Mr. Satish Pai currently serving as the MD of Hindalco Industries, one of the largest producers of aluminum in the Asia, graduated from IIT Madras with a B.Tech degree from the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He serves as a board member of the Aditya Birla Group after having served in Schlumberger for 28 years. He shares with us his amazing journey from a young graduate to being one of the top business executives in the country. Here is a short excerpt from our interview with him.
I graduated with a B.Tech in Mechanical engineering in 1985, which was the last 5 year batch. I was a resident of Tapti and have lots of fond memories. Actually today I did a full tour of the football field and things like that. In my time the campus was not in the middle of such traffic jams, in fact Adyar and was one of the quieter parts of the city. We didn’t go out too much, most of the things we did were within the campus.Quark looks more fancy now than it did at that time and Taramani and Velachery were two little villages and we used to go and watch Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan movies in the theaters there which were more like thatched roofs than theaters. I also used to enjoy the fests, Inter IIT meets, weekly movies at OAT. The not so fond memories were the weekly exams we used to have. In those times we used to have exams on Monday, Wednesday and Friday every week. I was also the captain of the Inter IIT football team. We had probably the strongest football team during my time because a lot of students came from Orissa and Bengal, I myself came from Calcutta. We also used to play in the local Madras league at that time. Also Tapti used to win the football gold in Schroeter regularly. I was actively involved in football, hockey, basketball throughout my institute life.
What was your journey like after after graduating from the institute?
I was part of the last five year batch and the first 4 year batch would have graduated at the same time in June of ‘85. In Mechanical, many people were well above 9 CGPA and if 2 batches came out at the same time, I felt i was not going to survive in the job market. In the summers i had to stay back anyway to do Inter IIT training and a few of us ,around 5 took extra courses and finished all our credit requirements by December of ‘84. So that turned out to be very fortunate for me because Schlumberger came recruiting in December asking who can join immediately. So I and a friend of mine from electrical got selected. After that I spent 28 years in Schlumberger in various roles. I ended up as the COO and ran worldwide operations working in every country you can imagine so it was an interesting journey. In July of 2013 I came back to India and joined the Aditya Birla Group and now I’m the Managing Director of Hindalco.
Hindalco is one of the largest aluminium manufacturing companies and as the MD you’ll be overseeing all the managerial decisions and setting the whole vision for the company. Can you describe the day to day activities you’re involved in and any challenges you may face?
Hindalco has got an indian mining, aluminium smelting, copper smelting business and owns an international company Novelis which is the largest aluminium can roller. So these companies worth 16 Billion Dollars is my responsibility, which is around half of Aditya Birla Group’s revenue, spread over the whole country and also internationally, so day to day I travel a lot. The first few years I had to learn the Aluminium and Copper business because i came from an Oil and Gas background. I learnt by going to the field, to the mines and interacting with people. Now I play more of a coach, I get involved when there are problems, I’m setting the next 5 year strategy of the company because aluminium and copper went through a very tough time in the last 2 years, the commodity cycle was very low, so profits were low, debt was high. So there was lot of restructuring, getting the operations sorted out and now the metal cycles starts to look up so now we’re looking at what do we do in the next 5 years, what is our growth strategy so I’m quite focused on that now.
Could you Elaborate more on some of the issues Aluminium and the entire manufacturing industry faced in the past few years?
As i said, if you look at the last 3 years in India aluminium prices went down, the whole mining scandal came and all mines were deallocated by the supreme court. You had to suddenly find alternate sources of energy, lots of regulatory issues between the last government and this government that came up.So in the last few years the whole mining business in India, the regulatory and compliance scenario has changed. You have to be very compliant, very strict. So coming with my international background, I have tried to put that discipline in following rules and regulations, making sure that environmentally you do things the right way. Those are some of the big challenges that steel, aluminium and all these companies in India face today and one large thing, power shortage is one of the big issues in India for these companies.So you cannot have manufacturing going on if you don’t have steady power. So that is one of the biggest things. Take Hindalco, I say that actually we’re a power company that also makes aluminium. Because we run our own power plants because you can’t depend on the grid. If you don’t have power for 3 hours the whole aluminium pot line freezes so you’ve lost thousands and thousands of crores of rupees. So continuous and steady power is a big challenge.
