Putting Young Minds To Work

Milestones in the Journey

Clearly, the most important decision that my wife and I made was to come back to India way back in 1993, that was a turning point. It was a very difficult decision. It was not fashionable at that time for people who have lived in US for so long to return back home. And having lived there for 18 years for me to decide along with my wife, in fact, she was the driving force behind it, it was not me, I didn’t want to come back, she was the driving force. To come back it was a difficult decision and let me also say very honestly that at that time the pay structure for professionals was nowhere near what it is today. So in terms of even the earning was tough, not just coming back to India, but earning. But we took that decision, headed of course by the fact that Mahindra showed me what might happen here in terms of aspiration that any R&D professional would have in a difference, in technology, in product offerings and so on, and that was a very attractive value proposition for me to come back and try and make a difference to a great company that we are here in Mahindra and that was one turning point. The second turning point for me was clearly was completing Scorpio and seeing a very successful launch of Scorpio which is what then led e to move away from technical responsibility to more business management responsibility and that in a way was completely new career for me. So in some sense, I have got 3 distinct careers – one, GM in purely technology area, second in Mahindra in product development engineering and third in Mahindra n general management and business responsibility area. So, these were the 2 turning points.

From Detroit to Nasik  

Well, let me say that I am generally perceived to be a left brain person, but the decision to come back to India and join Mahindra in Nasik was clearly a right brain decision, where I did not go through a deep analysis of spreadsheet of what is left, what is right, what is wrong, plusses and minuses, I just said – I am coming. I had not even seen Nasik, I didn’t know what Nasik was like. And when I landed in Nasik and went to work the first day, I looked at this building where I was taken through, I said, “where is R&D”? They said, “this is R&D”. I said, “This is it?” I said , “Oh my God, what have I done? Have I done something wrong? How can R&D happen in a two storey 2000 sq. ft. building like what we have here”? It was a shock, but at the same time it was also a challenge that was given at that time that can we take this R&D and create something that we have today that is MRV – which is over 75 acres of land with over two and a half thousand people working. So that’s the professional attraction that was there for me to come into that setup which was very rudimentary in terms of comparing R&D to any developed international  automotive company to what we had that time and now what we have today.

Challenges and learnings at Mahindra

If I talk about challenges, let me talk about what allowed it to happen. There are many challenges and we can talk about that for a long time, but what allowed it to happen was not having a legacy of this is how it is done, and therefore we must do it this way. So, everything that we did in the Scorpio days was inventing ourselves, what is the next step. We didn’t have a book to follow. So one might say that not having a book to follow is a disadvantage, as we don’t have processes and systems, but on the other hand, it is an advantage because we are not bound by something that somebody has written in a book 10 years ago. And that’s what allowed us to do what we did. There was a famous story going around that we were talked about at that time also that one large US company where the CEO understood what we are trying to do wanted to help us in engineering, but told their team not to interfere with the way we are working because if we worked their way, we will not be able to innovate. So, it is that freedom that we had and lack of past legacy which helped us to invent ourselves. The challenges were that we had nothing. When we started Scorpio development in 97, we had no people, no process, no infrastructure, no rule books, nothing. So everything was ground up. The conference room that we set up, the first conference room to get people to define what Scorpio would look like, that conference room still is there in Kandivali and something that I obviously have a very close attachment to, where we had numerous meetings, numerous meetings, where we used to meet every Saturday without fail, and many times during the week also to chart out next week. It was week after week – what we do next week. And also since in some sense, we had nothing to lose because what we were trying to so was build a new company so to say, because we were trying to get out of the old product that we had inherited from our licensor to creating a new sort of products of our own and if it didn’t work, we were doomed, but if we didn’t do it we were doomed. And therefore, we had nothing to lose. And therefore, our ability to take risks was very high. We took risks with trusting young people in their ability to do things, we took risks in working with new suppliers of materials, we took risks in working with new suppliers of equipment, we took risk in the way we set up our plant and one can call it risk or one can call it luck but all of it sort of came together in a way that gave us a hit product that gets talked about even today after 13 years of launch.


