Nothing compares to that feeling of working your way up a company and reaching the higher rungs of the ladder. Meet Mr. Ramkumar Dhruva, Sr Vice President, Monomers, Asia Pacific at BASF East Asia HQ, Hong Kong, who is also a recipient of the distinguished alumnus Award 2016. Read on to find out more about what the institute taught him, his opinion on start-ups and about his career.
Tell us about your time in BASF. How did you come to work there?
I’ve been with BASF for 20 years now. I did my PhD from IIT Madras in chemistry from ‘91-‘96, and then I joined BASF. At that time BASF had put an ad in the paper, and so I thought “Why not?” and applied. Several of my friends also did, and we ended up having a picnic, going for the interviews in Bombay. Several experts from Germany had come, and after a series of interviews, and I was shortlisted for organic chemistry. I started my work a few months later at their headquarters in a place called Ludwigshafen, 90 km from Frankfurt.
As for the company, BASF used to stand for Badische Anilin und Soda-Fabrik. We celebrated 150 years recently.
In ’96, there were close to 65000 people working there. It is still one of the largest integrated chemical manufacturing site in the world. It was like a city in itself. I started working in R&D, and after 2 years, I moved to production, from where I moved to product development. So I had a full range of experience in what the company did.
I also started my polymer research there; water based polymers, solvent based polymers and so on. Later on, I moved to production. We had to scale up what we did in the lab in the plant. So I became a deputy plant manager, and it was a great experience. We first tried our lab process in a small scale pilot plant reaction, and then scaled it up to a 50-100 tonnes capacity. Later, we had to use the product for its application. We did this in product development. It was after this that I came back to India. I started as a Technical trainee, and it was a great experience & career growth as well.
What has made you stay at BASF for such a long time?
Everyone always gets options in the course of their careers. But BASF is unique. See, currently we have 13 business units. I have already worked in several business units. Each of them have different value chain (product), industry & customer focus. So every time I want, the company has offered me something new.
There is no real need for me to look for challenging options outside. I started in leather and textile chemistry, then I moved to water based dispersion, after that I worked in coatings. Now I am responsible for Monomers (Isocyanates, Polyamides etc.,)
In between, you had obtained a degree in management. What was the rationale behind that?
I took it up as a part of my career development. I was looking to see what was being offered at management institutions. It was a great experience at IIM Ahmedabad, and understanding problems of companies was made much easier through case studies. It’s always easier to analyze in hindsight.
Can you tell us about your life here? Which hostel were you in?
I was a day scholar, as I grew up in Madras. I have visited several other IIT campuses too – Delhi and Bombay and others. But the Madras campus has a unique charm about it. We have a house in Velachery, and the compound wall with my house was shared with IIT. So I used to cycle around, sleep in the lab and in general have lots of fun. I used to look forward to the OAT movies, then the cultural fest; Mardi Gras (which is what we call today Saarang), musical shows. I had privilege of listening to stalwarts like MS Subbulakshmi and Mandolin Srinivas. So even though as students we had tough lives, in terms of number of hours, there are plenty of avenues of relaxation inside the campus itself.
Do you have any specific memory of our campus?
There are so many of them. But one thing special here is that the focus of the faculty on students makes us a sort of family, which is unique. We had very close interactions with our professors; we knew their family, children and all. We still have their contacts. This isn’t the case abroad; they lack the relationship that we have. This is a beautiful feature of our institute.
What is it about IIT that has held you in good stead in your career?
There are many things, but if you ask me to pick some, it would be discipline, a sense of purpose, and also a thirst for knowledge- we go further than the basic level of understanding here. Many problems in the academic, corporate or research world can be solved by just identifying the core issue. This is because today, amidst so much information, we tend to lose sight of what’s important. The mental and academic training that you receive here help filter away things and makes sure that you spot the right things.
The Startup culture has bloomed in our institute a lot, with several startups coming out of our Research Park. Do you feel that it is a good idea for students to start out independently, or is some experience necessary?
I’d say both are equal but in today’s world, when you look around, I feel that it is better to start up immediately. Gaining experience, while useful, also gives a boxed mindset. However, when you start up with that energy and drive in the prime of your life, that fear won’t be there; the fear of failure. This is a very important thing. Go out there and enjoy, but also have a plan B. In India, backup is a way of life; even if we’re going to the airport, we need multiple routes.
With all this uncertainty, it makes sense to have a fallback option.
Finally, what would you like to say to the students here?
What I would suggest to the students here is to enjoy and learn as much as possible and to not be scared; as soon as you leave and enter the corporate world, or start up you just don’t have the time. As you grow in an organization, you will mostly be alone. Have a good friend circle to discuss, challenge and bounce ideas off. The world is unique and changing; innumerable options are becoming available so everyone has the chance to succeed. Make sure that you make use of it.