How much has the institute changed since you graduated?
There are a lot more buildings and the infrastructure is more developed.I recently saw the stadium, it used to be just a track in my time, now you guys have a full fledged stadium. There’s also a lot more residential accommodation than we had. Mandakini used to be the freshers hotel, now if you go that side, there are so many more residential complexes that have come up. The playing fields, the sports infrastructure is also much more modern built out. The new department buildings like the Biotech building, a lot of the infrastructure is much more modern. There are around 8000 students nowadays, if you go back to 1985 there weren’t even half that number at that time. So the amount of students have gone up, infrastructure has gone up.
You were very actively involved in Inter IIT during your time in the institute, could you share some of your experiences?
Inter IIT was always very enjoyable, all the people would stay back in the summer for training since it used to happen in the summer back then. So there was a lot of bonding between all of us we would train together. I think i missed only one Inter IIT meet because i graduated in four and a half years, so I’ve been part of 4 Inter IITs – Bombay, Kharagpur, Kanpur and the home one in Madras. I think students who came to IITs in my time, and I don’t think it has changed much, majority of them are more academic than sporty. But in corporate life and real world the extra-curricular activities and sports prepares you more for corporate life than just academics. Therefore I feel it is very important in the IITs at least what we saw, when you play team sports, when you compete, when you participate in extracurriculars, it brings out in people skills that help in the corporate world. Looking back I feel all the guys in my batch who were active in other aspects in addition to academics are doing very well in the corporate world today. Even when I recruit now I tell people to look for well rounded individuals.
What steps do you think IIT can take to make sure students get a more well rounded, holistic education?
If you take a place like IIT Madras, there is brilliant sports infrastructure, everything you can want is there, I think now it is up to the students to utilize the facility. When you go back into the outside world you will realize it is very difficult to get this kind of access to sports infrastructure to play squash, tennis, swim. I remember in my time IIT Madras was very strong on all the Cultural activities with Mardi Gras and we had a great rock band as well. I hear there is a very good cultural scene now as well. I feel the institute is providing you with all the facilities, it has also taken the pressure of the weekly exams that we used to have off you guys so there is no reason why you cannot go out and get involved in all these activities.
Do you still keep up with all your sporting activities even now?
I have tried to, I was very active in squash until recently. Now I have switched to badminton now I play badminton, table tennis and also swim regularly. But it gets more and more difficult in corporate life, especially in India, I found that it’s very difficult. But you have to try and make the time which i have tried to do. When we used to train for Inter IIT, we used to start at the Gajendra Circle, run to the main gate and back, and that was just the warmup. After that was done we used to go to the football field and start training.
How do you maintain a work life balance?
I try to maintain it, it’s difficult. At the end of the day you have to get that balance right, because if you don’t get it right your family life will suffer. But I think you have to be conscious about it and make an effort because today it is very easy to get drowned in work and every time if you want to work you can find something to do, so the ability to step back and do other things is important. People are a lot more stressed today than they were before. Just imagine, in 1980 when I was in the institute there was no concept of mobile phones, there was no internet, programming used to be done on cards. I don’t know if today people have the ability to switch off and de-stress. I think that’s a big factor that comes into the work life balance. Even in my time in the institute there was a lot of stress among students given the academic load. Somehow I feel having all these outlets like the Saturday movie, the extra curricular activities, the sports, would allow us to de-stress and that is very important.
Any advice you would like to share with the students,going forward?
The first piece of advice I would like to give is about handling issues in the grey zone. There are no strict black and white zones in life. There may be more than one option and neither might be a wrong one. Take risks and chose one, and stick by it. Life is a game anyways. Secondly, get control over stress. If you are less stressed, all tasks will feel easier and also your output will be much improved. Lastly, be accountable for the results. A true leader never blames his team for the failures. Success might be sweet, but life is never served on a silver platter. The willingness to accept failures and learn from them is the only way true success can ever be tasted.
Author: Aditya Nanda (BT-CH ’19)