What led to the company entering so many new fields?
We believed that chemistry would make a big impact at the intersection of chemistry and physics (nanotechnology) and at the intersection of chemistry and biology (biotechnology). Our Innovation Centre in Pune is focused on these areas and one well-known outcome of the research being done there is the Tata Swach water purifier. In addition, we have an agritechnology centre in Aligarh from where we derived a new line of business called customised fertilisers that are designed for a specific soil and crop.
A couple of years ago, we identified what we call the FEW areas of focus — Food and fuel, Energy and environment, and Water and wellness. We were already engaged in food through Khet-Se, Grow More Pulses, Rallis and our fertiliser division.
In the area of energy and environment, we created a completely new business line by focusing on flue gas treatment. Today we have a thriving business in Europe around Briskarb and the same business model is being used in the US. We also decided to engage with the biofuels space and invested in Jatropha and bioethanol.
In the area of water and wellness, the water purifier was one of the key products. We are also looking at nutraceuticals, as part of our wellness initiative.
We are building these businesses for the future. Five years from now, we may still not see the impact, but 10-15 years from now, some of these spaces will be quite big.
What are the critical challenges that TCL has faced?
The second challenge was the credit crisis two years ago. The time when I took charge was the month of 26/11; that was the worst quarter ever and we actually showed a loss.
In 2009 at a public meeting, one of the youngsters stood up and asked, "Will I have my job tomorrow?" And I replied, "Of course everyone will have a job." What we decided is that we will all take cuts voluntarily so that all of us can get through the crisis. We didn’t cut back on training, or expenditure on community or new programmes on sustainability. We put together a programme which focused on cash and profits. We took some hard decisions under this; for example, we shut down the Netherlands plant.
At the same time we continued to engage with customers exactly the same way as before. That worked very well and customers like Proctor & Gamble and Unilever came back to us. We have got awards as one of the best suppliers and our customer satisfaction scores in most markets have gone up.
In the end, the company managed to recover very quickly. We had to work at the grassroots to keep the morale of the team up. We faced the crisis and came out of it unscathed because our people were motivated to deliver.
The big challenge of the future is to keep the company relevant. As the world keeps changing, we need to remain a sustainable and innovative company, so that we can attract the best talent.
How has the responsibility of being CEO changed you as a person?
That responsibility almost forces you to begin to listen to signals even more closely than before. You need to learn to pick up weak signals early on. Even a small signal or issue could be a kernel of a big issue that can emerge later to impact the company. For example there were plenty of signals about the credit crisis which we didn’t pick up early on. One needs to be watchful.
There were times when I felt that we were not moving fast enough. But I now feel that one needs to be a bit more patient than one is, that being impatient can actually backfire. Having a good team around you always protects you from hasty decisions.
How has the leadership equation in corporate India changed?
How do you handle job pressures?
Also, the ability to switch off and self-energise is very critical, and one needs to take time off to build oneself back in order to be able to focus again on work. Being at the highest level of energy when at work is very critical.
Each person has a different way of doing this. I feel one needs to rest and be physically active as it keeps the mind and body in good shape. You need to have varied interests and your knowledge should be more than just work based. This enriches the mind and opens it to different possibilities.
Who are your most admired leaders?