India’s Friend: The Belgian MD

In conversation with Rajeshwar Upadhyaya, Filip Vandenberghe, Managing Director, Atlas Copco India Limited, talks about leadership, his experience of leading a multi-national business in India, and his fondness for Indian culture.


Filip Vandenberghe Web

India offers unique challenges and opportunities. What has been your insight on working here for half a decade or so?

I am a Belgian citizen and I have held managerial positions in the core technology areas at Atlas Copco for the last 25 years. Six years ago in July 2009, after having held the position of President of the Compressor Technique Airtec Division for almost 10 years, I came to India as the Vice President Holding and Managing Director of Atlas Copco (India) Ltd. As VP-Holding, I was to ensure that the company follows all the local laws and regulations, and adheres to the way we do things world over at Atlas Copco Group. However, I decided rather fast that I must not limit myself to a traditional VP-Holding role, and develop a vision to put Atlas Copco India more prominently on the global Atlas Copco map. I concentrated on talent recruitment, brand awareness, employer branding and corporate responsibility. At the same time, I focused internally on people and competence development. For this, I made sure there was coordination amongst the many operating units the company has in India.

Today, after more than five years and actually getting packed to leave the country, I realized that is was a fantastic journey and experience. The organisation has almost doubled in size and has developed strong local leadership. Furthermore, external mobility of Indian employees within the Atlas Copco Group has risen exponentially.

During your tenure, what have been some of your most daunting challenges?

There were many a challenges in different areas of activity. One of the biggest challenges was  acquiring land, which was absolutely needed to support the growth of the company and expand our operations here. The Group had been looking for years without success. But we managed to buy a very good property in Chakan, near Pune, and built a new factory on it by the end of 2012. And we did it while respecting our ‘Business code of Practice’ and ethical codes to the last rupee spent.

Another big challenge I faced was while implementing a companywide project to re-evaluate all job positions, remuneration structures, and title nomenclatures. We had to reach a consensus with all 13 operating units; each with their own context being a customer center, a product company or a service provider. This was a very delicate matter and was very close to the heart of each individual involved. However, after a lot of coordination meetings we reached a very strong consensus and implemented it successfully.

This is a rather remarkable feat. What has been your major focus area?

The Indian market ranks within the top 10 most important markets of the Group. But still, India was not recognised within the Group for its leadership potential. A substantial number of people in the leadership positions in India were expatriates. So, I placed a sharper focus on convincing the Group that enough leadership talent was available in India, not only to meet the local demand, but also to take up responsibilities in the Atlas Copco businesses abroad.

Today, out of the 15 most senior leaders at Atlas Copco India, 13 are Indians. Indian employees have found their way within the Group for overseas positions and are well accepted in the local organisations abroad. Over past five years, the number of Atlas Copco India employees with international assignments longer than one year, grew from about 20 to 140. These employees are engaged within the Atlas Copco Group across all business areas and hierarchical levels. I believe that today, the Indian expatriates rank third amongst the different groups of expats within company.

How did you go about making it happen?

This has been made possible because of our unwavering focus on talent and competence development and building leadership capabilities. Every two years we hold an academic conference and invite a number of leading academicians from the fields of technology and business. We also run a three-week program for developing high-potentials in our organisation. Globally, we like to develop internal talent and hire first through internal job postings before we go on to hire from outside. Out of our 11 CEOs – over the past 140 years – only two have come from outside the Group.

According to you, which leadership skills comprise successful behaviours?

The first and foremost of such capabilities is that of creating a vision. Once the vision is formulated, search for buy-in of the management team, and then communicate the vision over and over again to employees at all levels of the organisation. You have to paint and repaint, phrase and rephrase the vision at every occasion available. My management team and I use occasions like induction program or leadership seminars to explain our vision and talk about our values in an interactive manner.

