How he’s blazing the trail in both Thailand and abroad.
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
When meeting Sanjeev Sood, it’s not his professional achievements – of which there are many – that he initially waxes eloquent about, but his beloved family. “My father, who was a senior bureaucrat from the Ministry of Industry, Government of India, and my mother, who was a homemaker and very active in social service throughout her life, have had a profound impact on the lives of my brother and me because of their dedication to their work and to us as a family,” he says. It is this impact that gave him the drive to become what he is today, the Country Head (Group Affairs) of the Aditya Birla Group in Thailand, a global conglomerate with over 100 state-of-the-art factories across five continents and 36 countries, and the CMO Asia and Managing Director of its publically-listed subsidiary Birla Carbon Thailand, known as the world’s leading sustainable manufacturer and supplier of carbon black additives.
Carbon black, I’m told, is “a very important ingredient in the tire manufacturing process, and comprises, by volume, 20-25 percent of every tire. A tire gains strength, abrasion resistance, and molecular filling from the addition of carbon black during its production.” However, as Sanjeev explains, it’s much more than that: “Anything produced that is coloured black has carbon black in it, so it touches our lives daily – from the black dye which gives you the black power suit, to the black sports shoes you wear to the gym, to body of your mobile phone.” It’s clear that Sanjeev’s dedication to the industry is tireless, as it were, and he talks to me about how moving to carbon black was a natural progression for him after having worked for 23 years in the tire industry, including stints in Brazil and China with global giant Goodyear Tires, where he was promoted 11 times in 17 years.
When asked how his multinational experiences have shaped where he is today, he says that “working in geographies that did not have English as their primary language taught me very quickly to adapt to any environment. While some cultures will have their unique aspects, respect is global, nay, universal. If you treat people with respect, you will receive it. Thailand in particular was a wonderfully pleasant surprise for me,” he recalls, “from its people, food, and natural beauty, to its respectful culture and emphasis on honouring your nation and community that resonates a lot with ancient India.”
His family, I posit, must have been very supportive of his career and their peripatetic lifestyle, and he fervently agrees. “My wife, Simi, and the rest of my family, including our son Pranay, daughter Shruti and dog Tuffy, have been most understanding of my career needs. Any adjustments, albeit temporary, were supported with enthusiasm. Simi, especially, gave up her career as a classical kathak dancer, in which she had 21 years of experience, to join me in Thailand. Now, I’m happy to say, my children are married and settled. Pranay lives and works here in Bangkok with his wife Priya, while Shruti and her husband Prem, together with my three-year old granddaughter Sanvi, who’s my pride and joy, live in Delhi.”
Sanjeev gives Masala further insight into how he juggles his personal and professional life, and the ins and outs of the carbon black industry, both nationally and worldwide.
You have over 39 years of experience in the tire and carbon black industry, across a range of multinational companies. What drew you to dedicate so many of those years to Birla Carbon?
There are a couple of reasons for the Birla Carbon chapter in my life. Firstly, the Aditya Birla Group is the world’s largest carbon black manufacturer, and our global footprint allows us to keep abreast with the latest and greatest. Birla Carbon itself has 16 plants across the globe in 12 countries. The plants in Asia, for which I’m currently the CMO, contribute almost 50 percent to our overall production volumes, and the Birla Carbon Thailand plant is the world’s largest carbon manufacturing unit.
Secondly, the Aditya Birla Group had first approached me looking for someone to fill a leadership role in their unit in China, near where I had been stationed years before. It was not an easy decision, knowing that I would have to leave my family back in India for some time, but after months of thought, I decided to take up the offer. With China being China and its speed and progress, I felt it was worth the shot.
What is it like as the country head of a global conglomerate, one that employs over 100,000 people worldwide, and has such an established history?
It’s true that The Group has been operating for more than 150 years in India, with a rich history of being a key player in the country’s independence movement. In Thailand, we completed 50 years in 2019 and we are the largest, and one of the oldest, Indian multinationals present in the country. We do not just see ourselves just as a business entity, but also as a standard-bearer for the Indian industry here.
I wear multiple hats, and more than being MD, what gives me more pressure is that of Country Head for ABG Thailand. In my current role as MD and in many of my various Profit & Loss (P&L) roles, I have needed to make some tough financial and business decisions, but now I have to factor in multiple considerations before making the decisions related to ABG Thailand.
Even though I am not directly accountable for the operations of all our business entities in Thailand, I am responsible for the image of the Group, and our outreach programmes with various internal and external stakeholders. Therefore, while one feels very blessed, fortunate and proud, it is a big responsibility.
