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From country roads to global highway

BS Bureau | February 23, 2004

I like red as much as blue," says  Ravi Kant, executive director, commercial vehicles business unit, Tata Motors.

For a company that was famously in the red with a Rs 500-crore loss just three years ago, that mild quip from the head of the trucks and bus business speaks volumes for the distance Tata Motors has travelled since.

The remark was made in response to a comment from Business Standard that he must have developed an aversion for the colour red since he has had to grapple with losses soon after he joined the company in July 2000.

Still, all that's behind him. With Tata Motors' acquisition last week of Daewoo's global commercial vehicle business for Rs 435 crore (Rs 4.35 billion), Ravi Kant, 59, probably has a bigger challenge on his hands today.

Still in Korea, Kant is keen to talk about plans to make Tata Motors a global force in commercial vehicles, which currently account for 65 per cent of Tata Motors' turnover. The Daewoo acquisition is one of the ignition point for this ambition.

Much of that, he's learnt, involves coming to grips with the cyclical nature of the business, which Tata Motors has done over the past few years. He points out that in earlier lean seasons, the company could break even only if it utilised two-thirds of its capacity.

Today, the company will be able to cover up even if it operates at one-third capacity during the lean season. How was this achieved? By some stringent cost-cutting.

In three years, Tata Motors cut some Rs 900 crore (Rs 9 billion) worth of costs, which was mostly achieved by reworking the cost of practically each and every component that goes into the making of commercial vehicles.

Kant, however, is less forthcoming when asked about the defining moments in his own career. "I'd rather talk about this some years down the line," he says. There is plenty to talk about already, though.

An IIT Kharagpur alumnus, Kant started as a trainee engineer with Hindustan Aluminium in the 1960s. But his reputation as a marketing whiz developed first with Titan Watches, where he built the sales and marketing functions, and later at Delhi-based LML.

The latter was particularly notable because it was when Kant was senior executive director, marketing, that LML earned its moment in the sun with a 32 per cent market share in scooters.

His secret doesn't lie in sophisticated marketing techniques but, he says, in people.

"Basically, people need to be handled properly. The same employees who worked in difficult times brought about the turnaround," he says, adding, "If you build relations with employees in an unobtrusive manner, you get unimaginable results."

Kant, who talks to employees in the "language they understand" --Hindi -- says he follows two maxims in corporate life.

One: "Take a challenge and do not feel diffident about it". Two: "Do not think in terms of incremental change. It's quantum change that forces you to think differently".

The soft-spoken Kant, whose other stints include Philips India as director, consumer electronics business, Kinetic Engineering and Hawkins Cookers, clearly doesn't feel diffident about challenges. He is reputed to vest responsibility in young people.

Detractors, however, claim that while Kant has turned around the fortunes of several companies he has never been around to ensure that the company sustains the momentum. All that Kant offers to say is "no comment".

So far, Kant's driving skills have been tested on the domestic canvas. The global canvas will be the bigger test yet.

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