Role of R&D in Automobile

I think it’s a very good question. If I go back to the time that I graduated from IIT Kanpur in 1975, long time ago, at that time there was only one company in the auto space that anybody ever talked about which was worth going to for an R&D engineer, for an engineer who wanted to remain an engineer. And that was a dream job, I applied, I didn’t get in and even when I came back to India in 93, that strangely was the same. There was only one company, the same company that still had any kind of R&D that was worth talking about in the 4 wheeler space, there was some in the 2 wheeler space, and from then to now, if you look at anyone who is growing in the auto industry, whether it is 2 wheeler or 4 wheeler now, R&D is a very integral part of it. The R&D that is being done in India is by no means a compromised R&D. We are using the same techniques that anyone used anywhere in the world, we are using the same suppliers, same level of equipment, same delivery. So today, India being a market where every player is there, any Indian company also has to be able to compete with them on equal footing. It cannot be that I am an Indian company and therefore I am not going to offer as much. Customer doesn’t care. Customer would give preference I think to an Indian company provided we give the same value, the same technology, the same performance that comes from a multinational. And therefore, for us to be able to compete, we have to be absolutely equal. So, whether it is safety, whether it is equipment requirement, whether it is liability, whether it is fuel efficiency, whether it is structure, whether it is comfort, speeding & handling, anything, it has to be at par. Therefore, the kind of people that we have, the kind of technology that we have, the kind of consultants that we use in our R&D centre are like anybody else and therefore, when any engineer, if he really wants to enjoy engineering, and I am saying that not because I am in the auto industry, auto development is the most fascinating thing for an engineer to work on.

Drivers of Development in Automobile industry

If I become and go down to very specifics, what is driving the development of automobiles today are 3 things –

  1. Regulation
  2. Customer demand
  3. Competition

And technology in a way supporting all three. Regulation means emition safety mostly. Customer demand means comfort, performance, design, that is styling and competition means new technology coming in by players from all around the world, which is coming into India also, obviously and Indian company, whether it is Mahindra or anybody else for that matter, has to make sure that on these three axis, regulation has to be met– of course, there’s no if’s and buts about it, the other two also, we are as good as anybody else. And therefore, when an automobile engineer comes into India, and one advantage that I must say one professional engineer has in India is that you are thrown into the pond as soon as you come in. There is no question of 17 people with grey hair there to hold your hand and help you because everybody is young and therefore, you get to do things that you often in an MNC it may take years to het to do that because of their vast pool of trained, experienced engineers vs. our very young team. And the average age of all our teams have always remained 27. So, Scorpio was 27, Xylo was 27, XUV was 27 and even today, as we talk about – 27 has become 28, but not 35. So, what I am trying to say is that at a very young age, at the entry level, engineers get the opportunity to work on key projects and the key technologies and really make a difference and not remain trainees for 5 years. Very first year, they are really making a difference and that’s exciting. I mean today’s engineers, unlike when I was a young engineer, don’t want to wait so many years to start making any difference, they want – they say I am ready, I have done 4 years of college, I have done 6 months of training and now tell me what I can do, don’t tell me that I need to learn for 4 more years.

Advice to Faulty & Students of IIT Madras

It’s a very deep question, not something that I just want to give a glib answer to. First of all I must say that the opportunity that I was given to be the Chairman on board of the IIT Madras was something that now I’m finding very very exciting for me, very interesting because now when I see how IITs work – I didn’t have any connect with education in the last several years, so seeing how IITs work, what are the difficulties they face, I am beginning to see the other side of defence to see what we need to do. What is needed today in one sentence is a much better interaction between academia and industry today in India. The talent that is available with faculty, not just in IIT Madras, but I am coming in contact with many faculty members in top institutes since I’m – I can only talk about that – the talent that is available here in faculty to do both fundamental research, but more so, applied research that industry can use immediately is very high, very high and comparable I think to anywhere else, but the opportunities that they are getting is very low. The kind of research funding that we have today in IIT even – and IIT probably gets the bigger piece of the pie – is dismal. For IIT Madras with faculty strength of about 800, a total research funding is about 300 crores. That is 25 – 30 lacs per faculty member – that is very small. We need to find ways and means of increasing that. And that cannot come from Government of India, that has to come from the industry. I don’t think we should look to the government to fund research. We have to look to the industry to fund research in IIT and not because t is a good thing to do, but because it is something that will add value. And I do believe that if there is a proper interaction that happens, little bit of understanding on both sides what the needs are, the industry side and the academia side, then I think Indian industry will benefit a lot. And it’s not an instant return. So somebody looking to what will happen in 3 months, sorry nothing will happen. But if you are looking to say what can happen in 3 years, lot can happen. And therefore, I think if industry works very closely with IITs and NITs, a lot can happen in terms of helping the institute to strengthen their ability to produce good research and good student who will go out and make a difference and for the industry to be able to get access to very high calibre of researchers. That’s on the research side. On the academic side, today also the calibre of people who go into IITs has not dropped by any means from the time of 1975 – 1971 when I went into IIT, my goodness – but what has changed is the no. of opportunities there are compared to what it used to be at that time and therefore many of the students don’t want to make their career in engineering and many of the students after IIT want to go into MBA, go into management or even go into various fields – investment banking, IT, so on and so forth, which is fine, I mean of course we cannot say that that should not happen and that is giving good career opportunity, therefore it should happen. But what is perhaps missing is that students don’t realize the opportunities available in manufacturing and industry for applying their knowledge, for having fun doing it, is not all for having fun doing it and also earning potential. So it’s not that manufacturing industry does not pay well. In fact, if you have to compare the compensation of the R&D engineers, it’s by no means compromised. They are very well paid today. Perhaps somehow that reason is not there. So, where I would like to start with before we talk about compensation career, what do you do, if you as a graduate go to an industry, what are the opportunities available to you. And there still is an old mindset that nothing much happens, we will be not doing anything meaningful, we will be one behind technology, none of that is true, no matter which industry you are in, because India is a global market place. In a global market place with global companies here, no matter which industry you are in, you have to be talented. You have to be up to mark in technology that you offer in your product whether you are in FMCG or whether you are in automotive, or whether you are in some other industry making soap or making whatever it might be. So I think if we can encourage that, if we can have better understanding of what the industry has to offer for top engineering colleges, will attract more and more bright minds into industry, into manufacturing, and that will serve well because we have very talented students.

