An Interview with DAA 2020 recipient Dhruv Deepak Saxena, PGP 1977 by Anirudh Srivatsa

Mr. Dhruv Deepak Saxena (fondly known as DD) is the Promoter Director and Founder of ROBE, a $150 million investment in an oilseed crushing & refining plant in Australia. He has also successfully set up the currently only Cottonseed Crushing Plant in Australia, making blended cottonseed-based animal feed products, and is MD of Oilseeds Australia.

He has successfully set up multiple green-field projects in four countries, has exceptional entrepreneurial flair and has senior management experience with quality organisations such as Unilever, Thapar Group of Companies (Ballarpur Industries) and was Managing Director of Bakrie International which is a multi-billion dollar company in South East Asia. DD is the only Australian who has established a greenfield project both in Australia and India which has been successful.

DD is also a member of the Australia India CEO Forum which is conducted by DFAT and the Chair of India Business Forum, which is an initiative of CII launched 2018 in Australia.

1. What was your background before you joined IIM Bangalore? Why did you decide to do an MBA, and how did you choose IIM Bangalore, especially as it was new?

I came from an academic background – my father was a professor at Allahabad University, and later became the Vice-Chancellor. I was an only child. When growing up – I believe it is the same in India even today – for most middle and upper-middle-class families, education is the biggest religion; it is a necessity to go up the ladder.

My father got an offer from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. All of a sudden, we found ourselves in New York, and soon at Urbana-Champagne. This was in 1966. I was the only guy with brown skin at my school then. I studied hard there, became the tennis captain, introduced soccer at my school, and was an Alpha Psi Omega. It was a very interesting two and half years. In an environment where you are 14 or 15 in Midwestern America of the 1960s, it builds a lot of ability to adapt and adjust. I did everything a typical American kid did at the time – sold newspapers and worked at gas stations and McDonald’s.

However, the Vietnam War soon broke out. We no longer wanted to get a green card and wanted to return to India, as there was a high probability of getting drafted. My father was a colleague of Professor C. N. R. Rao, who was then going to teach at IIT Kanpur. Though I had received offers from Cornell, Stanford and the University of Illinois, I went through the IIT admission process and joined IIT Kanpur – after having done my high school in the US! I studied chemical engineering at IIT Kanpur and did well there. I played badminton for the institute and tennis at the state level, and became the General Secretary.

I joined the company DCM when I graduated. The top three or four private sector jobs back then were at companies such as DCM, Lever and ICI. I started my career at a chemical plant at Kota, but soon realized that I was not cut out to be an engineer. There are many great careers available in engineering, but I decided they were not for me. My available paths then were to either do a Masters, go back to the US, or do an MBA. IIMs A and C were already established then and lots of people with IIT backgrounds were joining them. I couldn’t get into IIM A, so I joined the newly established IIM B in 1975. I did not have much idea about where it would take me when I joined, but it was definitely a great stepping stone.

2. You are from the second PGP batch of IIMB. What was the institute like back then? What was your campus lifelike, and what kinds of activities were you active in back then?

At that time, IIM Bangalore only took in those with work experience. I believe working for a year or two before an MBA makes your takeaway from the program much better; you can relate to the subjects more. The first PGP batch mostly consisted of those from the public sector. The director, Ramaswamy, wanted to position the institute very differently. A lot of sectors were being nationalized then. He wanted the institute to train and supply good managerial talent for the public sector.

IIM B then was just a number of leased buildings, around St. Joseph’s. The main building had a cute quadrangle with the classes around it. The library was in Lavelle Road. The hostels were very rustic with only a few people in it, many in the batch were day scholars. Our batch had only four girls; the previous batch had zero. There was no girls hostel, and the boys hostel had very few rooms. There was a certain freshness to the institute – it was something new with no established traditions or structures. We had 52 students in the class, with total students in the institute being about a hundred.

The faculty was also new – many of them were from the US or from the other two IIMs. All of them wanted to make the most out of it; they wanted to build an institution and a career for themselves. The faculty interaction was much more intense then. Most of the faculty were just 7-10 years older than us. They even acted along with us in plays. Another professor was just 5 years older than us. Of course, some, like Professor Vatsala Nagarajan and Professor S. K. Warrier, were quite senior as well. The faculty-student ratio was almost 1:1 then. Overall, it was a very friendly atmosphere, with lots of learning institutionally and structurally. In fact, when the mess used to be closed on weekends, we would be invited to have our meals with the faculty at their homes; we would all eat, drink and talk together.

