To the casual eye, the Essar group’s corporate headquarters at Worli in Central Mumbai, looks pretty much the same as it was a decade ago. But look closely and there are signs of a change sweeping the portals of this steel-to-oil business group. A change from an essentially India focussed, loosely structured business conglomerate to modern enterprise with global ambitions.
The new business centre, for instance, which lies adjacent to the lobby. Visiting executives from Hazira in Gujarat to Algoma in Egypt use the facility that functions round the clock, to stay connected with their operations.
The change is perhaps more apparent as you meet the people who drive the company’s key operations. Till a year ago, for multinational executives Essar was in no way a professional destination of choice. Today, executives from Dell Computers, Citigroup, British Gas and other high-profile companies are taking up important assignments at the $8 billion group.
"We recruited around 200 executives from multinationals in the last one year alone," said Adil Malia, group president (HR), Essar Group. "This clearly signals a change in our culture."
The group is on a hiring spree as part of the promoters’ plan to professionalise its top management. "The Essar group is appointing professional CEOs to manage its critical businesses," said Nimesh Kampani, chairman, JM Financial Services. "This will create positive changes."
Sujaya Banerji, who joined Essar from British Gas 18 months ago, represents the changing executive profile of Essar. Banarjee admits she was reluctant to join the group when she got the job offer.
"From outside, I saw Essar Group as a low-profile, family-run organisation," she said. "I did not see a readiness to execute top-end HR practices. But after joining, I realised that the organisation has an entrepreneurial mindset."
As the chief learning officer, Banerji is imparting knowledge to 38,000 employees in the group by deploying strategies that she had imbibed during her fairly long stint at the British multinational. Young executives are being groomed to take up bigger roles.
Aloke Goenka, 30, who had joined the group as manager (exploration and production), from HSBC 15 months ago, has recently been promoted as joint general manager. "In my old organisations, I did not get many opportunities to try out new ideas. Here, fresh ideas from youngsters are encouraged," he said.
Essar, which has been hiring global talent because of its rapid overseas expansion in steel and oil businesses, has roped in Rahul Taneja as the head of global acquisitions. A former Dell Computers executive, Taneja is now busy wrapping up some high profile hiring from global oil firms.
Executive search firm officials, however, feel that Essar has still not managed to attract top talent due to its past track record. Many top-notch professionals left Essar in the late 1990s after its projects ran into rough weather, resulting in payment defaults to financial institutions.
"There is a lot of positive buzz about the group and this has to be sustained," said K Sudarshan, managing partner, EMA Partners, a global executive search firm. "But Essar has some distance to catch up with other big business houses like the Tatas or the Birlas."
But others are worried about the how the funds-flush group, with cash from its Vodafone stake sale, will expand its global footprint through acquisitions. "There is a lurking fear whether the pace at which the group is moving is sustainable at a time when the global economy is slowing down," said the CEO of a financial services company, who requested anonymity.
The hunt for global talent and transformation of human resources culture began in 2006. That was when the group bounced back into robust financial health after reeling under debts for a long time.
At that point, group director Prasanth Ruia realised that it was time to build a reservoir of talent and put in place suitable processes to ensure a place in the rapidly growing global economy. "Acquisition of globally competent talent, nurturing a facilitative culture and adopting forward looking people practices and processes are some of the hallmarks of our global transformational agenda," he said.