Laxman Narasimhan, the boss of Reckitt Benckiser, has been running the global consumer goods giant during lockdown from his west London flat, where he has been staying with his mother, who celebrates her 80th birthday this week.
The arrangement has brought a human side to corporate life.
In a move that would win kudos from mums everywhere, she walked into one of his video meetings and told him he hadn’t put the rubbish out. Never mind that he is 53 and the boss of a giant multinational, her son put the meeting on hold and dealt with the bins.
Germ buster: Reckitt Benckiser’s Laxman Narasimhan has been running the global consumer goods giant during lockdown from his west London flat
Rather disappointingly, the matriarch of the family doesn’t gatecrash when I interview him on a Zoom video call. And, because he is talking to the City about results, the living room, normally visible, is obscured by a corporate backdrop reminiscent of the ones in post football match TV interviews.
‘It makes me feel like I am running Manchester United because it’s showing so many of our brands,’ he says with a smile.
Laxman is in a good mood because he will finally be reunited with his wife and son, who arrived from the US two weeks ago but have been in quarantine.
‘I have had five months of this odd situation. But one consolation has been walking around London. I have been miles, I have walked to Wimbledon, to Hampstead Heath,’ he says.
He certainly has good reason to be cheerful about his products, including Dettol and Lysol – they have flown off the shelves in the pandemic. At a time when most companies have seen sales, profits and share prices plunge, Reckitt has enjoyed a boom, courtesy of our collective obsession with cleanliness.
It’s been a case of out with the grime, the dust, the dirt and the squalor, and in with the wipes, the polish and bleach, which is great news for him.
S hares in RB, having been lacklustre pre-coronavirus, are up more than 25 per cent this year. Revenues rose nearly 12 per cent in the first six months of this year and profits by 14 per cent to £1.43billion.
One question is whether the newfound zeal for cleaning, and therefore the growth in sales at Reckitt, will continue. Laxman believes it will, albeit growth cannot continue at quite this pace because the virus is causing a ‘seismic shift’ in how people are living.
‘We have been adopting new habits during lockdown. If you behave the same way for 60 days some of those behaviours stick,’ he says.
RB recently opened a £105m research centre in Hull, where Dettol was invented in the 1930s. He says he feels a personal connection with the product. When he was a six-year-old in India, his elder brother died from an illness and they used Dettol to keep the family home free from infection. That was one of the reasons he took the job at RB after a career at management consultants McKinsey, then PepsiCo. He has just announced a $25m investment in a Reckitt Global Hygiene Institute, which will back university research and promote behaviour to improve public health.
‘Hygiene is hugely important. If you look at the world in the 1800s, hygiene was the only non-surgical intervention we had for health. Now it is the same – until we find a vaccine, the only thing we have is hygiene.
‘We have a long history in this field. Our Lysol disinfectant brand is 130 years old and it helped with cholera,’ he says, referring to the fact it was invented by scientist Gustav Raupenstrauch to help combat an epidemic in Germany.
‘It was used in the Spanish flu in 1918. But the evidence is that over time, hygiene has got a bit lost.
‘We felt we needed to create an independent institute to fund research and to think about how to change people’s behaviour.’ The governing body will include big names in the field including Professor Peter Piot from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Dame Sally Davies, Master of Trinity College Cambridge.
There is little doubt that Reckitt, through its brands, can help inculcate healthier habits. Dettol launched a campaign over social media platform TikTok to encourage more people in India to wash their hands.
The video, with a catchy song and instructions on how to wash hands properly, was viewed by an incredible nearly 9billion people in four days.
Laxman says: ‘Did you know only a third of men wash their hands after going to the loo, and only two-thirds of women?’
Ugh – I didn’t. ‘We need to encourage different behaviour,’ he says. Too right.
‘Dettol is used in hundreds of thousands of schools in India. We are working at a local level to instil handwashing in children. Lysol in the US has a programme for kids in disadvantaged communities.
‘We are going straight to kids because they are the biggest creators of change of anyone. They can influence their parents.’
Reckitt has made a five-year commitment to the Institute.
He says: ‘We have begun to try to make hygiene more central to how people think and behave. The journey will be a long term one. There are a lot of viruses out there and Covid-19 has reminded people not to be complacent. As the world urbanises, diseases and viruses will be a constant feature and hygiene is the foundation of health.’
As well as the Institute, he has launched a whole new ‘business solutions’ arm in response to the pandemic. The idea is to provide a package of advice and products for corporate clients to help keep their staff and customers safe from the virus. A number of high-profile clients including Hilton Hotels, Delta Airlines and Avis car hire have already signed up.
RB is a big UK employer with 4,000 staff in this country, including manufacturing facilities in Nottingham, Derby and Hull, and the corporate HQ in Slough.
Laxman says people have continued to work in the factories but other staff have been working from home.
It is ‘too early to say when everyone will return to the workplace’ but ‘the future will be some kind of hybrid arrangement, with people in offices part of the week and the rest of the time at home,’ he adds.
When Laxman arrived at the firm, he inherited a company that had fallen out of favour with the investors and seemed to have lost its way.
In February, the company said it had made a £3.7billion full-year loss, due to a £5billion charge on its takeover of baby formula maker Mead Johnson.
Previous management had bought the business in a £13billion deal three years ago.
‘It is a work in progress,’ he says. ‘Covid is having a negative impact on birth rates in the US due to anxiety over jobs and money. We have broadened it into broader nutrition. I feel good about it. We want to be modest, but overall I am pleased with the progress we have made. We have played our role in the community too.’
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