Lunch with BS: Ravi Uppal

Last Updated: Fri, Feb 15, 2013 20:20 hrs


After a winter of notoriety for the city, meeting someone who feels good about being in Delhi is perplexing. But then, Ravi Uppal, managing director and chief executive officer of Jindal Steel & Power (JSPL), is a Delhi-bred professional who is enjoying a homecoming after three decades spent elsewhere, including in West Asia and Europe, writes Jyoti Mukul.


But, in every other sense, the experience will be new for a man who has worked in a range of professionally managed multinationals and Indian conglomerates. Fast-growing JSPL is very much a family-managed business, promoted and chaired by a serving Congress Member of Parliament, Naveen Jindal. And Uppal came on board at a most challenging time — just as the group came under a cloud for possible collusive coal mine allotments and a sting operation against Zee TV that recorded senior journalists allegedly offering ads-for-positive-stories deals.

Bad timing, sure, but Uppal says it hasn’t disturbed him “a wee bit” because, as he tells me later, he is utterly convinced by “Naveenji’s” vision. He appears to have imbibed some of it already, since the early conversation over a delayed lunch at The Chambers, the Taj Mahal Hotel’s members-only restaurant, was on the importance of being a good citizen. Maybe an urgent preceding meeting with the chairman, who famously fought a case for the right to fly the tricolour over his establishments, had something to do with it.

Since it’s already 2:30 p.m., I opt for carrot and coriander soup and grilled vegetable sandwich. My guest orders vegetable biryani with yellow dal. That’s an unusual combination, I point out, but he explains with gentle humour, “It is a North Indian mishmash.”

Although he is not vegetarian, he prefers to be, other than eating only white meat on the advice of a doctor who told him that mammals carry a lot of bacteria and cholesterol. As he takes a helping of biryani, Uppal reminisces about his yachting trips with friends in the azure waters of Scandinavia in his early 30s. “On board, they would serve freshly peeled shrimp with Russian salad, French bread and a glass of white wine.”

At the time, Uppal worked with ABB, where he spent 27 years in two tranches. But his professional life began in government-owned Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (Bhel), which he joined with formidable qualifications (IIT Delhi, IIM Ahmedabad, Wharton Business School) as executive assistant to the legendary Chairman V Krishnamurthy.

Later, he joined a Bhel joint venture in Libya as project manager — an experience that proved a good lesson in managing in an environment of shortages and instability. After a brief stint with Siemens, he joined Asea Brown Boveri (ABB, as it came to be known) in Sweden, then managed by the famous Percy Barnevik, only to find himself back in the region — this time in Kuwait. He had a lucky escape: just 10 days before Saddam Hussain invaded the tiny, oil-rich emirate, Uppal moved to ABB India. His successor was jailed in Baghdad for three months.

Uppal returned to India in 1991 as ABB’s executive vice-president of industrial electronics, but then came an interestingly unusual offer to set up Volvo’s operations in India, the result of a board-level agreement between the two corporations, with the option of moving back to ABB after five years. When the time came to return, Uppal was reluctant because he was unhappy with the new global structure that required local vertical heads to report to global heads rather than the local country manager. Uppal said he managed to change that, but it came with a challenge from Juergen Centramann, ABB’s global CEO: make ABB a Rs 1,600-crore company in three years from Rs 800 crore in 2000.

By 2005, the India operations had grown to Rs 7,000 crore and the company had the country’s highest price-earnings ratio of 75. “We were a darling of the market. Normally, you give a bouquet of flowers to a lady but a Finnish lady from Morgan Stanley India gave me one and she said, Thank you, I have made a huge bonus and am going to live happily ever after’!”

“The power of performance,” as he calls it, saw him in Zurich in 2007 with eight regional presidents reporting to him till he received an offer from Larsen & Toubro (L&T) to set up its power business in India. His relatively quick exit had many speculating that he quit because he lost the race for the top slot. He doesn’t answer that question but suggests his three-year stint wasn’t entirely satisfactory. “At the end of the day, you want to be happy when you put your head on the pillow, and the next morning you must have the excitement to do what you want to do.”

L&T’s “process-driven culture” clearly didn’t excite him. “I believe anything that gets done in a short time is the only thing that gets done, otherwise it goes into hot air. Speed is something I focus on. Somehow, for my personal needs, I was looking at something that was different. So, when I met Naveenji and saw the speed with which he moved, I thought this is the place I want to be.”

The unique experience of working in a range of organisations could be well worth a book, Uppal agrees. But he’s given some thought to this latest move. “Family-run businesses today have a generation of people who are highly educated and have studied in prominent schools in Europe and America. They have come of age and have understood what it takes to create a successful national and international business.”

He believes there is a thin line between professionally managed and efficiently run systems, and bureaucratic systems. Sometimes leaders become larger than life when they start believing “what will happen when I am not there”. Then, things become bureaucratic and there is lack of delegation. “Leadership is not easy. Sometimes you lead from the front to set benchmarks and when you have to delegate, you have to prompt from behind,” he says, thoughtfully.

On JSPL’s current controversies, he’s left that to others to manage since he is very new to the job. “When I was talking to Naveenji to join the board, he told me that my company wants everything straight and predictable. I thought I have met a bright young energetic person who has global ambitions and wants to move at cruising speed. I was touched by the vision he had.”

He says the company is extremely compliant, and it would be unwise to start looking, in 2012, at decisions that were taken in the late nineties. “The chairman has moral courage; that is why he took on [Zee TV] squarely. First, very politely and then the company showed it has guts.”

Uppal’s focus is on restructuring JSPL to grow it from Rs 20,000 crore today to Rs 1,00,000 crore by 2020. New business verticals and geographies are part of it, but so is an overhaul of the work culture. No more workstations and cabins where size denotes seniority; everyone will sit in a big hall. “Suddenly, people think you are highly approachable. That’s what I did in ABB but not so much in L&T because it, too, had the cabin culture.”

At this point, we decide to wash down the meal with tea — Darjeeling with a dash of milk for him, masala for me. Our conversation moves to his personal life. He says he draws his inspiration from the Gita, especially the discourses on the dichotomies between duty and desire, and he’s heavy on discipline, an attribute he thinks Indians lack.

Although he does not suffer false modesty, Uppal says he is worried by success. The reason, he explains quoting Wipro’s Azim Premji, is that success encourages people to become emotionally connected to their ways and makes them think they can use it over and over again, though it is vital to devise new strategies for new challenges.

At any rate, with his move to JSPL, Uppal cannot be accused of following the well-trodden path of his earlier successes.

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