Back to the future

     Print Edition: Jan 9, 2011

On a wintry evening in 1992, when India was taking baby steps on the reform path, an executive director at Steel Authority of India's Bhilai plant was at a sit-down dinner with the top brass of steel and mining major BHP (now BHP Billiton, after a merger in 2001) in Australia. Malay Mukherjee, then in his early 40s, was part of a delegation visiting BHP plants to learn about new technologies and processes to increase productivity. While dinner was being served, the pager of BHP's deputy managing director began to beep. Later, when someone from the Indian delegation enquired about the message, he showed it to all present. The communiqué was a red flag of sorts to the top brass to warn that emissions were higher than the permissible limit at one of BHP's units.

Malay Mukherjee
CEO, Essar Steel

Previous employer ArcelorMittal in the UK

Why I came back I never left India not to come back. It was just a question of right conditions, opportunity and position

If I was not in India I would have missed out on the most interesting and dynamic phase of development in India

High point in India Being a participant in the steel industry's rapid changes

Low point in India The time you spend on external issues and the resultant loss of productivity. These external issues can definitely be addressed through more clarity in rules.
That was just one eye-opener for the ED from the state-owned steel major. The other revelation for the IIT Kharagpur alumnus: how environment-friendly and technologicallyadvanced the Australian steelmaker was (after the merger with Billiton, BHP's steel business was hived off into a separate company).

That visit opened Mukherjee's eyes - and his mind. A few months after he returned to India, Mukherjee received an offer from steel baron L.N. Mittal to manage an ailing unit in Mexico that he had just acquired. Mittal knew something about Mukherjee as he used to procure steel from the Bhilai plant.

It was not an easy decision for Mukherjee to leave a public sector job. But the chance to work in more efficient climes convinced him to head for Mexico. He moved in as ED and went on to become CEO of Mittal's Mexican unit. It was a hi-tech plant with an electric arc furnace that was designed to produce two million tonnes of flat steel a year. The big difference: in Mexico, a workforce of 1,800 was needed to make two million tonnes of steel. Back home, the Steel Authority needed 50,000 people to produce two times that quantity. "It was something totally new to me," recalls Mukherjee.

But the Mexico unit was still losing money. Mukherjee was instrumental in turning it around - the strategy became a case study at Harvard. From there, he moved around the world, applying the turnaround touch to sick units that Mittal was buying for a song. In 1996, Mukherjee moved to Kazakhstan where he spent three years as the company's CEO; by 1999, Mukherjee had moved to Europe as head of Ispat Europe. In 2006, when Arcelor and Mittal merged, Mukherjee was appointed to the group management board. Until he retired in 2008, Mukherjee headed the mining, stainless steel and pipes & tubes operations in Asia, Africa and CIS.

"I never left India not to come back," says Mukherjee. He had some hard-nosed reasons for making the trip back to his homeland. The developed world is expected to grow at 1-2 per cent; India can grow in double digits. In September 2008, Mukherjee accepted an offer from the brothers Ruia of Essar Steel to head its steel business, which includes the US, Canadian and Asian markets.

Mukherjee, who has visited China at least 40 times in the past 10 years, says India can replicate China's success in manufacturing. "The growth of China is because of its infrastructure. The rest follows." He's in the right place, at the right time - yet again.

- Anand Adhikari

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