Meher Pudumjee - Power House

With Meher Pudumjee at its helm, Thermax has fast become an industry leader in global energy and social responsibility. She speaks to Nidhi Kaushik about how Thermax has become so multi-faceted and why she thinks the economic downturn is a good thing

 In the current turbulent economic times, while most CEOs are busy measuring their success in terms of share prices, profits and turnovers, Meher Pudumjee remembers the wise words of her father: “Profit is not only a set of figures but of values”.

As chairperson of Thermax, a leading global energy and environment company, Meher is one of the most powerful businesswomen in India. Since she joined Thermax in 1996, she has helped it evolve into a fast growing business with a global presence that provides integrated and innovative solutions in heating, cooling, captive power, water and waste management, air pollution and chemicals.

Under her outstanding leadership Thermax has overcome plummeting shares prices, the economic slump and has grown from a US$100m company to a US$800m in just five years, earning her this year’s renowned Business Standard, CEO of the Year award.

The accolades don’t stop there. Since taking the helm, Thermax has featured consistently in Forbes’ Asia’s ‘200 Best Under a Billion’ companies magazine and in 2007 it was listed in the top 100 of India’s most valuable 500 companies by Business Today.

In 2005, Meher was named one of India's top 30 achievers by India Today, in 2006 she was honoured with the Financial Express’ Women in Business Young Achiever Award and was invited as the sole Indian delegate-speaker to the Asian Business Women’s Conference in Osaka.

To top it off, she has taken Thermax into 17 countries across Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, China and North America and strongly advocates social responsibility, making Thermax one of the most reputed companies in terms of corporate ethics.

But Meher takes her remarkable accomplishments all in her stride. “Success for me is not just about being a successful businessperson,” she says, “but it is also about being a good mother, wife and daughter and being there for my family, friends and society. It has been a journey from turmoil and fear to far more clarity and excitement.”

Funnily enough the company first opened shop in the same year that Meher was born. Starting out as Wanson India in 1966 by her maternal grandfather and her father, it was later rebranded to Thermax in 1980.

Raised with a strong set of values, Meher insisted she did not just want to be handed over the reins of the family business. She was keen to earn her place and so after doing her postgraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from London’s Imperial College of Engineering and Technology, Meher joined Thermax as an engineer trainee in 1990.

“I joined Thermax with a hundred other trainees,” she says, “and was allocated the water and waste water treatment division and sent to Mumbai for customer sales and service training, which is an important component of our business.”

In the meantime she married Pheroz Pudumjee, who joined Thermax in 1991 and together they undertook the responsibility of managing a small, ailing UK subsidiary of Thermax. “Dr Joshi, our erstwhile Director and Head of R&D, was sent with us for a year as our mentor,” she reminisces. “It is thanks to his training on a market-based approach that made us understand the business with respect to the specific market and product needs in the UK.”

After her father’s death, in 1996 Meher was appointed Director and Pheroz followed suit year later. The following five years were particularly difficult for the company and the family.

A year prior to her father’s death, Thermax had gone public and the Board appointed Meher’s mother, Anu, as the chairperson. Soon after, the family was struck by tragedy; the death of Meher’s 25-year-old younger brother, Kurush, in a road accident. The family managed to pull through, but in 1999-2000, the Indian economy went into turmoil and the company posted an operational loss for the first time in its history.

Thermax shares hit an all time low in 2001 so Anu brought in Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to restructure and revive the organisation. In January 2001, the family decided to take on a non-executive role and in 2003 Meher and Pheroz, together with Anu, turned the company around.

In 2003 Anu retired, leaving Meher as the vice-chairperson and in 2004 she became the chairperson of the company. Despite being groomed for the role for the past 14 years, Meher was nervous about the appointment. “The biggest challenge for me was to overcome the doubts I had about my credibility, feel comfortable with myself and most of all be true to myself. My mother is my pillar of strength and has made me understand that I am different from my parents and have to make my own set of mistakes; that was my first leadership lesson.”

After the turnaround in 2004, Thermax went through a transformation phase and rose like a phoenix by not only successfully leveraging its competence and dominance in boiler manufacturing, but also by growing its businesses in related areas of energy and environment.

