How I Made It

Entrepreneur Rohan Oza focuses on 'better for you' products

The gig: Serial entrepreneur Rohan Oza, 42, is founder and chief executive of Idea Merchants Capital. Oza's investment venture, with offices in Los Angeles and New York, is "focused on 'better for you' consumer lifestyle products," he said — and making life uncomfortable for established brands. Oza's greatest success was with Glaceau, best known for developing Vitaminwater and Smartwater. Oza has put money into the makers of Popchips snacks and a natural health drink called Bai, among other products. He co-founded the manufacturer of the design-savvy, eco-friendly Soma, a countertop water filtration system.

In his blood: Oza said he gets his risk-taking tendencies and entrepreneurial zeal from his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, who one by one left India to seek their fortunes in Africa. "My grandfather got on a boat about 110 years ago and stopped at the first country where people spoke English, in Zimbabwe, which at the time was Southern Rhodesia."

Engineering change: Born in Zambia, Oza went to school in Britain, studying manufacturing and industrial engineering at the University of Nottingham to please his parents. But at the University of Michigan, Oza said, he realized that "I would make a horrible engineer." Instead, Oza pursued his MBA, choosing "marketing and corporate strategy. Ironically, it's still pretty much what I still do now, laying out the playbook."

Making a mark: Oza started out marketing Snickers in Europe for Mars M&M but quickly became a marketing manager at Coca-Cola Co. "It was the most iconic brand in the world," Oza said. "If I was going to learn about building brands, there's no better place to learn than Coke." Oza has been credited with bringing Sprite out of the doldrums, when he signed, among others, a kid straight out of high school as the symbol of the brand. That was Kobe Bryant. For Powerade, Oza redesigned the packaging and signed sports stars Andy Roddick, Michael Vick — "before the dogs" — and LeBron James.

Moving fast: Despite his success, Oza said, his style didn't fit well at the Atlanta beverage company. "I move quick. I trust my gut. I shoot first and ask questions later," Oza said. "That was probably too cowboy. I might have been a little too cocky, to be honest, as well. At big companies, it's often how you are doing something, not what you have done. I saw the writing on the wall that if I didn't leave, I was going to get fired."

Last chuckle: He decided in 2002 to make the leap to a tiny New York beverage company called Glaceau. "I remember when I left Coke and told them I would be working for a company that puts vitamins in water. They looked at me like I was crazy. They laughed," Oza said. Five years later, he engineered Glaceau's sale to Coca-Cola for $4.1 billion. He stayed at Coca-Cola as a marketing executive until 2009, when he headed off to find companies where he could invest his share of the Glaceau windfall.

Investment strategy: Oza said he went to Glaceau not just because of the bigger salary and some equity in the company. He had already sensed a change in consumers, away from refined sugar and artificial ingredients. "About 70% of products on grocery stores today, the processed products are really not good for you," Oza said. "But people today want low calories. Everyone wants great taste and natural sweeteners."

Father's advice: Oza said his father, Ashok Oza, taught him that "you can be a fantastic businessman and still have humility. That's something that I strive to do. I may not succeed all the time, but I try, because I remember that he was an admired businessman because of that." Oza ruefully mentions, with some frequency, that "I passed on Uber" as a project because he failed to follow up on an initial overture after he wrote down the wrong phone number for a key investor.

Living the brand: Oza's management style is not just to sell the brand but to live it. It's something he encourages in all the people he has worked with, he said. For Vitaminwater, as an example, "I didn't hire brand managers. I hired brand messiahs who took it everywhere they went," Oza said. "The difference is you make the brand part of your life and you take it into the world you are passionate about, whether that is music or sport or fashion. The brand started appearing on movie sets, television shows, at music events."

Leadership style: "You have to build a marketing team that is emotionally involved in the product," Oza said, "IQ is important, but you need EQ too, an emotional component. You need to have a passion or feel for the brand." Oza recalled one marketer he worked with who "infiltrated. She was passionate. She made her way onto movie sets. She did whatever it took to get the brand into the right directors' hands."

Jumping first: Oza, who is always looking for the next opportunity, said it's important to realize when an existing situation is turning sour, as his first Coca-Cola stint did. "When you feel the nudge coming, it's a good time to leave," he said.

Personal: When he isn't working, Oza splits time between homes in Beverly Hills, in the Tribeca section of lower Manhattan and in the Hamptons on Long Island. When in Los Angeles, Oza loves to play golf at the Bel-Air Country Club and recently got "the tennis bug in me after playing in a tennis camp where the ages ranged from 30 to 80." Oza is single and has no children. "I think that is the next part of the journey," he said.

ronald.white@latimes.com

Twitter: @RonWLATimes

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