What have your foci been whenever you take up management of a new unit?
Compliance and sustainability in today’s world are non-negotiable, especially in terms of the latest safety and environmental norms. If the company has made profits today, the question I am asked by my superiors and in turn, that I ask my team, is whether this performance is sustainable. A one-time good performance or one-time bad performance does not mean anything.
On the manufacturing side, there is always a focus on value-added products and quality consistency. Whenever I took over a factory, I looked at whatever opportunities for improvement were available, and quickly identified the low-hanging fruit among them, as those are the ones that can give you immediate results.
Many of the changes I’ve made to units over the years were related to product consistency and to a reduction in change timing – whether this be grade changes, equipment changes, venturi changes, or reactor changes. Therefore, no matter which Birla Carbon Unit you visit, you’ll see that along with a common work ethic and discipline, our compliance to these SOPs remains consistent, which in turn makes our products consistent.
You’ve mentioned The Group’s focus on sustainability. While the carbon black industry may be essential, there have been some criticisms levied against its contribution to air pollution levels and toxic waste. How would you address those concerns?
This is totally a myth, because Birla Carbon operates plants in countries with the most rigorous environmental regulations. In fact, Birla Carbon Thailand, specifically, takes pride in the fact that it meets the most stringent norms on various pollutants.
Let me give you an example. In 2017, in China, our green field project got commissioned. However, even though we didn’t have to, we put in place an environmental norms mitigation plan which was applicable for 2019-2020. This means that we were three years ahead of the statutory applicable norms.
It would hardly be beneficial in the long run, to a Group as reputed as Aditya Birla, with carbon black as one of its most profitable business lines, to try to cut corners or avoid adhering to the statutory norms set by the government of the land we operate in.
Another aspect of sustainability is corporate social responsibility (CSR). Can you tell us about The Group’s CSR efforts?
CSR is a cornerstone of our corporate philosophy and is driven from the very top by the respected mother of our Chairman Mr. Kumar Mangalam Birla, Mrs. Rajashree Birla, who is the Chairperson of the Aditya Birla Centre for Community Initiatives and Rural Development.
CSR in Thailand is conducted on two levels: firstly, it is done centrally where our nine units support the Group’s CSR programme. In my central role, I am also the Chairman of the Board of the Aditya Birla Knowledge Centre, our skill development centre based in Saraburi. There, we conduct year-round classes for the local population in skills as varied as English speaking, computer skills, tailoring, air-conditioning, and electronic repair, in coordination with the local labour department. Last year, we received the CSR Award from AMCHAM in recognition of the Group’s work.
Secondly, CSR programmes are conducted, by the respective Unit CSR teams, around the year at the provinces where we are located – Angthong, Rayong, Saraburi, Ayutthaya and Samut Prakan.
What are the unique challenges and opportunities of carbon black in Thailand?
From an opportunities perspective, Thailand has a huge automobile set up and therefore, has great tire-making capabilities and capacity. At least three of our large multinational customers, for example, have more than one factory in Thailand. Thailand also acts as a gateway to Japan and its global tire manufacturing industry.
On the other hand, due to its proximity, Southeast Asia has become a natural dumping ground for China. China has large manufacturing capabilities across industries, and customers who are not very quality- conscious and highly price sensitive will tend to opt for those products. However, Birla Carbon Thailand takes pride in the very high quality of its products and services, and customers who value quality and delivery have continued to stay with us.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your supply chains, and what has it been like to be fortunate enough to have a stake in the chemical industry during this time?
In the case of Birla carbon, automobile manufacturers started shutting shops, and subsequently so did the tire manufacturers, our main customer base. Almost all the tire companies in Thailand took a preventative shut down. We also shut down our lines barring a couple, which was just enough to keep the plant running. This was not a Thailand-specific phenomenon, but affected all our production facilities across the globe.
I recently gave a talk on the impact of COVID-19, on the first ever webinar event hosted by the ITCC. One of the recovery models that I’d shared was the ‘V’ shape recovery model. This is exactly what we experienced globally in the automobile, tire and carbon black supply chain. After the initial contagion was contained and curtailed, we had to immediately pick up production, at full throttle. I am glad to put on record that despite all the challenges, in the tire-manufacturing segment we were able to meet all our requirements and satisfy our customers, who in turn could fulfil their targets with automobile manufacturers.
