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For Manoj Kumar Srivastava, manufacturing companies specialise in many aspects of business, but research and development isn’t usually one of them. Which makes Gujarat-based petrochemical complex ONGC Petro additions’ (OPaL) recent IP patent for developing a process for the disposal of spent catalyst all the more of an achievement. “Generally, manufacturing companies focus on production, not towards research and development efforts, so this is actually a great achievement,” he tells The CEO Magazine.
Like some of the best innovations, the solution came about in response to an issue in one of its plants. “To resolve it, we went through some experimentation and it was during the exercise that we found one of the processes was suitable,” he continues. “We made some tweaks and implemented it. Then we applied – and received – the patent.” It was, he adds, a “unique way of solving our own problem”.
“At a senior level, we have to concentrate on the development of skills and the protection of assets and people. That’s how you become the winner in this industry.”
In an industry where certain elements are out of his control, such as the cost of raw materials like crude oil (“a benchmark for all my inputs,” he says), such differentiators end up also serving as a way to stand out from the crowd.
But it’s not the only marker. “The bottom line is that I don’t control my product prices, which are basically governed by international events or international supply and demand,” he explains. “So what can I control? I can control the efficiency, such as reducing costs on all fronts of the business.”
And he says it’s his responsibility as an executive to cultivate and protect these areas, which can give businesses a leading edge. “At a senior level, we have to concentrate on the development of skills and the protection of assets and people,” he says. “That’s how you become the winner in this industry.”
A veteran of the petrochemical industry, Manoj’s career has taken him from the public sector to the private sector, and from India to Saudi Arabia. After starting out as a plant engineer at the state-owned Oil India, he spent 25 years at Reliance Industries, as Senior Vice President from 2012, before moving to Petro Rabigh in Saudi Arabia as Chief of Heads for all upstream plants in phase two, heading up an asset worth almost US$4.5 billion. He joined OPaL in March 2017 as President, when all the plants were just commissioned.
“Over a period of three-to-four years, we built up systems and a complete network; ultimately we built the company.”
After five years with the company, first as President and more recently as President and Managing Director, Manoj left OPaL for new adventures in July 2022. In a Linkedin post at the time her said, “I am thankful to [the] promoters, OPaL board, employees, customers and all stakeholders for support during my tenure.”
Reflecting on his time at OPaL, Manoj describes what was, initially, a “herculean task”. “Over a period of three-to-four years, we built up systems and teams; ultimately we built the company,” he says.
The initial focus was to stablise, then sustain, the business. “After developing the systems and stabilising the plants, we were able to achieve a level of 105 per cent capacity utilisation in some plants, as well as a complete IMS network with regards to quality, HSE and energy systems within two years.”
But, as an experienced leader in his industry, Manoj also knows when not to push his assets – at the time of speaking to The CEO Magazine, the plant was operating under startup mode, after completing maintenance. “As a petrochemical company, asset protection is of prime importance because this is a highly capital-intensive industry,” he says. The one-month shutdown was the first in five years at the plant. “This time is very critical for any petrochemical plant because it allows you to undertake maintenance to improve efficiency,” he explains.
It may have been the first shutdown of the plant, but there was another critical juncture that Manoj steered the company through without interruption to production: India’s COVID-19-driven lockdowns. “In India, the downstream industry was stopped and as a feeder plant, feeding polymer materials to the downstream industry, our dispatch was practically nil,” he explains.
Adopting what he describes as “unique methods,” the business went on to achieve its highest ever profit during the pandemic, an achievement that Manoj is justifiably very proud of. “We started pushing our product in the export market,” he explains. “When India locked down, China was starting to reopen so we exploited that opportunity and sent all our products there. This led to sustaining the plant operation.”
“It has broadened my responsibility, but at the same time, my personality.”
Another strategy centred around protecting his team’s morale and ensuring they were physically safe. “I was stationed, along with about 700 people, for a full two months in the plant,” he says. “We made arrangements for their stay, their food, all kinds of basic requirements. The fear was that once everyone went home to other states, nobody knew when they would come back.”
Manoj says that the role at OPaL handed him the opportunity to oversee an entire company, a first in his career. It also offered exposure to dealing with government authorities, stakeholders, the promoters and the board of directors. “It has broadened my responsibility, but at the same time, my personality,” he smiles.