It’s my third apologetic phone call in 45 minutes. I am so embarrassed that I’m half hoping the man waiting for me at the lobby of the Taj Lands End in Mumbai will reschedule the meeting for another day. Then I could actually get there early and avoid explaining how, despite numerous trips to Mumbai, the traffic outmanoeuvres my commuting time calculations every single time.
As I walk into the hotel, with dread and squirm plastered all over my face, Arun Jaura, chief technology officer at India’s largest sports utility vehicle maker Mahindra and Mahindra (M&M), is hunkered over a laptop, adjusting numbers on a spreadsheet. Had I arrived another hour late, he probably wouldn’t have noticed. In fact, I deeply suspect he is engrossed with yet another paper on engine design, his speciality.
The 48-year-old has five patents in auto technology to his name and won the Society of Automotive Engineers Technical Fellow award in April for the societal benefits of the technology he invented.
Well oiled: An award winner for maintaining the work-life balance (Illustration by: Jayachandran / Mint)
Jaura is also a prolific author. He has published 35 papers in several international and national journals—and I have a niggling suspicion that more people have read him than they have me. When I arrive at the bar, he is already halfway through a vodka on the rocks.
Jaura welcomes me with a wide smile. He brushes off my apologies, saying he’s got a lot of work done while waiting for me.
After winning a gold medal for his Bachelor’s degree at the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar, Jaura joined the state-owned Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO). This was a far cry from the jobs he later moved on to. The young engineer spent time at the state-funded firm that was awash with funding, but did not have the pressure to produce results.
“The good thing was that we would get a lot of funding and access to the best technology and instrumentation,” says Jaura. “And you are not punished for your failures. They nurture you, without handholding, and it made me a good researcher because it gave me the space to learn and grow.”
Some of that training also taught him to meld different technologies and make them work together—a cornerstone of modern automobile engine development.
In the eighth year of the job, Jaura says he did the unconventional thing—he decided to go back to school.
At the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, in between chai, sambhar and living in the college hostel, Jaura completed a Master’s programme in precision engineering and, just a few months after completing the programme and returning to DRDO, decided to go deeper into research.
“Let’s go do a little more academics, is all I thought,” says Jaura, casually. “And I took up research in Montreal because they offered me a teaching assistance and a scholarship.”
Jaura didn’t disappoint his university. By the time he completed his thesis, he had won a nationwide gold medal for his work on artificial assembly (robotics).
But, somewhere along the way to completing that paper, he was offered a job at Ford Motor Co. in Detroit—a stint that shaped the way he worked thereafter.
But, by Jaura’s own admission, his love of machines may have started when he was very young.
He fondly recalls his childhood in Chennai, and how, on weekends, he would go to see battle tanks being tested. He remembers being taken in by the large monsters of steel whirling out dust and spinning with an agility that seemed hard to associate with the behemoth machine. “I used to be fascinated and go, wow, it is so impressive, how do they do that?” he says.
Little did the then 10-year-old realize that his fascination with machines would stay with him and shape his career.
At Ford, Jaura was pushed into a team with a clear mandate: Make the world’s first hydrogen engine—something that would run a car on odourless, colourless material.
“Since it was almost impossible to do, our attitude was, ‘Let’s do it’,” says Jaura. That was in early 2000. For nearly two years, Jaura led a team of some 40 others who worked on an engine system that was all but impossible.
In 2004, the engine work was complete and Jaura had won the Henry Ford Technology Award the same year for the world’s first hydrogen engine propelled hybrid vehicle.
“That was one of my very significant achievements,” says Jaura. But after they won, “I thought I wanted more stars on my shoulder. I’ve always loved challenges. Even in school, I would take the toughest courses on offer.”
So, he went on to get four more patents, filed in a period of just 18 months.
Jaura makes it sound effortless. I can’t help thinking that he pulls complex engine systems out of his bag when he gets bored, and voila! it’s patented. He is on to his second vodka for the evening when his phone goes off.
It’s his wife, Meenakshi, and he says he will be late for dinner because he’s still at that appointment.
His experience with research teams and impossible goals has probably made Jaura a very patient man. And he patiently asks me to think nothing of the delay.
“I travel a lot,” Jaura explains, “but, whenever I’m back in Mumbai, I have breakfast and dinner with my family. I like spending time with them because they miss me a lot when I travel.”
Despite the work pressure, Jaura, who juggles work and his time with his family of three children and a wife, insists his patentable work doesn’t take away from his downtime. At Ford, he has also won the work-life balance award.
And maintaining that balance was the reason he moved back to India after years overseas.
“My wife was in India in 2001 to perform the last rites after her father’s death. Some five days later, my father died of a heart attack. I would say that was a turning point and we started thinking of family and moving back to India.”
In May 2005, that aspiration turned into reality after he was offered a job at M&M.
At the Indian maker of Scorpio vehicles, Jaura is likely to be in the goldfish bowl. In a firm known to have developed several indigenous vehicles successfully, Jaura has a chance to shape the engines of the future. This is pertinent in a world that is going through a rude oil price shock, and will likely not recover easily from it.
The country’s first locally developed hybrid vehicle will be rolling out under his supervision from the utility maker’s stable. But he has another task at hand: “It’s about putting all the available knowledge out there for all to see. And encouraging the culture that if I hide knowledge and we fail, we all fail together.”
He says the biggest quality that anyone can bring to the role is empathy, and the ability to nurture and manage innovative minds so he can marry skills with innovation.
What’s the work culture like? I ask.
“Where you walk the talk,” he says, revealing that some of his Americanisms might make for useful lessons in India, after all.
Born: 29 August 1960
Current designationChief technology officer, Mahindra and Mahindra
Education:BE (mechanical engineering), National Institute of Technology, Srinagar, 1982; MTech, Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, 1991; PhD, Concordia University, Montreal, 1996
Career: Responsible for new vehicle development at M&M, including the new Scorpio V-series and its mHawk engine as well as hybrid vehicles and hybrid technology for Mahindra’s automotive sector
Currently reading: The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma
He drives: Scorpio