Our chemical business moved very quickly from being exclusively B2B, and into the B2C market, with our production of sanitisers. As part of our CSR efforts, donations of these sanitisers were made to various bodies, including Chulalongkorn University and the Justice Ministry. Our Thai acrylic fibre business, through its subsidiary Pyrotex, developed a fibre which, in clinical trials, showed that the COVID virus could not last on it for an extended duration. This out-of-the-box and Agile methodology helped us gain traction into market segments we had not previously ventured into.
Currently all our plants are operating at 100 percent capacity and we have even commissioned some expansion projects. I would like to congratulate our Unit Heads in Thailand, Ajay Mahajan, Prasan Sipani, Yuvraj Patil, Sanjay Sharma, Shesh Gupta, Munish Rathi and Naresh Saneja for the wonderful way we have worked together to ensure the Group’s flag is always kept flying high, in terms of both reputation and profitability.
Aditya Birla places a lot of emphasis on developing and nurturing their people. Can you tell us about that, and the ways that the company and you as a leader have invested in your teams?
Dr. Santrupt B Misra, the Director of the Carbon Black Business, Director of our Chemicals business, and our Group HR Director, is the man who drives our HR engine. Many years ago, he developed and nurtured the Group’s training programmes through Gyanodaya, our corporate training centre in India. Today we conduct programmes globally in multiple languages, including Thai, from this centre, where employees can undertake both mandatory and voluntary training year-round.
The company also has the Lead & Leap Management programmes, which takes in both fresh graduates, and people with work experience, on accelerated management growth pathways. As an extension of this in Thailand, we’ve taken on approximately 100 meritorious students from universities as part of our internship programmes, and provide scholarships to students all the way to postgraduate levels as part of the Brand Building and Employee Retention programmes.
As a leader, I see it as part of my role to nurture talent and develop the next line of leaders for the Group. We cannot always see human relationships at work exclusively as professional connections; a personal touch is equally important. Having worked at length with many of my team members, I know them and their families quite well and they feel comfortable in reaching out to me.
Out of your many achievements and accolades, which one you are most proud of?
In 2019, I was conferred the Lifetime Achievement Membership by the Asia Pacific Carbon Black Association for my contribution to the Tire and Carbon Black Industry. I am also reckoned as one of the Best Manufacturing Professionals in the Asia Region.
But the one achievement I hold most important both from a professional and personal standpoint is managing the 50thAnniversary of the Aditya Birla Group in Thailand on 3rd November, 2019. The Group hosted the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi, and due to the high level of protocol and secrecy that marks his movement, we were only informed 15 days before the date that he had agreed to attend our event, perhaps the most exciting 15 days of my professional career.
As the Country Head, I had to not only oversee the invites and logistics; simultaneously coordinate with more than five Thai and Indian government security services, the Indian Prime Minister’s office, the Embassy of India in Thailand, under the leadership of H.E. Mrs. Suchitra Durai, and the VIP guests; but I was also asked to MC the programme.
Despite the Group’s Chairman looking over every tiny detail, a VIP list of over 1000 people, and so many last-minute add-ons and deletions, the event went off without a hitch. It was very well received and I can proudly say it was an excellent show.
What are some of the ups and downs of your long and storied career?
Nothing ever comes easy, especially while climbing the corporate ladder. Every new assignment is a challenge but then on the flip side, it is also an opportunity. It’s how you take it.
In each of the assignments I’ve taken, the common thread is that I’ve challenged the status quo. I’ve made changes to established practices to get things to move, even when no one wanted to put in the energy or effort to handle the change management that went with it.
At times like this, the adage that it’s lonely at the top really rings true, but as a leader, it’s important to sacrifice one’s ego and put others first. However, my career has also been a source of great joy to me. I am an extrovert and my various roles are different enough to allow me to explore all available opportunities, live in different countries, and meet and work with people from every race and imbibe so many cultural experiences in one lifetime.
Tell us more about your other interests outside of your career.
I like to live life king size. That does not mean I indulge in excess, but I also do not believe in restricting experiences that do not conflict with my morals and values. For me, Indian traditions remain at my roots, and prior to the COVID travel restrictions, my family and I regularly went for yatras and pilgrimages both in India and Thailand. It’s also essential to give back to society, and my wife and I have made it a practice to make donations in person on a regular basis to old age homes, temples and monk hospitals. This is the first time I am mentioning this publicly.
Apart from that, I have a range of hobbies that keep me motivated, the most important of which is spending time with my family. Through it all, my wife Simi’s kindness, understanding, and resilience has been my anchor and strength.