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Oilman on a marketing drive

Hemangi Balse | October 13, 2003

U Sundararajan, the freshly anointed independent director on the board of Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, could easily give corporate chieftains a lesson or two in running their companies. It is said that if he made mistakes, he had no qualms about admitting and rectifying them.

When he was the chairman and managing director of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited, it was at his behest that the company decided to build its lubricant business further and struck a joint venture with Shell to market their premium lubricants.

When he saw customers preferring cheaper competitive lubes, he promptly relaunched his own brand under Automol in the late 1990s and which is now again being relaunched as the Mak brand.

BPCL then shied away from entering the high-risk upstream (exploration and production) oil sector. "Our key competence is marketing," Sundararajan said then.

Today, his replacement, S Behuria has been instrumental in reversing that decision. The company has now tied up with ONGC to bid for the exploration blocks under the fourth round of the new exploration licensing policy.

A workaholic to the core, who just cannot do without his cigarettes, coffee and books, Sundararajan is believed to have notched up quite a few visits to the hospital.

The reason? Stress-related diseases. He is known to hold board meetings and occasional media interviews on Sundays when most of India Inc is polishing its handicaps on the golf course.

A chartered accountant who started with Shell, Sundararajan climbed up the ladder with speed. He was earlier director finance at BPCL.

As the CMD, he led a turnaround in the company with a helping hand from management consultant Arthur D Little.

Employees say that Sundararajan was quick to gauge that with deregulation, the entry of multinationals and private players would mean improved customer service and heightened expectations.

Thus began BPCL's marketing thrust. Says a manager, "Most importantly, as part of the change process he changed himself too." Working with consultants, he read a host of books on human resource and marketing besides tomes on finance.

"That stint really opened him up. For a better customer focus, he realised that communication skills were vital," adds the manager.

BPCL was the first company to unleash a marketing campaign and offer better services to consumers -- a precedent that other oil companies willingly followed.

Whether it was setting up retail outlets or foraying into lubricants and LPG, BPCL virtually showed the way.

He also worked on cutting red tape. He empowered his committee of executive (functional) directors to take decisions and sign important documents instead of waiting for his nod. Revolutionary? Definitely for a public sector undertaking.

Colleagues know Sundararajan as an extremely unassuming man. They say he has to be goaded to put on a jacket over his half-sleeved shirt for important meetings or photo-ops.

A highly superstitious man, they say he refused to even upgrade his vehicle or shift from his two-bedroom flat when he took over at BPCL.

A senior executive in the oil sector says, "He is an intelligent man who works not for any monetary rewards but to surmount intellectual challenge."

When the government was looking for someone to draw a road map for the hydrocarbon industry, Sundararajan seemed a natural choice.

The Sundararajan committee report on hydrocarbon was soon to become the basis for the Hydrocarbon Vision 2020.

Six months ago, Sundarajan was appointed as advisor to Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited working on HR and marketing-related issues.

His mandate is to transform HPCL's organisational structure, galvanise the field force and bring them closer to the market.

Sundararajan says that this is perhaps his most challenging assignment. That's understandable with HPCL on the block.

"Unlike in BPCL, I don't know the employees well enough to gauge their reactions. Here, I have a cautious approach," he adds. This keeps him working throughout the week, attending HR sessions even during the weekend.

All eyes will now be focused on the introverted Sundararajan as he takes on the suave expertise of ONGC's CMD Subir Raha.

Says an ONGC employee, "With a mind of his own, it would be interesting to see the coexistence between Raha and Sundararajan."

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