He came to the US with 8 dollars in his pocket, worked as a cook and a research assistant, to pay off his loans. He was placed at the lowest rung of the ladder at Chevron in the seventies and told that even though his work was outstanding, he looked different, talked with an accent, and had a turban and facial hair so he would be lucky if he managed to get into even the middle rung. Today Jeet Bindra has left the glass ceiling he shattered, far behind him and is President Global Refining, for Chevron.
In a candid interview with Kavita Chhibber, Jeet Bindra speaks on Chevronís foray into India after a 3 decade dry spell, his trip to Pakistan, how corporate America is perceived globally, Chevronís plans to combat the raging gas crisis and why he believes in the phrase he coined- success follows when people come first.
ďSuccess follows when people come firstĒ When exactly did that occur to you? Its only now that corporate America is beginning to recognize the value of EQ (emotional quotient) in the grand scheme of things.
I think having grown up in India I had always been deeply moved by Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Bhagat Singh and their examples let me to believe early on that service oriented leadership is the key to success. I came to work at Chevron in 1977 but after 4-5 years of working there I coined this phrase, because I believed very deeply in it. I asked one of the draftsmen to create a poster for me and to this day that phrase is hanging in my office. That was 1982, but to this day I believe that Iím successful today because I always focused on bringing out the best in the people in this organization without compromising their self respect or dignity. In fact in the pipe line company had about 26 locations and I had said this to them that the location which passes the entire year without any injuries on the job or vehicle accident, will be treated to tandoori chicken made by me. Whenever any location was successful in achieving that, I would be up at 5 a.m., marinate the chicken, barbecue it by noon, serve everyone and clean up after them with my team.
I remember reading how you turned the ailing Caltex project in Australia into a money spinner by following the same philosophy. How do things work in Australia?
When I reached there things were not in a good shape and it seemed obvious that the employees had given up. I think all I did was to focus on the positive, make the employees believe in themselves and combined with some sound business decisions encouraged them to celebrate every single step they took in the right direction.
In fact just on the third day of my arrival we were raided by the equivalent of the FTC there, accusing us of price fixing. The news made headlines in the papers, but we fought it and a few months later they dropped the charges but just ran a small column on page 7. I decided I was not going to take that and we published a half page ad with NOT GUILTY stamped across it and I think it went a long way in making the employees feel vindicated.
With Americaís credibility down globally, how is it in the corporate world? Do people hate America or is it business as usual?
I think the reaction is mixed across the globe. I have had the opportunity to travel to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other parts of the middle east and by and large people were in favor of the US stance on Iraqís invasion of Kuwait, but they are very deeply hurt by the treatment given to them each time they have entered the country post September 11. There is also resentment about Americaís alliance with Israel. In other places like Thailand for instance it is business as usual as they are really not affected as the Muslim world has been. However it is interesting that if there is a political discussion even they ask why is America interfering in the internal affairs of others.
Chevron has made its foray into the Indian market by joining hands with Reliance Petroleum, after a dry spell of 3 decades. How do you see the relationship developing and what do you think of the Indian infrastructure today when it comes to foreign direct investment?
Iím very proud of Chevronís entry into India. I have known Mukesh Ambani for about 15 years and that friendship sowed the seeds of this relationship. We have bought a 5 percent stake with the option of adding another 24 percent and have signed a memorandum of understanding which will allow us to explore the possibility of collaborating across the entire value chain from exploration, production, movement of crude oil and natural gas, refining, distribution, marketing potential bio-fuels technology centered establishments. Iíve been invited on the Reliance Petroleum board, and hopefully it will be approved by the Board soon and I can attend their July meeting.
I think India will play a very important role in the energy equation. It is the second largest country in terns of population and is growing at a very rapid pace. Where once people had only a scooter, there are three cars parked outside and unfortunately the energy resources available within the country are not enough to meet the demand. We can work together in taking natural resources from other countries, and transform them into valuable products, making them available for the world.
For the growth to be consistent , I would want the central government to not be a coalition. We decided not to go with the government but with Reliance because they are among the best in the world in what they do.
I think the infrastructure is still very challenging. Each state has its own outlook on business. Some states are very supportive of foreign direct investments and do everything to facilitate that, others create roadblocks. Availability of reliable power lines is a problem, as is water. Transportation between big cities like Delhi, Bombay, and Calcutta is excellent but if you want to go to smaller locations it becomes a huge problem. I am however hopeful, that within the next decade or so India will overcome all these stumbling blocks and become a strong and powerful global presence.
You met Amanullah Khan Jadoon, Pakistanís minister for Petroleum and natural resources. How was the trip? What kind of investment opportunities do you see in a troubled, non-democratic nation like Pakistan where instability lurks at every step? What do you think about the pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan? Considering the suspicious nature of the relationship between India and Pakistan will this ever become a reality?
