Oct. 19--The song Chitthi Aayi Hai from the film Naam has a special place in Pawan Goenka's heart. In 1992, when Goenka and his wife Mamta Goenka were flipping through the weekly newspaper India Abroad in Detroit, US, Goenka chanced upon a full-page advertisement by an Indian company that invited auto professionals settled abroad to come back home. "Somehow, that just touched the right chord. It was also the time when this ghazal was still popular," says Goenka, executive director and president, automotive and farm equipment sectors at Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd.
Having lived abroad for 18 years, Mamta Goenka was longing to come back. Goenka wasn't too willing initially, but gave in. He wrote to several companies and got a few responses. One of them was from Mahindra and Mahindra.
Goenka, 59, who completed two decades with the maker of the Scorpio, Bolero, XUV 500 models on 13 October, has been the driving force behind a firm that has seen its market capitalization soar 13-fold from Rs.397 crore in January 1993 to Rs.53,410 crore in October this year.
I reached before time for our meeting at the Mahindra Towers in Worli, Mumbai, mindful of Goenka's preference for clock-work precision. Dressed in an off-white shirt with dark trousers and matching black tie with cream dots, Goenka is always a picture of serenity. He rarely talks about himself or his family, but this afternoon, he seems different, more chatty.
He cites the Scorpio and the company's automotive plant in Chakan near Pune as his biggest achievements. "When we unveiled the first Scorpio body to Anand Mahindra (now chairman and managing director, who was the deputy MD at the time), the way he hugged me was emotional for all of us, including him, because that was a defining moment for Mahindras. Scorpio changed the company's fortunes completely," says Goenka.
However, his stint in the firm is not without regrets. "If I was to talk about the products that didn't work, the biggest one perhaps is the Logan (now called Verito)," Goenka says, adding that the team has analysed the reasons for its failure repeatedly. The quality gap with multinational companies is another disappointment. "Compared to some years ago, the gap has become smaller, but it still exists. We had 12-13 years to close it completely, but we have not succeeded. I just wish the journey was faster," he says.
Born into a traditional middle-class Marwari family in a small village of Madhya Pradesh, Goenka is the eldest among the four boys. The family moved to Kolkata after Goenka completed primary school. He went on to study mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and then got a doctorate from Cornell University, US.
He started his career with General Motors Co. in the US in the advanced research and development department. Goenka calls his decision to join Mahindras, then a fledgling but enterprising Indian firm, after 15 years with a big multinational, a "right brain" one.
In December 1992, he landed in Kolkata, to meet prospective employers in India. But an Air India strike and a dictat from a doting mother who refused to let go of her son for too long, limited his options. "My mother said you can go to only one place for an interview and you cannot be gone overnight. You have to go in the morning and come back in the evening."
As luck would have it, there was one flight out of Kolkata, to Mumbai, which is what he took.
Anand Mahindra shared with him his idea of building a company that could independently develop products to compete with the world's best. Impressed by the grandeur and the scale of vision, he signed up. "I didn't even ask what my role will be or who I would report to. It was one of the few times when I took a right brain decision and it worked out well for me," he says. Even with the pay cut -- a corollary of working in India -- the gamble paid off.
Goenka joined in 1993 as general manager for research and development and swiftly rose through the ranks. Initially based in Nashik, he shifted to Mumbai in 1997 for his children's higher education. He spea