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Adi Engineer: Back in Power
Nandini Lakshman in Mumbai
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June 04, 2005

When one of the Tata group managers went to Pune to meet his erstwhile boss, he was surprised to find him standing on a stool, checking the wiring in his new home.

Adi Engineer, the power expert and managing director of Tata Power Company [Get Quote] (TPC) until two years ago was only doing what he was good at -- being hands on on all matters concerning power.

That's why, early this week, even as Engineer, 67, had barely begun enjoying his retired life, the non-executive director of TPC was reappointed to oversee the management and operations of the power utility major. He was summoned to fill in for Firdose Vandrevala, TPC's managing director who was moving on to a new assignment.

Tata insiders claim that this is the first time within the group that an ex-managing director is being recalled to run the company he was heading.

Although it is an interim reappointment, power experts say that recalling Engineer is a strategic move. "If there's any one person who can take on the aggressive Reliance Energy [Get Quote] today, it is Engineer," says a power consultant.

The public spats between TPC and REL were just simmering as Engineer's term was petering to an end. "TPC needed him the most when we were constantly running to the regulator in 2003-04. Belying his lanky appearance, he has the fire in the belly to fight anyone," adds a senior TPC manager.

Power sector folklore has it that in the late '90s, RV Shahi, the current power secretary, who was heading BSES then, which was later rechristened REL, went to Engineer pleading for power.

At that time, BSES' Dahanu unit had folded up and Shahi didn't want to let down his consumers. A TPC manager, who was present then, remembers Engineer saying in his no-nonsense tone, "I am not giving you power."

Having spent 42 years in the energy sector, Engineer's first job was with Hindustan Construction Company [Get Quote] (HCC). In 1958, he was part of HCC's team which built the Bhilai steel plant. "In those days, engineers were in demand. I was given my first project within a day of my joining," he had said.

He then moved to the Imperial Chemical Industry Company, where he was instrumental in setting up a detonator plant in Bihar in 1965 and the largest fertiliser plant in Uttar Pradesh. If there is one thing that he is really proud of, it is the 900-foot chimney he built for Trombay's 500 Mw project off Mumbai.

Even as Engineer is hailed as the architect of TPC today, Tata managers say he is a control freak. "He is too hands on and just can't delegate," says one manager.

Adds another manager, "Even though he wasn't the quintessential suited-booted Tata manager, he was overpowering and we all lived in his shadow."

But what endeared Engineer to them was his habit of carrying his mobile handset in his waistband "like the masses".

"Empowerment is just not in Engineer's lexicon," say people who have worked with him. This, they say, has resulted in the lack of succession planning in the company, something that is an issue with many a Tata group firm.

"With no proper second rung in place, the group had to recall Engineer," says a human resources consultant.

Engineer is tightlipped about his new role. He claims he never was away from TPC. Sure. He is the chairman of NDPL, the 51:49 distribution joint venture between TPC and the Delhi government.

Not that he is a workaholic. Weekends are strictly for the family and he finds enough time to practice his yoga. "I have not put on weight since I was young," he once said in an interview. Now, all eyes will be on his latest project.

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