THE BATTLE may be won, but the war is far from over for Lakshmi Mittal. He has cleared the first hurdle in his bid for Arcelor, but there’s another test coming up on Friday — Arcelor shareholders will vote on whether to accept Mittal’s bid or opt for Russian steelmaker Severstal.
If Mittal wins —and there’s every indication that he will — it would be thanks largely to a team of Indian managers which has helped turn his company into the world’s largest steelmaker. Long before the world discovered the Indian manager, Mittal recognised them.
He bought sick steel plants across the globe and manned them with people picked from forgotten corners of India’s public sector steel companies, forging them into a world-class turnaround team. “Mittal’s a good talent scout,” says Sanak Mishra, ex-MD of Steel Authority of India’s (SAIL’s) Rourkela plant, who will manage Mittal’s Jharkhand project. “He can assess people well, and deploys them accordingly”.
Not surprisingly, Mittal’s A-team is full of Indians. Nine of his 17 CEOs and nine of his 16 corporate directors are Indians. They include COO Malay Mukherjee, MD (Controlling) Bhikham Agarwal and MD (Business Development, Treasury) Sudhir Maheshwari. The Mittal board also includes finance heavyweights like ICICI Chairman Narayanan Vaghul, State Bank of Mauritius Chairman Muni T. Krishna Reddy.
Maheshwari is a typical Mittal story. He was a big fan of West Indian cricket, calypso music, Harry Belafonte and Bob Marley.
So, in 1988, when Maheshwari — then with the Aditya Birla Group — was offered a job in Trinidad by Mittal's father, N.L. Mittal (then Mittal Steel chairman), he jumped at it.
If Maheshwari was consumed by his love for cricket and music, others were attracted by Mittal's vision. By 1993, Mukherjee had built a good track record at SAIL as ED of Bhilai Steel Plant. One meeting with Mittal was enough. "He had vision. He said we are in Indonesia, Trinidad and Mexico, but that's not the end of it," recalls Mukherjee. He was sent as director to Mexico when Indians were unfamiliar with the technology the Mexican plant was using. In 1992, the plant was producing half a million tons of steel per year - a quarter of its capacity.
Within six years, the plant was producing 4 million tons.
SAIL has been the breeding ground for talent in steel, much like HLL is for fast moving consumer goods. "SAIL is a good training ground," says Mishra. Over half a dozen ex-SAIL men man key Mittal plants. They include Narendra Chaudhary (Ukraine), K.A.P. Singh (Romania), Davninder Chugh (South Africa) and P.S. Venkatramanan (Mexico).
Mittal has also picked up managers from private companies like Tata Steel, Nalco, Balco, Essar Shipping, harnessed their potential and provided them opportunities for growth. Sanjay Kumar, who heads Mittal's operations in Algeria and the Czech Republic, spent 14 years at HLL and nine years with Ballarpur Industries. John Kuriyan, who mans Mittal's Trinidad operations, has worked with Dunlop and Falcon Tyres.
Many of those Mittal hired young now hold key positions in Mittal Steel. P.S. Venkatraman, who joined Mittal in 1993 from SAIL, is CEO of the Mexican operations.
Chugh, who joined Mittal in the '90s, heads South Africa. It's interesting is how same public sector unit managers, placed in a conducive environment, can make a difference. "In PSUs, they couldn't decide what to make and at what price," says a steel expert. Not so in Mittal Steel.