Venkatesha Babu & Isha Rautela
If there is one product that 3M – a global conglomerate with nearly $35 billion in annual sales and 60,000 plus products – is universally known for, it is its post-it notes. Who doesn’t use the ubiquitous sticky yellow notes that now have started appearing in a multitude of colours. The story of post-it’s accidental invention, by a 3M scientist Dr Spencer Silver, is now part of corporate lore.
While trying to develop new strong adhesives, Dr Silver instead created the opposite – an adhesive that stuck only lightly to surfaces. Initially, he was disappointed till serendipitously a fellow scientist Art Fry used the adhesive for a bookmark which would stick to the paper without damaging the pages and could be reused.
Serendipity and stress on scientific innovation has played a big part in not just 3M’s global fortunes but also that of its leader in India. Ramesh Ramadurai the Managing Director of 3M in India, a 33-year veteran of the company, is the first to admit it. It was sheer serendipity which made the son of a public sector banker, who grew up as an itinerant student across small towns in Tamil Nadu, follow a then unconventional path of IIT and IIM.
Growing up across Chennai, Vellore, Coimbatore, Trichy and other towns in Tamil Nadu, Ramadurai confesses that there were no big ambitions early on. ‘As a banker, my father would get transferred every 2-3 years. So we would all be up-ended and I would have to start afresh to develop a new set of friends at school,’ says Ramadurai.
This kind of temporary adhesiveness to a place and having to reattach oneself in a new city – just like a sticky post-it note – is a trait that has made him supremely adaptable. This ability to adapt, learn and win, is also the reason why he has succeeded while working in some of the most intensely competitive markets like China, America, the Philippines and now India – which is the only market where 3M is listed outside of the US.
3M India’s offices are just down the street from where The Hindu Businessline’s office is located in the central business district of Bengaluru. Despite the proximity, we decided to meet Ramadurai at the Trinity Square, Taj over a buffet lunch on a sunny Thursday. Spry and fit – possibly due to a legacy of his basketball playing years at college and his earlier regular 10K runs – Ramadurai looks younger than his 64-years. He declaims any special effort in maintaining himself “except for watching what I eat, a bit of aerobics which I only recently took up and my love for the great outdoors”. That fact is underscored when he decides to have just a mixed vegetable salad with a small portion of rice and some boiled beans even as we tuck into the succulent buffet spread.
How did the son of a banker, who wanted to follow in his footsteps by opting for commerce, end up in IIT-Kanpur? Happenstance, says Ramadurai. ‘On the advice of a cousin, I decided to take up engineering and ended up in IIT- Kanpur. Largely self-taught, I got middling rank and ended up with chemical engineering. Got campus placed in ONGC and worked for a year including in continuous 14-day shifts on Bombay High, before chucking it to study further and got into IIM- Calcutta,’ details Ramadurai.
“The best part of studying at IIM-C,” he chuckles and says, “I found my soulmate in my classmate Sudha Sukhi.”
On the professional front, when TVS came calling at the campus on a recruitment drive, Ramadurai ended up with the group. ‘Here I got involved in various aspects spanning R&D, product production, engineering, and marketing, gaining substantial knowledge. These early days of embracing robotics and new technologies provided an incredible learning experience, coupled with the remarkable level of freedom we were given,’ he reminiscences.
However, the itch to run a business independently meant that after three and half years, Ramadurai found himself looking for new challenges. It was sometime in 1989, on a car ride from Bangalore to Hosur, that he found himself reading an article featuring the then 3M CEO, Allen Jacobson followed by another piece about the company setting up shop in India just a year earlier. Taking a chance, he applied to 3M India and within a week received a ‘telegram’ to attend an interview.
There has been no looking back since then. “In October 1989, I joined 3M, never imagining I’d stay more than three decades,” he said. With the company coming to India coupled with his own aspiration to run a business, Ramadurai landed his first role, which saw him set up the graphics business, supplying parts to the automotive sector. “The company was relatively young, and I appreciated the chance to independently establish and run a business. This involved finding customers, setting up operations, and, though not directly managing manufacturing, overseeing significant responsibilities. “
Transitioning from automotive graphics, Ramadurai’s journey traversed a broader portfolio, predominantly in industrial sectors dealing with tapes and adhesives. A substantial portion of his career unfolded within the industrial landscape.
Global roles and a road less travelled
In a surprising twist, after over a decade at 3M, he found himself with a one-way ticket to the United States. The role as a US employee, he says, gave him a better view of 3M, the giant, as it was in its ‘home’ market.
In 2009, owing to personal family circumstances, he returned to India, as director of the company’s industrial business in India. However the itch to run something on his own fully meant that in less than three years when the Managing Director’s role in the Philippines opened up, he grabbed it. His work there brought him to the attention of senior leaders who moved him as business director of Asia and Greater China.
Ramadurai is one of the very few Indian origin executives to have operated in the crucial Chinese market. Asked how different it was, he says, ‘The China market and opportunity is several multifold larger. However the basics of business centred around delivering value, taking care of the customer and innovating remained the same.”
After a five-year tenure in China, months before the Covid outbreak he returned to India as the MD. “India in many ways is one of our fastest growing markets in the 3M universe and to help shape the segments we operate in, even if in a small way, is very satisfying.” It helps that Mike Roman, the current global CEO of 3M, was his immediate superior when he was heading China.
As he fondly recollects three decades within 3M, Ramadurai reflects on advice received early in his career — a caution against letting the company define his personality. In retrospect, he acknowledges the wisdom in those words, albeit confessing to occasionally falling short of his counsel.
Working with the CII Karnataka chapter closely first as Vice Chairman and then Chairman has been immensely gratifying. ‘Inflection point is a much-abused phrase but I truly believe that we are as a country at that stage. I believe the best is ahead of us. Helping entrepreneurs succeed even as one navigates hygiene challenges of growth and profitability in the business one heads, is what keeps me going’ That might be the secret of his sticky success.
(The writers are with The Hindu businessline)