Hakimuddin Ali is a graduate Mechanical Engineer from NIT Raipur with an Executive MBA from XLRI Jamshedpur and INSEAD, Fontainebleau France. He has held senior positions at Tata Steel, Imerys India and is the ex-chairman of the Indian Refractories Manufacturing Association (IRMA) and Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Vidarbha Zonal Council and the current chair at CII Western Region Infrastructure Panel, Maharashtra, India. As an Executive Director of Dalmia Bharat Group, a pioneer in cement manufacturing since 1939, Hakimuddin is responsible for the revival of a defunct cement plant in Maharashtra. In this feature, we track his journey over the years and ask him to share his thoughts on success & failure, technical education and his specialty, human resource management.
Personal leadership. This is Hakimuddin (Hakim) Ali’s managerial style as a C-Suite executive in a competitive corporate environment. Throughout his professional career spanning two decades, he has benefitted from varied experiences in running businesses, operations, marketing & sales and human resources that enabled him to become a seasoned and sought-after business professional.
‘I began as a floor manager at a TATA cement unit. I remember we used to come home with our clothes soiled in soot and oil. Learning the ropes hands on made a lasting impression,’ says Hakim adding ‘the first five years were very grounded, but as a graduate engineer, I wanted more exposure which is why I went to XLRI Jamshedpur to do my MBA’.
After completing his studies, Hakim was given a placement at TATA Steel where his primary task was to work on an Operations Cost Saving programme with McKinsey and suggest solutions to improve the working structure of the organisation.
Hakim and his team set about conducting a thorough review of each division of the company on a case-by-case basis. The review spanned three months, at the end of which their assessment recommended a set of suggestions for saving on operational costs that resulted in the company saving nearly 350 crores over two years. ‘It still gives me goose-bumps when I recall that. It was when I received my first cash prize of INR 1 lakh in the presence of the entire company by the Managing Director himself’, Hakim fondly remembers.
This experience led him into the company’s HR department where he was assigned a similar task, albeit from an HR perspective. ‘In order to better understand our capabilities, we applied a PEP (Performance Evaluation Planning) formula for each individual’s assessment where performance was the key indicator of individual worth. Our assessment proposed a communication system between managers and subordinates that was result-driven and reduced hierarchical constraints. That was one of the most radical transformations I have been involved in,’ says Hakim. Their assessment was implemented in the company improving its efficiency in the subsequent months and years.
Hakim built on this and continued to expand his role in HR taking up important roles in corporate governance. He took over as Head of a Profit centre in Tata Bluescope Pune, launching the first-of-their-kind colour coated steel sheets. Subsequently, he moved on to become the Managing Director of the French Multinational, Calderys, dealing in speciality minerals with its Head of Operations at Nagpur and Paris.
The experience that he collected over the years became manifest when in 2019, Hakim accepted the position of Executive Director of Cements at Dalmia Cement (Bharat) Ltd’s cement manufacturing operations in west India. ‘I was given charge of reviving a sick and closed plant near Nagpur so as to make it the springboard for Dalmia into the Maharashtra market’, says Hakim. Dalmia, which had been a major player in the eastern India region for decades, had little market capitalisation in the west. Establishing a manufacturing behemoth from ground zero and investing a whopping INR 1000 crores, put his skills to their greatest test yet.
Hakim had to revive a defunct plant, (belonging erstwhile to Murli Cement, a cement manufacturer), upgrade its derelict machinery, boost manufacturing capacity and forge a model of corporate competence in a highly-competitive market.
‘After Dalmia’s acquisition of Murli Cements in 2019, I went on a round of inspection to the site. I knew that their (Murli’s) plant had been defunct for some time, but I was hoping the machinery would be salvageable to repurpose; however, my thoughts were quickly dispelled by the scene on the ground. The equipment had become laced with tree linings, cement, shrub overgrowth and piles of unusable cement dotted about. I realised the project had to be a complete overhaul. That’s easier said than done.’
With the acquisition complete in 2020, the onset of the pandemic proved to be a major disruptor delaying critical operations. Hakim divides the challenges in three categories. First being the technical aspects of reviving the plant. The corroded nature of most equipment meant it had to be dismantled and new equipment had to be installed in its place. Secondly, the availability of skilled labour required for specific tasks was stymied by the pandemic. Finally, acquiring permissions from various departments became a protracted process requiring tact and effort. Hakim had to acquire over 80 permissions before commencing operations. Undeterred, he and his team overcame these challenges ‘one step at a time.’
In the process, Hakim understood the value of forging interpersonal relations with all stakeholders. He made it a point to interact with everyone, from the daily-wage labourers to his close advisors. His cheerful mood and positive approach unified the team.
‘The thing about stakeholder interaction is that you have to do it to learn it; it sounds simple, but often I found myself walking a tightrope,’ says Hakim going on to add, ‘Love and kindness makes all the difference, be it in family or running a business’, a quote from Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin that he treasures and adorns as a frame on his desk.
Eventually, the company was up and running, and by March 2022 it had sold one lakh tonnes of cement just eleven months after acquisition. Hakim’s approach of targeting the central zone of Maharashtra bore fruit as the company won the trust of almost 400 dealers and 1200 retailers within the targeted market. With a strong team of nearly 1200 individuals, Hakim continues to make strides with Dalmia in building a profitable business in previously unchartered territory.
When asked about his views on success and failure, he said, ‘Success comes with its perks, the name and fame, etc; however, it is more important to keep a check on one’s attitude. The notion of not getting carried away and keeping one’s feet on the ground is how I describe success. On the flipside, there is a lot of learning from every failure. I firmly believe that to accept your failure with dignity is a virtue. We have been bad teachers of explaining this to our kids, i.e. how to deal with failure.’
Through the ups and downs on the work front, Hakim made a conscious effort to maintain ‘work-life balance’ and believes no meaningful work can be accomplished without living a well balanced life. Even today, in spite of a demanding schedule, he makes it a point to go on an outing with his wife and three daughters at least twice a month. ‘If we prioritise family; everything automatically falls in place’ he summarises.
As technology has pervaded and continues to influence all aspects of human experience, Hakim sees great potential in the array of technical education including Machine Learning, AI, Green Tech, etc. He believes students should leverage this potential in order to become efficient decision makers of tomorrow.
On a parting note, Hakim offers the following advice to the younger generation: ‘Believe in yourself and have faith. Nothing can happen overnight. Perseverance and patience are the key to excel in any field. I think there is a tendency to get influenced by overnight success stories. Finally, one needs to hone the ability to absorb losses. The road to success is mired by obstacles, however, if you develop the right mechanism, you will be one step closer to success.’