Getting hot on cold comforts

By Sunil K Poolani | 05 Apr 2002

Mumbai: The room is comfortably cool, and the air as clean as it can get. The first fact is a given (the room is air-conditioned), but the second is surprising, because the room in question is at Voltas International House in downtown Mumbai, where the air pollution graph is prone to climbing higher than Amitabh Bachchan on stilts.

The surprise factor evaporates easily on closer inspection. The room is the office of Pradeep N Dhume, executive vice president and chief operating officer (international operations business group), Voltas Limited, and keeping the air here cool and clean is a slick machine the Rs 1,000-crore company — India’s largest air-conditioning and refrigeration enterprise — manufactures.

"Quality starts at home," says Mr Dhume, and from there Voltas has carried its message of air-conditioning calibre far and wide. With a turnover of Rs 140 crore and a net worth of Rs 20 crore in 2000-01, Voltas’s international operations business group is today India’s largest exporter in the field of air-conditioning projects. It has executed multimillion-dollar projects in 26 countries, spanning three continents, and is the preferred choice of leading international contractors.

Till 10 April 2001, Voltas’s international operations business group was a separate company called Voltas International Limited (VIL). Why the merger? Says Dhume: "To ensure more autonomy and to integrate our international operations with our domestic expertise. The merger has also strengthened Voltas’s position in the field of engineering, procurements, and in the execution of electro-mechanical projects in India."

The soft-spoken Dhume, a business and industrial management expert who was earlier the managing director of VIL, has spent almost his entire professional career with the company. And it shows in his voluminous knowledge about Voltas and the industry it operates in. What isn’t so obvious is the man’s dedication to the ideals of quality, commitment and integrity.

Dhume spoke recently with Sunil K Poolani about Voltas’s international profile, its domestic ambitions and other matters. Excerpts from the interview:

What do you think are the factors behind the success of Voltas’s international operations?
In short, the ability and willingness to provide every requirement associated with the air-conditioning business. We have innovative service packages to meet every need: ozone systems, energy management, building-management systems, and new offerings such as fire, access and security systems. Our business is not about providing just air-conditioners; it is about delivering everything to do with air-conditioning.

Where does Voltas stand in comparison with US and European companies, which offer state-of-the-art equipment and facilities?
We don’t lack state-of-the-art equipment and facilities. Voltas has world-class manufacturing facilities at Dadra, Thane and Hyderabad. We have had, down the years, access to emerging technologies, and our tie-ups — with Dunham Bush, Standard Refrigeration and Fedders of the US and Hitachi of Japan — have helped achieve the same. Our tie-up with Fedders to manufacture world-class air-conditioners has enabled us to provide American quality at Chinese prices.

How strong is Voltas’s global presence?
We have an impressive record in executing multimillion dollar electro-mechanical projects in many diverse geographical locations abroad, among them Nepal, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Tanzania, Mauritius, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Belarus. One of our prestigious projects is in France, where we are air-conditioning and providing electro-mechanical systems for an entire luxury liner. We won this contract in the face of competition from local giants.

Some of the prestigious electro-mechanical projects executed by us abroad are the new Hong Kong international airport at Chek Lap Kok, the Bahrain international airport, the Central Emergency Hospital in Abu Dhabi [in the UAE], the Abu Dhabi Trade Centre, the Etisalat telecommunication and administration building in Sharjah [UAE], and the new villa for the ruler of Abu Dhabi.

How do you take up new projects abroad?
The Tata group is known for its transparency and quality, and we follow these parameters. We are very selective about taking up new projects. The factors that matter are money, the nature of the project, and the country and its rules and regulations. Before taking up any project, we depute a team to study these factors.

You have dealt with Indian government authorities quite often. Has the process been smooth?
So far, yes. We have had to deal with the Reserve Bank of India, the union ministry of commerce and the Exim Bank, and we often work as a team. After all, we earn lots of money in foreign exchange, don’t we?

What is Voltas’s employee strength for its international operations?
We have 1,800 full-time people in various projects all over the world. As and when new projects come, we hire more people on a contract basis.

As of now, what are your international projects worth?
That would be Rs 400 crore in direct projects and another Rs 300 crore via joint ventures.

Voltas’s international operations business has been expanded to include India. Why?
Because we have a pool of experts in engineering services, with wide and varied international experience, and these people have the skills to undertake complex electro-mechanical jobs here. In India we have taken up work at the new international airport at Bangalore and the biotech park at Hyderabad. We are confident that we can leverage our electro-mechanical capabilities in India for many more large projects.

Could your elaborate?
Voltas is now in a position to leverage its strengths to achieve its ambitious growth plans, with innovative service offerings (maintenance contracts for all electro-mechanical systems) and new products and customer segments (pumping and electro-mechanical projects and marine applications). We can also deliver the requirements of Indian infrastructure projects such as mass transit systems, power plants, large water supply projects and airports. No matter how large and complicated the project, we can bring international standards to bear on it.

Has your association with international consultants helped? And who are they?
It has helped tremendously. We have worked with Alexander Gibbs, Bechtel Corporation, Bishimetal Exploration, BRGM France, Buckle & Partners, Kennedy and Donkin, MC Fadden & Associates, Ralph Parson International, Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick, Sotechni Italy and WS Atkins, to name a few.

Any awards to show?
We are the proud recipients of two prestigious export awards from the Overseas Construction Council of India, which operates under the aegis of the union ministry of commerce, for three consecutive years: 1997-98, 1998-99 and 1999-2000. The awards were for the maximum turnover in overseas construction projects, and maximum foreign exchange earned and repatriated to India from overseas construction contracts. Considering that our focus is on electrical and mechanical contracts in the overseas arena — and that we faced stiff competition from other civil construction companies in India — this is a creditable achievement.

Indian companies such as Voltas seem to have finally arrived on the global stage. What do you think are the reasons for this?
Our communication skills, talent, commitment and, most importantly, our ability to learn from our mistakes and move forward.

What’s your favourite air-conditioning line?
You name it, we cool it.


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