Natarajan Balakrishnan, managing director and CEO, EPCOS India, has donned many hats during a career spanning 35 years. From being a marketing and sales person to an HR head and now a successful leader, he has had rich and varied experiences that have helped him build successful organisations. Natarajan Balakrishnan takes Nitasha Chawla of Electronics Bazaar through his story of how he graduated from a fun loving college guy into a tough leader.
I had an interesting childhood
I was born in Chennai in 1957 in a family of a Central government officer based in Nagpur. My mother was a homemaker and I had four siblings, three elder sisters and one younger brother. Due to the transferable nature of my father’s job, our family moved homes often. So, in 1963, the family shifted to Delhi from Hyderabad, where I started my education in a school run by the Delhi Tamil Education Association. Throughout my schooling years, I was in Delhi and I can say that I am a hardcore Delhiite.
My father was very strict and we were all very scared of him. While we used to be disciplined by him, my mother protected us from his scolding. However, he had a soft heart, which I realised a little later. Once when I was hurt playing hockey in school, I was afraid of facing my father and hid myself from him. But he took good care of me and even encouraged me to continue playing sports.
I had an interesting school life. My sister who is one year older to me had a habit of reading her lessons loud. So, between learning my lessons and listening to her, I found the latter more interesting. I used to grasp her lessons by just listening and that was the basic foundation on which I passed all my examinations as I used to get prepared in advance for the next class.
I was mischievous and fun loving but not the kind to bully others. I used to love playing games like hockey and always came late to class, and never did my homework. But during exams and quiz contests, I always scored well. So, my teachers didn’t find fault with me.
School books never interested me; I loved reading story books and comics like Phantom and Superman. I also read sports magazines. It was only during my exams that I used to study seriously.
I am still in touch with more than half a dozen of my school friends. The technology has made it easy for us to stay connected.
I discovered freedom in college
My father wanted all his children to either be engineers or doctors. So I took up science, but I never liked biology. I found it difficult to dissect animals. However, I loved physics, chemistry and mathematics. I could solve a 3 hour maths question paper in 1.5 hours; I could do it with a God given instinct.
After completing school, I got into the National Institute of Technology in Tiruchirappalli to study electrical and electronics engineering. Having been with a strict father for 15 years, I discovered freedom on campus, since for the first time I was away from my family. It was fantastic as there was no dad to discipline me. This freedom made me take life and studies very lightly, and it started showing in my grades since I used to bunk classes to hang out with friends and play games.
My horrible performance in the first year got my parents worried and they thought I ought to give up engineering. However, one of my relatives advised me to take studies seriously and that it was not easy to get into a reputed college. This opened my eyes. I compared the lives of other students with mine to figure out where I was going wrong. Then I decided to be more serious and strike a balance between studies and other activities. After a disastrous first year, I passed out of college with a third rank, even topping in one of the subjects for which I got the Merit Award.
My first learning ground: L&T
By the time I completed my engineering, it was time for my sisters to get married. I decided to come back to Delhi and take up a job so that I could help my father financially, although he wanted me to study further.
I applied for a job in Larsen and Toubro (L&T) and got selected. I joined the company as an engineer trainee in their construction wing called Engineering Construction Corporation, in 1978. I was posted at a construction site in Gurgaon, and was one of the first electrical engineers involved with the civil engineers, right from the stage of construction and laying of cables—things which were very new to me then.
L&T gave me an opportunity to get trained by an excellent boss, Alam, who transformed me from being a fun loving college guy to a tough person at work. Alam had rich experience and he shared all his knowledge with me. I learnt my first important lesson at work from him. Once, while on supervision duty, I had to question a permanent worker, who didn’t like it and abused me. I went to Alam, crying, and told him about the incident. He taught me how I ought to conduct myself with workers; how I should be firm with them but not rude, and how I could be demanding without hurting anyone.
After nine months, I was transferred to another site in the Kudremukh hills in Karnataka, where digging for laying cables was going on. I spent a year living in sheds, away from city life. This region is prone to heavy rainfall, and water would often seep into my make-shift house. Life was tough there, with the same kind of food everyday and the same people around. So after completing the project, I took my first annual leave and went home.
Getting my dream job at Siemens
While on leave, I saw an advertisement for a job in Siemens in the newspaper. In my engineering college, we were always taught that Siemens was a dream destination for an engineer. Not very confident about my capabilities, I casually applied for a project engineer’s post. However, to my surprise, I cleared the written test and was one of eight candidates short listed for the interview. I was the last one to be called for the interview. I went with no hopes of making it. After three days, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an offer letter from Siemens, at double my salary. That is how in 1981, I joined Siemens and I have carried my inheritance from the company with me, till date. It is the same thread that I have held and moved on.
In 2001, Siemens offered me an opportunity to head the India operations of its subsidiary EPCOS, which was taken over by the Japanese group, TDK, after four years.
