One of the youngest incoming presidents of FICCI and the first from Odisha to hold such a position in an apex chamber, the industrialist shares his grand vision for the state and the values that guided him to the top of the game...
HELLO!: You hail from the small town Bhubaneswar and at present, command a powerful narrative in Delhi as one of FICCI’s youngest presidents. You’ve come a long way indeed! Please share your musings of success.
Subhrakant Panda: I’ve very fond memories of growing up in Bhubaneswar, replete with a small circle of friends and a simple lifestyle. At the core, I’m still the same — happier spending time with family and close friends, and focussing on my work at Indian Metals & Ferro Alloys (IMFA) and now at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI). I believe I got to where I am today by doing the right things and not choosing the easier path. I also believe in transparency and, most importantly, delivering on what I commit. Success to me means not just reaching the pinnacle but also being described as someone who was a reliable partner during the journey to the top.
H!: Tell us how your early years in Bhubaneswar shaped you into the fine human of today.
SP: Growing up in a small city and, of course, my family values helped me remain grounded. That’s my strength today — I don’t easily get carried away and am conscious about not just what I say but also how I say it, as I believe it’s important to be sensitive to what’s going on in the lives of the people around you. I’m hard-nosed about getting things done, but believe in doing so with a light touch.
H!: IMFA, founded in 1961, has grown exponentially in the past few decades. How were you able to scale up so phenomenally?
SP: IMFA was founded by my late parents, Dr Bansidhar Panda and Mrs Ila Panda, who wanted to contribute to Odisha’s industrial landscape and generate employment. Today, we provide livelihood to more than 6,500 families and are India’s leading, fully- integrated producer of ferrochrome and its largest exporter. Their vision of adding value to locally available raw materials and living in harmony with the surrounding communities where we operate may sound simple but was ahead of its times. I must also acknowledge the commitment and dedication of our workforce who are our greatest asset. We are now looking to expand our chrome ore raising and ferrochrome production with an outlay of Rs 2,000 crore over the next few years.
H!: What were some of the challenges you faced along the way?
SP: Like all commodities, the ferrochrome market cycle, too, is fairly volatile and can be quite challenging at times. Paradoxically, the best time to expand capacity is during its low phase. My focus has been on growing the business, which is capital intensive, without taking undue risk. We’ve been quite successful in this regard as IMFA is debt free as of this year and perfectly positioned to embark upon the next phase of growth. Another challenge is to attract and retain talent. Here, too, we’ve been quite successful as our attrition rate is very low. On the personal front, work-life balance is an issue, given that I travel extensively — at least I did so before the pandemic!
H!: Down time, family time, pleasure time... What defines that for you, in the manic world we reside in?
SP: New technology and gadgets fascinate me, and I’m also a voracious reader and news junkie! Downtime for me is a nice meal with family and friends, but a beach vacation is high on the list, too. I’m a foodie and am equally at ease in a sophisticated three- Michelin-star restaurant as with dal- chawal at home.
H!: Your brother has been in the political arena. Any chances of you entering that domain?
SP: I am very happy being in the business world. Politics is not my cup of tea!
H!: You and your wife Shaifalika share a splendid bond that’s evident to all who know you. What’s the secret recipe of this potent success?
SP: Shaifalika and I met at Boston University, and it was love at first sight! She’s my rock, and the one I turn to for advice when I’m unsure. The secret recipe is love and respect. We do have a difference of opinion at times, but nothing detracts from our commitment to each other and our family. I’d not have got to where I am today were it not for her love and support.
H!: As a mentor to the young idealists you guide, what’s the most important piece of advice you can share?
SP: There’s no shortcut to success — it’s a product of hard work, teamwork and faith. Do the right things, and the results will follow — this is my core philosophy.
H!: What is your grand vision for Odisha as the leading family of the state?
SP: Odisha is rich in mineral resources, but for many decades, there was hardly any value addition within the state. Our business model is predicated on adding value to raw materials, thereby creating large-scale employment and also on giving back to society by way of both our charitable activities as well as sustainable initiatives through the Bansidhar & Ila Panda Foundation. I strongly support the focus of the government to encourage domestic value addition and integrate India into global supply chains. Odisha has also made rapid strides in terms of increasing per capita income and is also investing in infrastructure to facilitate industrial development. I believe the state has immense potential and will contribute significantly as a manufacturing powerhouse, which is essential for India to become a US$5 trillion economy.
H!: How did the Covid era play out for your sector? How did you adapt to the so-called new word order?
SP: The challenging time for us was actually prior to Covid, as global trade disputes put immense pressure on our sector. We’ve been fortunate right through Covid, as pragmatic policies allowed continuous process industries like ours to operate, although we also played our part by taking extraordinary measures to ensure a safe working environment. We adapted quite well to the ‘new normal’ and, in fact, many of the learnings during the pandemic period will have a lasting impact in terms of enhancing efficiency and reducing costs.
H!: As the incoming president of FICCI, how do you plan to make an impact?
SP: It’s indeed an honour to be part of the national leadership at FICCI, especially as I’m the first person from Odisha to hold such a position in an apex chamber. My priority will be to act as a bridge between key stakeholders in India’s pursuit of a growth agenda that is both inclusive and sustainable. India has a demographic advantage, but providing gainful employment is a challenge. There has to be a shift towards creating 200 million jobs in industry as well as services as it’s simply not tenable that agriculture contributes 18 percent to 20 percent to the GDP but accounts for 45 percent of jobs.
Climate change is a reality, and moving towards decarbonisation is important. India has taken a bold stand by committing to reach 50 percent of total energy from renewable sources by 2030 and achieve ‘net zero’ status by 2070. The industrial value chain should do its bit, but wherewithal of MSMEs is limited. Therefore, I intend to make hand-holding them through this journey one of FICCI’s key priorities.
Finally, the move towards digitisation and automation presents a significant business opportunity for Indian entrepreneurs, given our strong IT and ITES base, as well as the galloping startup ecosystem, which has seen many unicorns being created. FICCI will have to reorient itself to new age sectors if it’s to continue being the voice of industry.
H!: You represent the future breed of industrialists. Simplicity, modesty, intellect and maturity define you. Share five leadership values that you believe are priceless.
SP: 1. Lead from the front, but delegate.
2. Trust, but verify.
3. Command, don’t demand, respect.
4. Empower people to be leaders.
5. Be compassionate.
Photography: Anil Chawla, Creative Direction & Styling: Amber Tikari
This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s September 2022 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!