Advice to Tier 2 Engineering Colleges

I would say that sometimes we underestimate the kind of talent that is available in the next level engineering institutes. More often than not, the students there perhaps come from a background where they have not had an opportunity to showcase their personality and personality also makes a difference in how you see a person. But many of our very good engineers have come from unknown colleges and some of our vice president engineers have not come from IIT or NIT, but from local colleges and Government colleges that we have. However, what is lacking very clearly is the infrastructure available in these colleges – for laboratories, for classrooms, even sometimes for text books affordability wise, is not competitive. How do we support these colleges in a sense that these students get the same opportunity at least, as one will get in the IIT or NITs and the faculty members – how do we ensure that good faculty members are willing to come and teach in these colleges. Now, I don’t think that we should pretend that these colleges should become research oriented colleges. IITs and NITs are research oriented and they should remain that way. I think these colleges should focus on teaching. These colleges should focus on producing very good engineers, very practical engineers who will come in and do lot of work in both R&D and manufacturing for top companies in India which do not have to go into sort of medium and small scale only. And they can do it, maybe we will have to work a little harder with them, when they come in maybe we will have to work a little harder with them. But raw talent is there. Perhaps what we get is not as well cooked as we might get from IIT or NITs, but the talent is there. We will have to work a little harder.

Role of Online Education

Well, online education is getting a lot of attention these days as you know. MOOT programmes that the government of India is supporting in a big way, even IITs and TTMs are creating MOOT courses for online education, it is a good opportunity. Good opportunity because you can connect with the best of faculty members and so on and so forth. What maybe missing and I’m not really – I’ve not looked at the online courses personally to see what is the difference between them – what maybe missing is the opportunity for that one to one interaction, that physical interaction that sometimes might make a difference, not everybody perhaps can feel as comfortable sitting in front of the computer screen and watching it for about an hour rather than sitting in a classroom surrounded by other students around you. That environment makes a difference. But in terms of practicality, online digital education is a very good thing to happen because it does make the availability possible of high end education to many people and perhaps it reduces cost of education also we have to leverage a lecture for lot many more people and that’s important. That’s important, cost of education is high, though today it is greatly subsidised by Government of India, but I don’t know if that can last forever. As more and more people want to go into higher education, perhaps there is a need for it. So, I think if I was to project, I would see digital education play a very important role in developing a person, especially when it comes to post degree training that organizations like us have to provide. For us to provide classroom training is very expensive.