We had many great professors, such as S. K. Roy, Vijay Padaki, A. K. Roy, V.T.D. Balasubramaniam and Gopal Valecha. There were some great faculty in Operations; marketing was also good but not “wow”. Not many of the faculty had an industry background. We had some guest speakers and visiting faculty too.

As for activities, we did take part in many inter-college events with Mount Carmel, St Joseph’s and Bangalore University. It was more out of our interest than an organized structure. I participated in and won many national debates. We had some guys in our batch who were extremely talented in music. The batch both before and after mine had some pretty outstanding talent as well. We also participated in the first inter-IIM sports meet at IIM C; our contingent only had 20-25 students back then! We won the tennis and badminton events, in which we defeated IIM C. I even got the “Man of the Meet” award that year.

The education then was very focused on general management; there was limited specialization compared to what we have now. I still enjoyed much of the learning process, which also had lots of case studies. I had majored in Marketing, and I got the gold medal in that. Since IIM B leaned more towards the public sector, what we learnt then was also a bit different. A lot of public sector companies were invited to come for interviews, while private sector firms weren’t as welcome. I had interviewed with Asian Paints at their office. Lots of people in the batch got placed with public sector companies such as BPCL, HPCL and SBI. I got a job with Lever (now Unilever) in marketing – one of the faculty, Vijay Padaki, knew the Head of HR there, and we somehow forced them to come in for recruitment.

3. What were your immediate career aspirations at IIMB?

All of us aspired to a job in the best organizations. Though Asian Paints had offered me the role of Area Manager with a car and a house and Lever only took me in as a management trainee with a salary of Rs 1100, Lever was one of the best organizations in the country where I could pursue a long term career – it was the most sought-after job. The management trainee batch of 1977 at Lever went on to do extremely well in their careers.

4. How did you eventually foray into the world of entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurship happened for me much, much later in my career. The Thapar group, which owned Ballarpur Industries and Crompton Greaves and was India’s fourth largest group, offered me a role. I was handpicked by their head L M Thapar, once of the foremost industrialists of my generation, and I joined them. I found that it was a very entrepreneurial company, and I was fortunate to work with L M Thapar directly. He gave me a lot of freedom to work on new projects. I put up a large gherkin (fermented cucumbers) project in Karnataka – it was very labour intensive and produced mainly for export. The industry employs more than 1 million people today. It is the largest exporter using the Inland Container Depot at Bangalore. Gradually, I became the VP of the Chemicals business, and looked after 5-6 divisions. It was there that I developed my risk-taking abilities, and an ability to work in an unstructured environment.

I then got a job as the CEO of a large South East Asian group, where K V Kamath of ICICI was heading finance. My family and I moved to Australia from Singapore. In 2001, I was diagnosed with cancer. However, I went on to start a dairy business, which went on to become one of the largest dairy groups. We launched the Unibic biscuits brand in India, in which I had a 25% stake. We also organized the first Twenty20 match in India, as part of the MRF tournament. My partner had played for the Australia A team. Six teams played in that tournament, including New South Wales and the World XI, at Bangalore in August 2005. We even set up a Bradman museum at one of the Unibic factories. Today, we have set up one of the largest food and agri businesses in Australia, and we have won many business awards over the years.

I now play an active role between Indian and Australian businesses. Though I may be somewhat physically disconnected with India, I worked in India till the age of 43, and therefore maintain close links. Much of our canola factory has been designed in India, and many of our best engineers are from India.

5. What advice would you like to share with current students of IIM Bangalore, especially in these uncertain times?

I believe that there will be different phases in our lives and in our careers when our needs and priorities would change. We should aspire to be builders, not just live in a society of instant gratification. My first advice is to work wherever you think you can get the best possible exposure in your area of interest. When you play cricket, it is prudent to watch the ball and not the scorecard. It is important to have a passion – not just in a romantic sense, it should have a lot of solid backing behind it. If you are interested in starting out on your own, you should have the passion to build and create something. Having patience is important. At the same time, stability also becomes important in life. My advice would be to work deep, develop yourself in a specialization, and then go on to create something of your own. Be a builder, not just a manager.

Anirudh Srivatsa, PGP 2019-21

This interview was exclusively conducted by Anirudh Srivatsa, who is a second year PGP student at IIMB.