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Sudhir Mohan Trehan | The turnaround savant

Sudhir Mohan Trehan | The turnaround savant
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First Published: Fri, Jul 11 2008. 11 55 PM IST

Hard taskmaster: Trehan is known for his no-nonsense approach to management (Illustration by: Jayachandran / Mint)
Hard taskmaster: Trehan is known for his no-nonsense approach to management (Illustration by: Jayachandran / Mint)
Updated: Fri, Jul 11 2008. 11 55 PM IST
If I were an employee of Crompton Greaves (CG), with offices spreading from Belgium to Baddi (Himachal Pradesh), I would be quaking in my sports sandals right now. A meeting with the managing director, Sudhir Mohan Trehan, is not something that anyone at CG takes lightly. On the contrary, a summon from Trehan’s office means that the manager sent for will, in all likelihood, spend a couple of late nights in the office beforehand, making sure that every single piece of data is in place and every possible question has been thought of and answers prepared.
Hard taskmaster: Trehan is known for his no-nonsense approach to management (Illustration by: Jayachandran / Mint)
Because, “SMT”—as Trehan is known in the corridors of CG—is not a man to trifle with. “If I am not impressed with a presentation in 10 minutes, I tell them to stop it and come back when they are better prepared. I can’t waste my time with poor data and preparation,” he said when I asked him about his famed meeting management style during our lunch date in May.
So, when SMT confirmed our meeting, I made sure that I was at the venue well in advance. Kebabs and Curries, at the ITC Grand Central in Parel, Mumbai was completely empty when I arrived, and I picked a quiet table for two in the corner. Not that we needed the calm: Trehan’s booming, full-bass voice would register easily on my mobile phone’s sound recorder.
Noticing me sitting alone and looking nervous, a sympathetic waiter asked me when “madam” was joining me. I quashed that speculation and told him I was there for a business lunch. No candles or flowers, please.
SMT arrived dot on time, in a full-sleeved shirt, with evenly spaced purple and tan stripes, and grey trousers. We sat down, and ordered watermelon juice for both of us. Just as I was about to pop my first question, Trehan asked me how I was doing nowadays—I had, a long time ago, worked with CG on a one-year project, but hardly expected him to remember.
I updated him on my current status of reasonable contentment, and asked him what was brewing at CG. After all, Trehan’s moving into the managing director’s office heralded nothing short of a revolution at this erstwhile sleepy, old Indian company.
For generations, CG had been known as the manufacturer of sturdy, high-quality ceiling fans that routinely outlasted their owners, and even the buildings in which they were installed. And, even though the company has always been running bigger divisions that make much more money, Crompton was always known as the “fan company”.
Yet, for all its brand equity and positive image, Crompton went through some very tough times not so long ago. In 2000, annus horribilis for Crompton, the company made an unprecedented loss of Rs146 crore. Sales had dropped, and several analysts began to question the way the firm was run.
Surprising many, and in blatant disregard for seniority, Trehan, then 54, was offered the position of managing director in 2001. For Trehan, who was president of the digital division at the time, it seemed like the culmination of a career that had seen nothing but success. And, like every other opportunity in his gilded professional life, Trehan grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
We begin with the beginnings—Trehan’s childhood, which he talks about with his characteristic élan: “We are Maharashtrians, but we originally lived in what is now Pakistan. My father was a doctor, and worked for the health services. We kept moving from place to place as he got transferred.” When I ask him how he coped with schooling, Trehan shrugs: “Oh, I was an excellent student. I learnt my lessons effortlessly, and topped in every school I enrolled.”
The watermelon juice over, we order our starters. I ask for a chicken kebab, while Trehan asks to be served the best fish starter on the menu. Between bites, the story continues.
So good was Trehan at his studies that his teachers bumped him up a couple of classes on occasions, so that he wouldn’t steamroll over his less gifted classmates. When he talks of his academic prowess, Trehan is proud, of course, but not arrogant. In fact, his nonchalance is of one who is completely confident of his abilities.
Trehan graduated as an engineer when he was just 18 years old. Oh, and he won the gold medal too. Did he ever not top anything in school? I ask—trying to fight back personal memories of passing math by a single mark four times in two years. “My eternal regret is that I could never do well in sports. I would work very hard at table tennis and cricket, but wasn’t good enough to make it to the team.” Even then, Trehan managed to find his way into the reserve team, and win a participation certificate. “But I really wish I could have represented my school in sports competitions.”
After graduating, Trehan was advised by one of his professors to pursue a career in academics. “My professor told me that I simply didn’t have the mentality to do well in industry. That I would never fit in.” At that very moment, Trehan decided to join industry. “He threw me a challenge, I took it up!” he says, laughing.
Trehan joined the then Crompton Parkinson Ltd as a management trainee in 1972. The subsequent years would see him go to the State University of New York, Stony Brook, for his MS. He would then return to be with his family in India.
Trehan began his career with the Crompton family, and he strayed from the fold a couple of times, drafting successful stints with other companies. But he always returned. “I enjoyed my sojourns in other companies. I learnt many things, got lots of opportunities. Even picked up golf. But deep inside, I think I was, and always will be, a Crompton man.”
Finally, in May 2000, when he took over as managing director, the committed company man had a chance to make a difference. The erstwhile plant manager and division head who, by his own admission, was a hit with his employees, changed his style. “At that time, the company needed a completely no-nonsense approach. I could no longer be my usual friendly self.”
Trehan went at CG hammer and tongs, with fierce determination. Subsidiaries got sold off, organizational structures got rationalized and slackers in the firm were politely asked to move on.
And, it worked.
Today, CG is anything but the “fan company”. With a number of international acquisitions, today almost half of the company’s 10,000-plus employees are posted outside India. In the fiscal year ending 2007, CG notched up consolidated sales of around Rs6,000 crore and the transformation into a global power company was set afoot. All this was unthinkable just seven years ago, when analysts had written off the firm.
I ask him what he thinks of the opinion held by many, both inside and outside the firm, that SMT single-handedly brought about the turnaround. “Of course not. The whole firm pitched in. Besides, I took over when things were at their worst. It could have only got better from there.”
After some dal and rotis, and watermelon juice refills, I ask him what he intends to do now. What’s next on his list of conquests? “I need to complete the integration of our foreign acquisitions and the Indian parent. We need to create a common people policy, so that talent can flow through all the divisions.”
And what after Crompton? Back to his favourite hobby, golf? “Yes, that too. But I want to go back and teach in engineering colleges. Go back to academics like my professor wanted me to!”
We skip dessert and wind up the interview when SMT reminds me that he has a meeting in 20 minutes. As he walks away,I decide—pun intended —that I am a huge fan.
Born: 18 December 1946 (Manwali, Pakistan)
Current Designation: Managing director, Crompton Greaves Ltd
Education: BE, Birla Institute of Technology, Ranchi; MS (operational research), State University of New York at Stony Brook; Advanced Management Program, Harvard Business School
Work profile: Began his career at Crompton Parkinson as a management trainee in Guiseley in the UK in 1972. After returning from university in the US, Trehan joined Crompton Greaves in 1982. He had risen to the level of president, working through several divisions, including transformers, turbines and switchgear, when he took over as managing director in May 2001
Hobbies: Golf, driving his car as fast as he can on highway stretches
Time management secret: Trehan switches his mobile off the moment he leaves work and switches it back on only the next morning
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First Published: Fri, Jul 11 2008. 11 55 PM IST