Ravindra Kalra: MD and CEO, Voith Hydro

MD and CEO, Voith Hydro

Ravinder Kalra, managing director and chief executive officer, Voith Hydro, believes he is in the right company at the right time…

Having found a perfect niche for himself at Voith Hydro, where he has been spearheading the company’s sizzling expansion into Southeast Asia and Africa in recent years, the one thing that would make Ravinder Kalra’s cup truly runneth over is if the government was to formulate a comprehensive energy policy with the right energy mix for all sectors rather than only a renewable energy policy for wind and solar.

“Without a comprehensive policy that outlines what the country’s energy mix will be till 2050, what we have are policies for different sectors that are not in harmony. So if we suddenly add a lot of renewable energy from solar and wind with priority access to the grid, a lot of thermal would have to be backed down and there will be problems in stabilising the grid. But there will come a time when you cannot go below, say, 55 per cent for thermal because it becomes unviable if plants have a PLF of less than 55 per cent. Therefore, we need to make sure different segments are not competing against one another but complementing one another and that no sector such as hydro is neglected,” he says.

Kalra is clearly very driven about the sector. You can hear it in the energy in his voice; see it in his body language. He can’t wait to get to work every morning. He loves the idea of starting a new day with his team and pushing ahead with the company’s ambitious growth plans. “I get a big kick out of my work. Project delivery involves so much work and many interlinked processes. And the greatest thrill of all is customer appreciation of having delivered quality projects,” he says.

The strategy to expand into Southeast Asia and Africa was a natural choice for this 150-year-old company (the landmark was celebrated in February) owing to the government’s lack of focus on hydro in the past few years. Despite India’s abundant resources in rivers and glaciers, hydro has been demoted to a poor country cousin of solar and wind, with its share in the country’s energy mix falling to just 14 per cent.

“Hydro has taken a back seat in India. In order to ensure sustainable growth for the company, we had to start exporting to these new regions where we now have a strong portfolio of small- and medium-sized hydro projects.. It’s been a dizzying trajectory to do 20 projects in Southeast Asia alone in the last three years,” he says.

We are talking in Voith’s Noida office. Kalra orders a cappuccino to be made for me from his own machine. While travelling in Southeast Asia, he developed an interest in different teas and coffees. From Vietnam, for example, he picked up lotus-scented green tea and coffee from the famous Pleiku estates, ginseng tea from Korea and the exclusive Kopi Luwak from Indonesia.

Kalra has thoroughly enjoyed the challenges of language, culture, communication and trust involved in moving into Nepal, Indonesia, Vietnam, Lao PDR, Thailand, the Philippines, Nigeria, Congo and Uganda. In Vietnam, the company already has 10 hydro projects, of which three have been completed. “To build trust, we had to strike up a good relationship and deliver a few projects quickly, in 12-14 months. We managed to do that. That created a platform for us to get more orders,” he says.

With this track record of fast growth and a very healthy order pipeline, Kalra has significant growth plans for Voith, which serves as a manufacturing hub to meet the needs of hydro projects in India, Southeast Asia and Africa. To this end, the company’s Vadodara manufacturing plant has been expanded to meet the expected rise in demand for equipment. The company is keen to contribute to the development of the power sector by bringing in the latest technologies from Germany in the design and manufacture of turbines, generators and digital controls. In fact, the aim is to make India a centre of engineering and manufacturing competence for small and medium projects for the rest of Voith, the place where new technology is developed and where turbines are customised to suit each customer.

Kalra has worked in the hydropower sector for the past 13 years, having facilitated the commissioning of more than 50 projects. Before that, he enjoyed a distinguished career as a marine engineer with the Indian Navy for 21 years, during which time he won not just one but two commendations from the chief of naval staff and the Director General Quality Assurance Organisation. The first commendation was for his meritorious work and devotion to duty as chief engineer of rescue vessels and the second was for his work in improving quality assurance in the navy’s procurements.

As a young boy, Kalra dreamt of joining the armed forces to contribute to nation-building. “This aspect has been fully ingrained into my character and nerves after having served the navy for 21 years. It has shaped my life and my future, and continues to guide my actions in my present career,” he says.

The experience he gained in running plants using steam turbines, gas turbines and large diesel engines was extensive. It was also a fabulous life full of camaraderie, professionalism, discipline and fun. Kalra left the navy to pursue more innovative work. “The more senior you get, the more you are posted at HQ with administrative work instead of being in the thick of action. I began to miss the action as I’ve always sought to do new things. It seemed a natural corollary to switch to hydropower in the private sector.”

When he joined Voith, he was intrigued by the company’s astonishing longevity – 150 years old, never any change of name, owned continuously by the same family that is now into the fifth generation, and run by professionals. “Companies experience such longevity because of embedded values systems, which drive the performance and character of such companies. It is a matter of great pride to belong to and work in such companies,” he says.

Voith Hydro in India dates back to 1911 when it completed the Khopoli power plant for the Tatas, which is still in operation. Over the past 100 years, the company has contributed to developing more than 8 GW of hydropower in India. Voith Hydro started its local operations in India in 2002 and later added landmark projects like Omkareshwar (520 MW), Baglihar I (450 MW), Baglihar II (450 MW) and Karcham Wangtoo (1,000 MW), among others to its list of commissioned projects. Despite some of the big names in the project list, the company does not shy away from giving due importance to small-hydro with low capacities of even 200 kW. With a large portfolio of commissioned projects, Voith is focusing a lot on service and modernisation of old projects, which is a very essential to keep plants operational for their lifetime.

Kalra looks after a total of 350 personnel working on large and small hydro plants. Given the difficult milieu of many of the countries where they work, the company takes pains to ensure that their working conditions and commute are safe. Working conditions in a lot of countries are very difficult on account of local conditions. He says his Indian engineers are not at all nervous about working in difficult places. “It’s what I call the attitude and spirit of invincibility of Indians that gives us the strength to work in tough environments. I personally visit these sites frequently – that’s important to give them confidence,” he says.

Every day for Kalra begins with a long commute because home is in Faridabad, where he lives with his family, including his parents, with whom he spends some time every evening. On the way to the office, he reads the papers, catches up with emails, listens to retro Hindi songs and reads management literature. His own approach to managing engineers is “participative and consensual”. “Being result oriented, what I dislike is the attitude of rationalisation of underperformance seen in the business environment in India,” he says. “I believe in high transparency and mutual respect for individuals at all levels. Leaders are expected to deliver results by motivating their subordinates. I am a result-oriented person, who firmly believes that companies fail to achieve their objectives because of weak leadership and not because of employee performance,” he says.

Kalra’s energy levels are high and he likes to keep his body in good condition. Wherever he goes in the world, he packs his trainers and swimming gear. His solution for stress is simple: “Go for a run.”

Kalra strongly believes that development of pumped storage plants is an inescapable requirement given the development of solar and wind energy in India. Pumped storage plants are the natural batteries of the world that can store a few GW of energy from the grid during the day when solar is running to full capacity and pump the energy back to the grid during the evening peak hours. China is focusing on parallel development of pumped storage plants with other renewable sources where Voith has installed a few GW of energy capacities. It is a pity that despite huge potential in the southern plateau of India, pumped storage schemes have not caught the attention of the authorities.

Kalra is eagerly waiting for the government’s new hydro policy. He says the categorisation of all hydropower as renewable (projects of more than 25 MW capacity) will go a long way in reducing the cost of hydropower. Simplification of the various clearances required for hydropower plants will also be welcome. “The way I see it, we need to tackle energy poverty the same way we tackle poverty – with focus and determination,” he says.