In 2008, Thermax achieved a net profit of more than Rs. 250crore. “From 2004 to 2008, Thermax has grown at a rapid rate of 40% CAGR.” Giving full credit to her team she adds, “My grandfather and father built Thermax with a ‘value based’ entrepreneurial approach and the people of Thermax have always been there to lead the way. We have a very committed team – be it our colleagues on the shop floor, the management, the Board or our business partners. People associated with Thermax genuinely feel for the company and strive for its success.”

Along with McKinsey, Thermax initiated ‘Project Evergreen’. Since its implementation, Thermax has not only consolidated its position in India but has also begun expanding its footprint in select international markets. Thermax has accessed key global markets by sourcing cutting-edge technologies for its products by forming several subsidiaries, alliances and joint ventures with world technology majors like Babcock & Wilcox and Georgia Pacific in the USA and Balcke Durr Gmbh in Germany. “We were keen on growing in specific markets and regions,” says Meher. “Outside India, Southeast Asia and the Middle East are our largest markets along with some product specific markets in USA and Europe.”

Meher sees the precarious financial climate as a positive thing. “The economic slowdown is a blessing in disguise, as it is a much needed breather. Meher explains, “Thermax has grown into a US$800m in just five years. As the market booms, processes tend to slacken and integrating new people into our culture and retaining talented people becomes a challenge. During this period of slowdown, we would like to grow and learn from within by refocusing our systems and processes, investing in research, development and innovation and most importantly, emphasising our company values.”

Meher emphasises that innovation and green technologies are the way forward for the company. “Thermax has always been known as an innovative company, be it products, new applications, marketing or HR practices. The space that we are in, i.e. energy and environment is far more exciting than mere turnover figures or share price fluctuations.”

A leader in innovation, Thermax has introduced several technologies in India enabling its customers to become energy efficient and environmentally friendly. There are a wide range of products to suit mainly industrial processes, as well as serve products and solutions to various industries, like hotels, shopping malls, cinema houses and hospitals. In the UK Thermax has provided cooling solutions to a number of hospitals and industries, including providing efficient and environmentally friendly space air conditioners to the National Portrait Gallery and BBC studios. 

With development like this taking the front seat for the past year, Meher is now working towards balancing the ‘know how’ and the ‘know why’. Renaming their R&D division, Research, Technology and Innovation Centre, Dr Mashelkar, the former Director-General of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) and scientific advisor to the government, has been brought on board to lead the task.

Meher, along with her mother, is also passionate about being socially responsible and so she set up a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) arm to the company and the Thermax Social Initiative Foundation, making Thermax just as multidimensional as herself. “We would like to place emphasis on greening the environment, by utilising energy efficiently, converting waste to energy, applying solar thermal technology, recycling water and preserving the environment.”

Her desire to ‘green the environment’ is already in action and is set to get global recognition. Their absorption heat pumps and chillers play a big role in Denmark’s green energy initiatives and will be among the world-class equipment, which will be showcased before the delegates of the World Climate Conference at Copenhagen in December 2009.

Thermax also sets aside 1% of the company’s profits after taxes for the community but some of their employees also volunteer at various government schools. Thermax and Akanksha (an NGO that works to educate underprivileged children) have formed a public private partnership with the local Pune Municipal Corporation to start schools, catering solely to economically underprivileged children. “We started this initiative two years ago and I proudly acknowledge its success, which is thanks to our partners and the quality of staff we are privileged to have,” she explains.

For the past three years, Meher has also managed to find the time to chair the CII Young Indians (Yi) National ‘Employability’ initiative. But how does she squeeze so much in? “One can always manage to make time and energy for what one loves and values,” she says.

It’s obvious that Meher is a master in multitasking, but just as she has different facets to her personality, as an organisation Thermax too has many different facets to it, contributing to a range of things from the environment and economy, right down to helping the community, making it a truly unique and valuable organisation.

But Meher still manages to strike a balance between business and pleasure. “Whether it is singing, social and community work in the field of education and employment or developing strategies for Thermax as the chairperson, they are all important parts of my being. I enjoy my work and I am here because I love my company, our team and want Thermax to make a difference in the world.”