March 2017

'The 'made versus make' quest is a source of competitive advantage'

Sabaleel Nandy, vice president of manufacturing at Tata Chemicals North America, shares insights on Indian manufacturing, his new role in Wyoming, and the ‘Made in India’ push and other variables surrounding the relationship between India and the United States. Excerpts from an interview conducted at Harvard University during the India Conference 2017, in which Mr Nandy participated as a panelist.

How does manufacturing in India today compare to that of manufacturing in the United States. What are the biggest differences? How does this impact the industry in both countries?
One of the biggest and most obvious differences is cost of labor, as well as the changing dynamics regarding the consumption of goods. The cost of goods is cheaper in India, but there are also more people. India is still a growing market and starting to become consumer driven, while the United States has always been so.

There are also a lot of similarities — for example, safety in the workplace is a concern in both India and the United States. Both countries are also heavily invested in innovation and the pursuit of technological advancements.

The differences and similarities between the two countries impact how work gets done and in what manner, but the end goal is usually the same: to produce a high-quality product in a safe and cost-effective manner.

What do you think is necessary to achieve the transition from ‘Make in India’ to ‘Made in India’?
At one level, this is mere semantics that has been the cause of much discussions and comments from experts ever since the “Make in India” movement was announced by the current Indian government. However, at a more fundamental level, it is about every country, including India and the US, trying to explore ways to remain ahead in terms of technological advancements and innovations, to maintain technological superiority over countries that are merely copying and deploying those innovative technologies. In my opinion, ’made versus make’ is an incessant quest for every country since this is a vital source of sustainable competitive advantage.

You recently moved from India to Wyoming with Tata Chemicals. How is Wyoming treating you? What do you enjoy most about Wyoming?
A local Wyoming newspaper reported that this year we have had the highest snowfall since 1928. I have never experienced much snow in my life before and therefore to me, it was nothing short of ’baptism by fire’. I have never had a chance to experience so much open space until I moved to Wyoming. Coming from the hustle and bustle of India, I didn’t know something as pristine as this could exist. There is so much of natural beauty that Wyoming offers.

Sabaleel Nandy, vice president of manufacturing at Tata Chemicals North America, and fellow panelists begin their discussion on manufacturing in India at the India Conference 2017 at Harvard University

Personally, it is good that my wife and kids like the place and have made a number of friends and acquaintances. Professionally, it has been a great experience so far.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your move?
On a personal level, there has been a lot of change as India and Wyoming are culturally different. At the plant, the workforce and operations are both similar in some areas and quite different in many others. However, I quite like the fact that in both places there is a certain level of ’Tataness’ that is visible and people are accommodative, committed and open-minded.

How is your day-to-day life different in Wyoming compared to India?
The basic rules of manufacturing and priorities to be pursued are broadly the same across most plants. Whether it is at Haldia or in Wyoming, we pursue safety, costs and productivity. The levers to achieve the objectives are also quite similar — it is all about execution and accountability. As the plant head, the primary objective is to make others champions of what they are doing — it is all about creating winners in others and thereby a winning team. The day-to-day life, at a macro-level, is thus not much different.

This is not to say that there aren’t differences between life in India versus Wyoming. For example, my weekends here are quite different. Opportunities outdoors, especially when the weather is favorable, are immense. Wyoming has beautiful summers and we made good use of it last year and are looking forward to doing so again this year.

You’ve been with Tata for more than 15 years. What are some of your career highlights?
A major part of my career was spent in sales and marketing. One of my first jobs was with Tata Motors. I experienced the native stage of the car business as Tata Motors was launching new cars at a rapid pace and in turn doing extremely well in the Indian market despite stiff competition. At the time, we were number two in the nation, just behind Suzuki.

After working with Tata Motors, I spent a couple of years with Tata Sons. It was a great experience as I was able to see how a number of group companies operate. I was only into my fifth or sixth year with the Tata group, so for a youngster, to be involved with some of the group’s confidential and important business tasks was quite thrilling an experience.

I then moved on to Tata Chemicals, where I am currently working. It was a great experience, when, as a team leader for Tata Swach, we successfully took an idea from the laboratory to kitchens. Tata Swach is a water purifier designed as an affordable option for low-income Indian citizens. After a fulfilling five years with Swach, I got involved with manufacturing in early 2013 when I was offered the opportunity to head our fertilizer plant at Haldia in West Bengal, India. It was a great hands-on experience where I learned a lot. After about three-and-a-half years at Haldia, I have now moved to Green River, Wyoming.

Can you provide us some more details about your experience with Tata Swach?
It was an amazing opportunity and a great product that I am proud to have been involved with. In many developing countries, access to safe drinking water is often a challenge. Illnesses like diarrhea and dysentery are caused due to lack of safe drinking water and their prevalence, especially among children, is worrisome. This is where Tata Swach came into play. The original version of the product was launched incorporating Tata Chemicals’ innovative methodology of impregnating nano silver onto rice-husk ash. In fact, in 2009, the year when Mr Ratan Tata personally launched the product, not only was the product well received by the customer, it became an overnight sensation by being the proud winner of several awards, including the Wall Street Journal’s prestigious Asian Innovation Award, the Design of the Decade award, the IFF award, the ICIS Innovation Award and the Leapvault Change Leadership Award.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned during your time with Tata?
There are three lessons that come to mind immediately:

  1. The group’s ability to “think big” and the spirit of innovation that it has tried to foster amongst its employees is directly responsible for some of us attempting initiatives like Tata Swach.
  2. The other aspect that I value a lot about the group is its emphasis on ‘humility’ and having actions speak louder than words. It is an amazing realization that ethics and humility aren’t mere words; they are actions that bind the innumerable managers in the various Tata companies.
  3. Giving back to society and making it relevant to the geography that one is in is the third aspect. I was amazed at the quality of CSR that we do here in North America and the way the team has made sure that we identify the true needs of the community that we serve. For example, we have chosen the elderly who are in need of assistance, underprivileged children, women with special needs and veterans who have served in the US armed forces. We focus on elderly people who live alone and need assistance with house maintenance, daily meals and / or hospital visits. Underprivileged children are another focus area as many come from disturbed family backgrounds and we provide them with care and assistance. We also support women with special needs and US veterans.

What do you love most about being a part of the Tata family?
It is difficult for me to pick one thing that I like most as I believe it’s a ‘package’ of Tata attributes that I appreciate. As I previously mentioned, the combination of humility and integrity while also giving back to society is important to me. Tata also has a great spirit for innovation and entrepreneurship and promotes this across borders and across companies. The beauty of the group is that it is so vast — there are opportunities for people with diverse interests to burst into different career trajectories. A person who started in sales and marketing can move into manufacturing but still be within the Tata group, holding the same values and standards of operation. Not many companies offer such width of opportunity and allow its employees to move from one vertical to another as Tata does.