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Global, out of India

By Subir Roy in Bangalore
June 18, 2007 12:30 IST
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Ravi Uppal hasn't done something lately that can grab newspaper headlines. He has risen one notch up the corporate ladder in the global automation and power equipment firm, ABB. But a lot hangs by this hierarchical change which is symbolic in many ways.

Uppal joins the top management team of the group, its executive committee. In this position he will report to the CEO on the performance of all the markets or regions in which the company has carved up the world, plus take direct responsibility for the group's top customers.

Uppal's rise in ABB -- from being in charge of India, to overseeing the south Asia-Pacific region which stretches from Afghanistan to Australia via ASEAN, to now looking after all the regions of the world -- has run parallel to the exceptional growth of ABB's business in India. In six years (2000-06), revenue has gone up 5.4 times and simultaneously margins have improved.

Till a few years ago, for ABB, India was doing well but China was considered to be in a different league. Not any more. India is now number one in growth rate among all of ABB's major markets in the world. So, Uppal's rise partially symbolises the rise of Indian manufacturing.

It also symbolises the rise of Indian managerial talent. It is not as if ABB was unexposed to exceptional managers of Indian origin. Uppal, in fact, replaces another Indian name on the executive committee, Dinesh Paliwal who has just left the company.

But the difference is that whereas Paliwal was an NRI who has always worked in the West, Uppal (55) has spent the major part of his professional life (20 years) with ABB in India. So, Uppal is really an Indian manager out of India who has made good globally, as opposed to the likes of Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo who represent the successful Non-Resident Indian manager.

A quick look at Uppal's CV reveals why he was destined for high places. He has that classical Indian double distinction -- alumnus of IIT-Delhi and IIM-Ahmedabad. Plus, his first job was as assistant to the legendary public sector manager, V Krishnamurthy who was then heading BHEL and crafting it to become a future giant.

Despite being a high flying manager in MNCs for most of his working life, there is something quite earthy and indigenous about him. His accent remains quite Punjabi and his energy level equally so.

The combination of engineering fundamentals, business school staple and Indianness have given Uppal a distinctive management style. On taking over at the top of ABB India five years ago after a brief stint in Volvo India, he decided that he needed to make a splash in the first 100 days to establish that he meant business.

So, several managers went out the door. Then internal barriers were broken down, quite literally, through the adoption of open plan offices.

To establish the Indian imperative, Uppal has taken took two notable initiatives in his career. In Volvo, he stopped the holding of pujas within the office or the shop floor. And when he returned to ABB he got HR to recruit from literally all over India, resulting in several intakes from the northeast. Thus his management ethos includes being both strictly secular and inclusive.

ABB India under his leadership has also got the future tense right. It is the IT leader in south Asia-Pacific and is implementing the wiring up (ERP installation) of the region. The global engineering centre in Bangalore is the group's biggest, detailing the engineering and design of turnkey projects. Plus the R&D operation in India, part of global R&D, is growing fast.

So, Uppal symbolises the rise of Indian manufacturing, management, IT and also authentic Indianness. That's saying a lot.

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Subir Roy in Bangalore
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