Germans are known for precision engineering, forthrightness and discipline. I was in Germany from 2007-2011 and it was a wonderful experience. The basic difference between us and them is that we are very emotional and get attached to people very easily, but Germans are more balanced and they take time to relate to people. They believe in their personal space and also respect the other person’s space. This kind of approach helps a lot in handling people at work in a practical manner.
Siemens provided me the opportunity to develop my skills with a very broad perspective. There are very few people who get an opportunity to work in different departments of a company and I was among them. At Siemens, I tried my hand at the project department, power transmission and distribution department, power generation and renewable energies department, and even HR department.
How my abilities were put to test
Siemens in Chennai was considered very sensitive with respect to the employees’ union, and there were many cases of conflict between the management and the union.
While I was in other departments, I always wondered why it was so difficult for the HR team to find solutions to some of the basic issues of employees, to check indiscipline and to implement training programmes for the development of the workforce. I wanted to know why an HR person is always considered as ‘anti-employee’ and wanted to change that mindset. Being a people-oriented person, I suggested that the management allow me to take charge of the HR department as I wanted to try my hand at resolving the union related issues of the company. That’s how I became the head of personnel and HR for the southern region at Siemens, in 1997, where I continued till 1999.
As the HR head, the first thing I did was find out the root cause of the problem faced by the company due to the union’s activities. I sought guidance from a legal expert who advised me on how I ought to go forward while handling such cases. Then I made sure that everyone in the company followed basic discipline a company demands from its employees. I demanded discipline from the two to three trouble makers we had in the union by putting to them clearly the repercussions of their indisciplined behaviour, and those who failed to follow discipline were booked by law for non-compliance of company policy.
Another essential practice I introduced was successful implementation of training development programmes. This motivated the employees and gradually the relationship between the management and the union turned into a cordial one. It was one of the most satisfactory moments of my life as the test of my ability as a novice HR manager yielded a very positive result at the end.
Among the various career shaping opportunities I got at Siemens, one of the most interesting was when the company sponsored me for a five month management education programme at IIM Ahmedabad. Through this programme, I could partly fulfill my father’s dream of pursuing my studies beyond engineering.
IIM is where I learnt something beyond my experiences in marketing and project management. I gained knowledge about some key facets of running an orgranisation like operations management, competitive strategy, corporate strategy and organisational behaviour—all in this short span of time.
My journey in EPCOS
Soon after I returned from IIM, I was given the responsibility of a corporate centre manager and then, in 2001, I moved to EPCOS and took over as the head of operations in the Nashik factory, where there were about 400 employees. With the kind of experience I had so far, handling factory operations was the biggest challenge.
But in this department, too, I wanted to make an impact, and my education at IIM came handy. I had to do a lot of reading about operations management and organisational behaviour, and apply it prudently. The employees at EPCOS were also very receptive. Since the company was just 5-6 years old, I could work with the people well, apply my expertise from Siemens and the knowledge gathered from IIM to build a stronger organisation.
Some of the key changes I introduced there were lean manufacturing practices, maintaining discipline among employees, maintaining healthy machines in order to have a good yield, and inventory management. I trained the workers on how to think ahead and, most importantly, how to be ambitious, so that they could perform better than their current volumes and capabilities. Even after being taken over by TDK in 2008, EPCOS retained the values of a German company, with some Japanese influence, of course. Today, EPCOS is a leading manufacturer of electronic components, modules and systems. Our Nashik plant has won the latest Excellence Award of the Nashik Industries and Manufacturers Association (NIMA), which confirms the success of our initiative to make the Nashik facility a world class production plant.
On the personal front
I met my wife Malathi for the first time in Delhi in 1983. We were neighbours but had never got a chance to know each other earlier since I was out of Delhi most of the time, for studies or job. So when I told my family that I liked this girl who stayed next door, the next thing I knew was that we were engaged. We got married soon after our engagement and that was when we actually got to know each other, and got along really well. We have a son Vijay, who is an economist working in the US, and a daughter, Swetha, who is a post-graduate in international logistics and devotes her time to social service by teaching needy children through an NGO.
At this juncture, I am satisfied with my life on both the personal and professional fronts. I love life and like to enjoy every bit of it. I still have an active career of another four years, after which I would like to work towards the development of society. I want to teach poor children in slums, and educate them about our basic values and discipline. I also want to bring about a change in the education system by changing the way our teachers teach today. They should educate students, and not merely prepare them for mindless competition. These days, students are simply chasing marks in order to survive and get admission into top colleges. This cut throat competition is downgrading our education system.
One thing that I would like to change
In this world: The fast pace of life. Today, everybody is in a hurry to achieve something without finding out what their ultimate goal is. They need to set a vision first.
In the country: I want to bring in more consensus based discipline in all aspects of life.
In myself: The feeling that I need to work eternally, so that I can also make time for other things that interest me. This will give me overall satisfaction rather than just professional satisfaction.
A FEW OF MY FAVOURITE THINGS
Music: Old Hindi film music
Food: South Indian
Film: A Wednesday
Book: The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma
Clothes: Simple formals and casuals
Colour: Light blue
Actor: Kamal Hassan