December 2009 | Philip Chacko

"A leader should be in touch with the tapestry of the company's past"

Change has come to Tata Chemicals, Tata Consultancy Services, Tata Motors, and Tata Steel, and it has happened at the top. We bring you the thoughts and views — on business and industry, life and leisure — of five Tata managing directors who have taken charge of their companies.

Here, R Mukundan, new MD of Tata Chemicals, speaks with Philip Chacko about the challenges that face the chemicals industry and his vision for the company 

You have been appointed managing director of a Tata company at a relatively young age. How does it feel? Did you think, when you joined Tata Chemicals, that you would get to this position this fast?

R Mukundan
It does feel energising to serve the company in this role and I must admit that I had no idea this is where it would lead when I joined Tata Chemicals. My focus then was to, at least, deliver value in the area of strategic planning and be of some use as a member of the leadership team. Shortly after my joining, Prasad Menon [the Tata Chemicals managing director at the time] offered me the responsibility of working in Mithapur, which I thought was a bold move by any count. I felt a bit awkward in that role, since I was new to the company and the plant site then.

Are you relishing the responsibility of being the managing director? Is there something that makes you apprehensive?
Serving the business at this point of time is especially interesting due to the challenges one has to face. The very first quarter (into this role), we suffered a sharp erosion in margins, which clearly put us in a tight spot. We are blessed as a company to have a wonderful and talented team, and this has been the single biggest factor in our ability to handle the challenges facing us.

That brings me to one of the key issues that needs focus: team climate and culture. If there is an excellent climate and culture in an organisation, it permeates various spaces within and outside that organisation. In Tata Chemicals we have been able to build a unique sense of team climate, which we aim to refresh and retain.

One of my apprehensions is about our ability to build a seamless global enterprise. While we have a global footprint, we still seem largely India-centric in our thinking. Additionally, there is the danger of casting doubts on ‘internationalisation’ for the challenging situations confronting us, rather than addressing the real issues of competitiveness and employee engagement in every part of our business.

What are the most important qualities that a business leader in an industry such as chemicals ought to possess, and why?
While there are generic qualities which one can talk about, the specifics that distinguish our operations are probably three:

A leader should be in touch with the tapestry of the past while encouraging his or her team to weave a new future. This is especially important in companies such as ours, which have a proud and successful history.

A leader should be committed to employee well-being, with safety as the most important consideration. While every business needs an orientation towards safety, its importance is paramount in the chemicals industry.

A leader should be able to relate to diverse customer segments and meet their needs. The chemicals industry, by its very nature, serves other sectors of the economy, including agriculture, other industries and services. One needs to be comfortable traversing a wide array of customer segments: farmers and households, and industries spanning food and beverages, metals and materials, textiles, soaps and detergents, electronics, etc.

How do you see Tata Chemicals evolving in the next five years or so? What are the big challenges the company faces?
We have just finished reviewing our strategy and we have summed it up in simple terms: ‘Touching humanity through chemistry’. We would like to see Tata Chemicals among the 50 most profitable chemical companies globally in the next five years. Today, we are not even in the top 100, though we are a global leader in some products (such as soda ash).

We have within Tata Chemicals two strong pillars, inorganic chemicals and fertilisers; the recent move of acquiring a major stake in Rallis India has given us the third pillar, speciality chemicals. This is what we expect of our three pillars:

In the first pillar of inorganic chemicals, we will leverage our global low-cost advantage to strengthen our leadership in soda ash globally and in branded salt in India.

In fertilisers, we will build scale in the domestic market by doubling our capacity in Babrala. Rather than focus on asset-led growth, we see growth coming from more intimate ‘farmer-connect’ efforts, which we will address with our associate company, Rallis, to create a national footprint.

Rallis has set its sights on going beyond domestic leadership to be one of the world’s top five generic agrochemical companies. We see Rallis as a vehicle for growing our speciality chemicals business. Also, we are excited about new products coming out of our innovation centre in Pune.

Could you tell us a bit about the turning points of your professional life?
If I were to state the biggest learning opportunities (not all of them successful, though) they would be the turnaround of the footwear business of the Taj group of hotels (business development role); starting up Tata AutoComp Systems (corporate planning and projects role); and the transformation of Mithapur in Tata Chemicals (operations role).

Who are the people that have influenced you, personally and professionally?
The Tatas are rich in terms of leadership depth and width; there are tremendous opportunities here to learn and grow. It would be fair to state that a lot of people have influenced me and provided patient coaching and mentoring at various points of time.

I learned a lot and enjoyed working with all the three managing directors I have been associated with, Homi Khusrokhan, Prasad Menon and DS Gupta. Each provided a different experience and probably left me richer than when I started off. I must, however, mention that a lot of what has happened at Tata Chemicals is because of Prasad Menon. I think he was instrumental in the way many of us in the organisation developed and evolved.

As you rise up the ladder, does it get more difficult to achieve a satisfactory work-life balance? How do you manage this?
Professionally, while the time I spent in Mithapur was probably the most rewarding, it also was the most testing at the personal level. My wife, Sheila, stayed back in Mumbai so that our son, Siddharth’s schooling was not disturbed. That phase provided an important learning about work-life balance. I try to avoid business travel on weekends and make the most of the time I have with my with family when I am in Mumbai.

What are your interests outside of work? How do you unwind?
I tend to think that I am a voracious reader; I love the feel of a book in my hand. Of late, I’ve been trying to learn music along with Sheila and Siddharth. (Right now what I end up playing is cacophonic, but, who knows, one day it may well be music.)

Also read:

"I have tried to do a lot of listening and a lot less talking" — Kirby Adams, Tata Steel Europe

"I feel excited and energised by this opportunity"— N Chandrasekaran, Tata Consultancy Services

"Visionary dimension is extremely important for sustenance and growth" — HM Nerurkar, Tata Steel

"We always learn, all the time and in every walk of life" — PM Telang, Tata Motors

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