media report
Pugnacious Private Sector Pasha
4/11/2005  |  Business & Economy

Seldom have public sector bosses created such waves, generated so much of controversies and hit the headlines. Even rarer is the spectacle of a public sector boss taking on the combined might of the bureaucracy and the political establishment. And surviving in the job! Former chairman of Maruti and SAIL V. Krishnamoorthy was one instance. Yet, not as abrasively as this man. Of course, one can always cite the example of V. Kurien, the Amul man who created a niche of his own when it came to legendary chief executives. Then, there is E. Sreedharan, current boss of Delhi Metro, who acquired a well-deserved halo after implementing the ambitious Konkan Railway project that skirts across the western coast of India like a modern day miracle. Still, Sreedharan is low profile and painfully unassuming and prefers not to be featured prominently in the media. Then there have been others in the public sector who have left their mark. But perhaps none as extravagantly as this man. That too by staring a powerful minister of oil and petroleum and a powerful secretary in the ministry in the face, in a headlong confrontation. And winning the battle because the other guys had to blink. Is it bravery or a passion for professional self-destruction?

Born in 1948, an engineering graduate from Jadavpur University and an MBA from Leeds University, Subir Raha, Chairman of Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC), ONGC Videsh Ltd. (OVL) and Mangalore Refineries and Petrochemicals Ltd. (MRPL) is a man famous for many reasons; one of the main ones - he rarely minces his words. He has, for instance, not hesitated to vehemently and publicly oppose the induction of V K Sibal, Directorate General, Hydrocarbons (DGH) on the board of ONGC, citing the fact that DGH is a regulator and hence must not be entitled to be part of the board. Another fiasco that brought him into the limelight was his negotiation with the central government to permit ONGC to get into downstream activities of petroleum products. Raha continues to incessantly oppose government interference in public sector units as he feels they cannot be considered as government departments.

Subir Raha has been adjudged by Upstream, an internationally acclaimed oil and gas journal, to be India's second most powerful person in the oil sector. But of late, Raha has deliberately kept a low profile in the media. When we asked him why, he artfully smiled, "This is a new one. Normally I am accused of having too much publicity!"

Raha's ability to take decisions, autonomously if required, is legendary. He is forever ready to take major calculated risks to ensure that ONGC's long-term goals are met in accordance with his vision of making ONGC a global player to play an important part in ensuring sustainable long-term energy security for India.

Under Raha's visionary and bold leadership, ONGC improved its market capitalisation from Rs. 185 billion in May 2001 to around Rs. 1 trillion currently. According to FICCI, ONGC has been adjudged as "the most valuable company in India" by market capitalization, profits and revenue. It has paid a highest ever dividend of Rs. 57 billion - which is a premium of 400% - in the year 2004-05.

Raha has ensured ONGC remains focused on global leadership; ONGC recently has taken minority shares in Russia's Sakhalin-1, Iran's Yadavaran oilfield and Sudanese properties, which western operators left out. Although the company has suffered setbacks - it lost out in the bid for PetroKazakhstan from China's CNPC - Raha has strived constantly and aggressively to transform ONGC into a major player in global oil industry. Recently in August, ONGC successfully obtained Government approval to market Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF) and set up ATF stations in airports across the country.

Interestingly, Raha's first job was with Indian Oil Corporation, which he joined in 1970 as a management trainee. In 1998, he was made a board member of IOC. ONGC came Raha's way three years later in 2001 when he took over as Chairman and Managing Director. From the day of his joining ONGC, Raha was face to face with a large public sector organization, which, despite being a 'Navratna' PSU, was in dire need of restructuring and a new image. In order to bring in international best practices, Raha never hesitated to bring in global consultants like McKinsey, A. T. Kearney, SAP AG, Worley, Gaffney Cline and Associates, Lloyds Register of Shipping, Ernst & Young, and chartered accountants A. F. Ferguson.

With regard to key strategies for managing large organizations, Raha accepts that in large organizations, "you become impersonal and you can't know each and everyone." Hence, he feels that to be successful, the importance of being a people friendly leader and leading from the front can never be undermined. No doubt, Raha won the medal for the best all rounder during his engineering days. Raha's radically ethnic Vichar series - Vichar Manthan, Vichar Dhara and Vichar Vishleshan - has been instrumental in enabling the involvement of executives at all levels in ONGC, when it comes to bringing in new ideas.

Raha highlights the importance of creativity in leadership, as one cannot keep ordering people around and finding faults. He is driven by the desire to create what he calls an "incremental change in the organization". As has been seen time and again, taking risks and initiatives are not a one-time thing to do, they are a way of life. If need be, he asserts, one must take initiatives "once, twice, thrice and n number of times. That reinforces your credibility- that you know your job and you are honest about it and you can take the job to a different level." Although Raha admits that a luck factor is involved, he still feels that "a leader can earn leadership from the people around him."

One of Raha's most written about risks was the acquisition of the then loss making Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd. MRPL has been quite a success story, which Raha defines as a "very interesting observation for all of us." Raha felt that the company, besides being in losses, was facing serious human issues. As a specific example, only about 150 employees at MRPL were experienced, while the rest were novices. Raha put paid to speculation by expressly communicating to MRPL employees that ONGC would "only support from outside" and that MRPL employees would be solely responsible for running the company.

As if on cue, MRPL recorded a sprinting profit of Rs. 1.66 billion in the second quarter of 2005, and this has added another feather to Raha's already overcrowded cap.

We took the opportunity to take Raha's valuable perspectives on India's energy security issues and the much hyped superpower ambitions. He was very clear in his mind that Indian managers have to significantly change their risk averse nature. He lamented that Indian managers wish to get into businesses "which are safe and right; and that is not always possible."

"Indian industry is extremely risk averse and that, to my mind, is the biggest disadvantage. This needs to change drastically if we dream of becoming a superpower."

He does not feel that India's BPO industry has achieved superpower status either, as he states, "If a Chinese boy can pick up an accent as nice as the guy in Delhi, Gurgaon, Bangalore or Mumbai, then China would easily overtake us in this sector in no time." Raha reiterates that manufacturing will drive India's growth, and that this crucial aspect is lacking.

In terms of energy though, Raha paints a brighter, more optimistic picture. He envisages that India "can and should become an energy exporter in 10 - 15 years by utilizing its coal and nuclear energy reserves." There is no relation, according to Raha, between being import dependent in oil and being in a bad shape, since economies like Germany and Japan are also oil importers. What India lacks is not quantity, but quality. We could have gone on and on regarding the risk aspect, since Raha personifies the term to the tee. The lesson, on the other hand, was very clear. Be it personal or professional life, it's the ability to take risk that can take a leader ahead. And if real life examples are what you are looking for, you could always take a leaf out of Raha the Pasha's book!
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