The second such capability is to inspire people. You need to inspire all employees on board to join the project and considering it their own. In addition, you must make sure that everyone knows what exactly they are supposed to do, and certain that they look forward to doing that. Finally, you make the resources available to create a sustainable momentum in the organisation. To keep the organisational wheel spinning, a leader should focus on competence development. I did that most of all, and nothing else.

Given your experience in successfully leading a multi-national organisation here, what would you advice new expatriates in India to do?

I eat Indian food and I like it very much. I buy my vegetables from the stalls on the street, I go to meat and fish markets, and talk about it with the people.  A few years back, a very innovative small car was launched in the country. I bought it and now drive it along with my company car.  Whenever invited and if possible, I would attend functions such as a wedding or a visit to a temple. These are all small things that help you mingle with all layers of the organisation.

My recommendation to the new expatriates would be to integrate with the local culture to the maximum extent possible. You should learn about the Indian culture, both the ancient heritage and contemporary culture like Bollywood. Make sure that you show interest and that people know you have interest in their very rich culture. I would also advise the new expatriates to be extremely accessible and visible; preferably have an open office and invite people to come in without any hierarchical barriers. You should be clear, transparent and walk the talk. At the same time, maintain high ethical standards and make it very clear that there is zero tolerance for misbehavior. Place trust in people and reach out to the youngsters who are very talented and focus on their competence development.

On the other hand, what should the new expatriates be careful about?

Leading a business and living in India is not a typical job. You will be confronted with the bureaucracy and other problems the country has. Don’t be taken aback by the poverty, the dirt, or the caste system. In all my experiences, I have not seen a single problem in the workplace that refers to caste. I have also never felt unsafe passing through the slums or felt threatened by the people living on streets.

Expatriates should engage with India’s culture more directly. I have experienced the rest of India right from Jaipur to Gujarat and Madurai to Bengal. You should experience the rituals of this country and allow yourself to be touched by it. Engage with the values the country, its culture, and history.

Can you compare India and China for me using a strengths-based approach?

India is a great democracy. In fact, it is the mother of all democracies.  It being multi-cultural, its diversity is a boon. The talent pool of youngsters available in India is tremendous. A lot of innovation is happening here; Hotmail and USB were Indian creations among many others. People here are very entrepreneurial. However, gender equality needs to be achieved in India; one must respect yet adapt to the customs. India has a very good service industry that serves great organisations worldwide. Its manufacturing base is too small in relation to the farming and service sectors. Therefore, it has to invest a lot in vocation training to strengthen its offer of skilled labor force. Discipline and productivity of execution is probably the weakest chain in the existing manufacturing set up. On the other hand, China is a one-party capitalism which is paradoxical. It is very good at planning and execution. Its gender equality is better than India. It has a much superior infrastructure. China is great at manufacturing, superb in execution and discipline, but it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to innovation. Also, in China, skilled labour is available in abundance but company loyalty is lower than in India.

I think India can do better than China but it also needs to grow at a stable rate of seven to nine per cent.; anything more than that puts it at risk of overheating. India’s potential is great and it should not throw it away.

India is a challenging country. What is your hope for the country and its people?

India’s greatest strength is that most people here do not have a problem with English language. Their ability to communicate easily with the rest of the world has been a great propeller for the Indian service sector. However, India must improve in the areas of power and infrastructure to allow an increased contribution of the manufacturing sector to India’s GDP. It needs to create a new line of smart cities and develop rural areas to take the load off the metro cities. The education system, especially within disciplines such as engineering and others, should have contemporary laboratories which can prepare better trained professionals. By the time students finish their education they should be ready for employment with adeptness at the latest state of art technology.

The other issue I see is that the salary expectations in India are bordering around greed and if it continues, the Indian setups will lose its attractiveness to the European and American manufacturers. We already see it happening in China from where many American and European manufacturing companies are pulling out. But the single important thing for India Inc is to understand that safety and quality can never be an option; whenever you do something, it must excel in meeting international standards on safety and quality.

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