new skills. After her return, Jatia took on the additional responsibilities of operation, training and HR, and was made the COO in 2005. Five years later, she took over as the MD.

But, this journey was far from smooth as McDonald’s has had its fair share of ups and downs. However, Jatia was ready to face it all. In 2003, when the average unit volume was dropping, she hit upon the idea to launch the ‘Happy Price Menu’. Rolled out in 2004, this comprised items like Aloo Tikki, Pizza McPuff and Chicken McGrill, in addition to beverages sold at the Rs.20 price point. “For the next 10 years, our pricing became our biggest competitive advantage,” she says, citing it as one of her biggest wins.

But post 2008, more fast food chains started entering the country and copied the price point. So, she was back to the drawing board, thinking of ways to hit back. From 2013-2015, the company spent time scaling three new offerings -— delivery, McCafé and breakfast menu — at their 150 outlets. 2016 onwards, those investments paid off, she explains.

All through these ups and downs, she says that her family has been her biggest support system. Jatia adds that her husband complements her beautifully. “He is the visionary and for me it is always about chasing that vision relentlessly,” she says. Their ‘Vision 2022’ is to become a Rs.20 billion-25 billion brand, with about 500 stores and McCafés in 45 cities. “We are well on our way to meet these targets,” says Jatia

In early days, she admits, she was often scared that she would be known as just the “promoter’s wife”. “I wanted to be known for who I am and what I do. That made me work even harder,” she says.

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