Every large organization, every good organization will have a very well laid out programme for development of the people, development both on the functional side, that is technical side and on the sort of managerial behaviour side and we have also very strong programme where we have clearly defined sort of templates – when you join the company as an engineer, this is what you will do over the next several years on both sides. What we tend to do in Mahindra, more so because we are large in size, we tend to have most of the programmes in-house. That is we don’t send our people out for generic programmes as much as small organizations might do, because we think that by doing so, we are able to structure the programme to suit the need that we have in our company for the kind of work that we do. But the learning is – sort of happens in 3 parts – One is the classroom training where we will assign a person to go and attend the course for 3 days or 5 days or 7 days. But that’s a very small part of learning. That’s not from where the major learning comes from. The major learning comes from the project assignment that we do where we try and see if it is possible for us to take you out of what you do as a normal thing and assign a different project for you and do it from the view of giving you learning. In MRV, which is where R&D centre is, we have invested approx of 30 crores to set up what we are calling Mahindra technical academy. It is a large building where we have classrooms, where we have labs, so it will look like you have walked into a university and we have experts who come in and teach – our own people who come in and teach, so the young engineers who come in at GET – gazetted engineers training, goes through a lot of learning in that Mahindra Technical academy and it is also used for continuous learning. So then we bring back people and make – give them very very focussed exposure, let’s say designing trims in a car and let’s say we will teach you designing trims for a whole week. We have lot of such intervention that we do. It’s a very important part because of how fast the technology is changing. Now one looks at a car and says – car is same – it’s still four wheels, one steering, four doors or two doors, nothing has changed, but lot has changed. If you go inside the car, the car of today is nothing like the car of 15-20 years ago. But one thing that I want to say is that learning is something where the learner has to have the quest for learning. It’s not something that can be forced upon you. It’s not something that will happen because you wouldn’t get promoted if you don’t learn. Then the learning will not be effective. The only way learning can be effective is when you have the quest for learning. And sometimes I get a little bit concerned that there is a feeling amongst youngsters that I know it all. Yes, I have a lot of respect for youngsters. I think their ability to grasp, their overall general knowledge, their ability to multi-task is much much better than what I remember when I was their age. But I think that the feeling that I know it all should not be there. There is lot to learn. There is nobody – nobody who knows it all.

Especially when things are changing so fast, you have to keep updated. So you think that continuous learning is something that needs to be ingrained with a quest of learning through your career?


Management lesson learnt from a failure

Always a difficult question to answer, but somethings I cannot talk about, somethings I can talk about. I think the biggest lesson that I have learnt, and I may be thinking n my feet, is that you have to have courage of conviction. Often there have been instances where I knew in my heart that this is how I should do it, but then I backed off for some reason or the other, and find 2 years later that I wish I had done it that way. So, courage of conviction is very important. When we think of a new product to be launched or a new segment to be created, nobody knows what’s right or wrong, nobody knows whether it’s going to work or not, but if you don’t have the courage, then you will always keep doing incremental things and never take the bigger step. The bigger step will always require courage of conviction. So my biggest learning is that you have to know enough to have confidence that what I think is right, will turn out to be right, and that won’t  happen if you don’t know enough. So, you have to learn enough, you have to know enough, you have to rely on data, information, consultation, but in the end as a senior leader in any organization, you have to connect the dots. And if you cannot connect the dots properly, you cannot be effective. So if somebody asks me what does the CEO do, my one sentence response is that what a good CEO does is connect the dots, because there is an expert for everything. There is an expert for marketing, there is an expert for selling, there is an expert for R&D, there is an expert for manufacturing, for buying, finance, HR, CEO only connects the dots. So, that’s my big learning.

Proudest moment

I think in the career – will have to be Scorpio. Will have to be Scorpio because it was a transition for me personally, it was a transition for the organization and it was a transition to some extent, though it may sound too big a thing for me to say, but transition to some extent for how the Indian auto industry views itself in some sense, in a very indirect sense. What I liked about it the most other than the tangible results that it gave us was the ca do attitude, the courage that we can take on things that are very risky, that have been never been done before and still succeed against best of people and that kind of in a way changed our whole approach to the way we do business, no matter which vertical we are in. And that’s the reason I consider it as my proudest moment. Of course I cannot take credit for what happened, there was a whole team that was working on it, there was management support that we had from my Boss at that time, Mr. Allan Durand and of course Anand Mahindra and the whole board, but that to me personally was my proudest moment.

Message to young engineers

If you want to do well and first of all, once you define what doing well is – doing well is not just about what my title is or what my compensation is. Doing well is – have I felt end of the day that I have made a difference, and if you have not made a difference, then you have not done well. So I come back to the message I want to give is that first you must understand what will make you feel that you have achieved something and define that. Don’t just say that it will happen. Define that, sit down and define that. It can be different things for different people, doesn’t matter. But define what will make you feel good that you’ve achieved something in life and whatever you do, do it with passion. Don’t do it for any other reason. If you don’t have passion for it, don’t do it. Don’t let anybody force you to do something that you don’t want to do.

Pawan Goenka - Executive Director, Mahindra & Mahindra
Pawan Goenka - Executive Director, Mahindra & Mahindra - Dr. Pawan Goenka was appointed as the Executive Director of Mahindra & Mahindra in 2013 where he played a key role in the design and launch of ‘Mahindra Scorpio’. Dr. Goenka is the past President of SIAM, Society of Automotive Engineers India, and ARAI Governing Council, and was a Board Member of National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC) from Aug.2013 to Aug.2014. He is also a National Council member of CII, and Chairman of Board of Governors of IIT Madras.
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