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Refractory materials are used in various fields of the national economy like iron and steel, glass, cement, ceramics, petrochemicals, electric power and more. They’re an essential material that ensures the production and operation of nearly everything.
“Refractory is like a building block,” Dalmia-OCL CEO Sameer Nagpal tells The CEO Magazine. “It’s one product that touches everyone’s life, but it’s never seen. It goes into the making of every single metal, every product you use, and supports all high-temperature applications where steel and cement are made. From the houses we live in and cars we drive, to the utensils and mobile phones we all use, refractory touches everything.”
Sameer is proud to be associated with the refractory industry, helping to make everything else possible through his work at Dalmia-OCL. The company, under the Dalmia Bharat Group, is the result of the integration of OCL (refractory division) and Dalmia Refractories – two of India’s oldest and most pioneering refractory companies. Dalmia-OCL offers end-to-end refractory products and solutions to customers in more than 40 countries.
It prides itself as being a leading player in several mission-critical refractory product categories for the steel and cement sectors with seven manufacturing plants; five of which are in India, one in Germany and the other in China.
“It’s a very, very basic industry but a fundamental one too,” he says. “We started our refractory journey as a company in 1954. As a part of someone else’s manufacturing process we have the capacity to impact someone else’s productivity, cost and efficiency. Therefore, historically, this industry was part of the main business of the company.”
Therein lies the challenge Dalmia-OCL faced in an ever-changing landscape. As the refractory industry evolved, the company remained stagnant. “We missed seeing the change that was happening in the overall industry,” he explains. “We were organised in three different parts with different ownerships all run differently. The landscape around us was changing, but we somehow missed the change.”
That saw pioneering and profitable Dalmia-OCL slide out of its leadership position. It became more like a vendor to its customers in steel and cement. “When the consolidation in the refractory industry happened, the internationalisation of the industry in India, the customers’ expectations changed. That’s what we missed, and that’s what led the company to slide down, losing share and losing profitability,” he says.
That’s when Sameer came into the picture and it was his leadership that would return Dalmia-OCL to its glory days. It wasn’t easy in the least. The task saw him asking important questions about the business and deciding whether or not to sell. It took him travelling to Europe as refractory, like steel, has a European base. There he started to understand where the industry was headed and how Dalmia-OCL could remain a part of it.
When there’s alignment and integrity within the organisation, the likelihood of success greatly increases.
“At the time India was something like the fourth-largest producer of steel, and in the past five years it’s climbed to the number two position,” he shares. “With India becoming the main steel-producing nation outside of China, there was a lot of discussion and relevance surrounding Indian refractories. This led me to believe that we had a very bright future in the refractory industry, and we should stay.”
From there, the company buckled down and worked on what needed to be done and changed what needed to be changed to get back into the game. And when it comes to challenges, Sameer says that undertaking this was far more difficult than managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our challenges have been far bigger than what the past two years have posed,” he says. “COVID-19 has disrupted everything; the personal, the professional, everything. The thing is, it’s caused more pain to companies that weren’t used to change, the stable organisations where they’re accustomed to everything being fine. Then when COVID-19 came, everything went topsy-turvy.
“With Dalmia-OCL, which was already enabling so much change, COVID-19 didn’t hit as hard because, in a sense, we were already prepared. We were all already equipped to handle change.”
That’s not to say the pandemic has been a walk in the park as it took a toll on a personal level, significantly impacting everyone. And at the onset, COVID-19 set the business back to ground zero. “There was complete uncertainty in the first wave because nobody knew what was happening,” Sameer shares.
“But the one thing we decided, and that’s also the philosophy of our group, was to prioritise people over profits. So we didn’t do any retrenchment. We didn’t do pay cuts. We said we’d rather dive into our reserves than put our people through any more pain than they were already going through.”
After riding out the first phase, Sameer says the business restarted and was able to do a V-shaped recovery. “By the time wave two of the pandemic hit we were better prepared. We instituted a task force called Feet on Street whose job was to provide support to stakeholders and employees.”
COVID-19 didn’t hit as hard because, in a sense, we were already prepared. We were all already equipped to handle change.
This task force made sure oxygen concentrators, medicine, family support and monetary support was available. “We wanted to make sure that every possible form of help was available,” he insists. “Now we’re focusing on accelerating vaccination for our people.
“The other thing we’ve done is adapted our model of working to a hybrid model, which allows our employees to work remotely and from the office. This framework has provided flexibility and freedom for our employees, and at the same time it’s not posed any issues in their performance or efficiency. It’s been working seamlessly for us.”
With its team members’ trust, passion and commitment to the company in full force, Dalmia-OCL is already planning for its 2030 targets. Entitled ‘Writing a New Future’, the strategy outlines some pretty significant and ambitious targets. “We want to be a billion-dollar organisation by 2030,” Sameer asserts.
“We’ve awakened Dalmia-OCL from its slumber, creating a new and exciting future. And everyone is now looking to this future, doing everything that must be done to fulfil this dream of becoming a billion-dollar company.”
In the past five years Dalmia-OCL has embarked on a joint venture with a European company, which brought some modern technology into India to help steelmakers. It also acquired a German company to gain access to its technology and European customer base. Even more, the company leveraged the ‘Made in India’ emphasis of the government to become the first off the block to commission a new line.
We’ve awakened Dalmia-OCL from its slumber, creating a new and exciting future. And everyone is now looking to this future, doing everything that must be done to fulfil this dream of becoming a billion-dollar company.
“We see a great opportunity to be a substitute for Chinese supplies worldwide,” he shares. “This has us moving fast to make this whole international strategy one with more clarity and a lot of conviction. We have a strategy for every region and partners set out in some of the regions already.
“We’ve also accelerated the whole digitalisation aspect of our service because that helps us move more effectively and faster. So the strategy is centred on a combination of modernisation, capacity enhancement, innovation, service, expansion and partnerships in the international arena.”
As a transformational leader, Sameer believes that to achieve any kind of business success like what he’s pulled off at Dalmia-OCL takes two key ingredients: alignment and integrity. “When there’s alignment and integrity within the organisation, the likelihood of success greatly increases,” he says.
“I create shock and awe when I enter an organisation as the change creates tremendous stress for everyone. Suddenly their lives are disrupted. So the key objective of any leader should be centred around building alignment within the team because when alignment is missing it’s a cause of work-related stress. In my view, alignment is key to happiness and an optimal work–life balance.”