I went on a one week trip and met both the Energy Minister and the Prime Minister. We are one of the larger retail businesses in Pakistan, with Caltex service stations throughout the country. We also have ownership in the Pakistan Refinery located in Karachi. We look at Pakistan as a good business venue but are also concerned about the political instability and so at this point we are being pretty cautious about making any significant investment in the country. The pipeline really has to become a reality. I know there are a lot of things involved here but I hope economic pragmatism will be the focus and other issues put aside.
On a personal level the love and warmth that I received is something I will never forget. I was taken to Panja sahib, Nankana sahib, and Dera sahib to pay my respects since Iím a Sikh, and I felt like I was sitting in Punjab with my family. People are the same underneath, and since I stay away from politics, those wonderful memories are what I really carried home with me.
You went to Singapore to receive the Distinguished Partner in Progress 2005 award given to Chevron by the Singapore government. Singapore has done quite an impressive turn around. What can India can learn from Singapore?
Singapore has now signed a free trade agreement with India and so that is a positive step. This is a country that is totally focused on doing whatever it takes to better itself. The government and its people go out of their way to make it a business friendly country and will jump through the hoops to get you whatever you need as a foreign investor to facilitate your entry.
It is a multi cultural, multi-ethnic society which respects all religions, doesnít mind you bringing talent from outside and creates ample opportunities for every one.
Three years ago we increased our ownership in Singapore Refinery from one third to fifty percent. We are also partners with Singapore Petroleum and looking to cement that further, and we also have marketing talent in Singapore that we hope to utilize. I think overall we are very happy with our presence in that country and India would do well to look at their business model and learn from it.
With oil supplies not likely to last forever, how much is Chevron involved in researching alternate fuel technologies?
In my opinion Chevron is a leader among all energy companies when it comes to looking at alternate energy resources. In fact when it comes to producing alternate energy, we are the highest among all major oil companies. We are involved in geothermal production in Indonesia and we have acquired an interest in a bio-fuel plant in Houston. We have a company called Chevron Energy Solutions, which focuses not only on alternate fuels but also on helping companies optimize and conserve their energy consumption. We are into hydrogen fuel and our San Francisco facility is operated by solar energy.
We believe that though fossil fuel based energy will remain dominant in the next forty years, there will be a big slice of alternate fuel that will grow at a very rapid pace and become a significant portion of the energy chain. Chevron has lasted 125 years and for it to last another 125 we have to make that shift.
In spite of the fact that you broke the glass ceiling at Chevron many years ago, one still does not see some one from an ethnic minority at the top of a non IT traditional industry, and that includes Chevron.
I think its only a matter of time. When I joined Chevron there was no one from the minority groups even in management. I think the companies did not do a great job of feeding the pipelines but they have started since the past 5 to 7 years so I think in the next decade or so you are going to see some top brass from the minority groups heading the blue blooded traditional companies. I cannot say this enough though that we have to continue to fight, to integrate and show who we really are and what we are capable of achieving. We cant give anyone any reason to find an excuse not to let us get to the top.
How does the field of chemical engineering look these days, especially in terms of women joining the discipline?
Unfortunately the engineering discipline as a whole is not attracting people at this time, whether its male, female or minorities. I see more people from outside USA coming in to study engineering than within the country itself. We have to work with kids from the junior high school level onwards and especially encourage girls and minorities to enter this discipline.
This month we have a ďtake your son to workĒ day and along with some of my colleagues, I will be going to speak at schools about the global opportunities in the field of energy that will be available to engineers. Chevron is very committed to encourage and mentor women and minorities within the company and Iím very involved in working in and sponsoring networks that focus on this goal. Still we need to do much more all across the board.
In spite of being a Sikh and therefore a minority within the minority community of Indian Americans, you have climbed up the corporate ladder. What message do you have for other ethnic minorities in America?
In spite of deficiencies and discrimination that might exist in some pockets of the country, this is still a land of opportunities. Dream big but also have the tools to make that dream come true. It is not going to be easy especially for minorities but if you stay focused you will make it.
As minority communities we must also learn to assimilate, and become fully productive members of mainstream America. Donít just stay in your own ethnic groups among people who speak your language and eat the same food. It creates little Indias and Pakistans and makes us lose acceptance among the white Caucasian community that has no clue about who we really are.
You are involved in a lot of community work.
I was the founding member of SAALT( South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow) and am now the chairman of their business leadership council. I speak at SAAALT events and its interesting to see that today there are youngsters from so many diverse backgrounds and age groups who are part of the organization. I also established the Jeet and Janice Bindra fellowship in the Department of chemical engineering at the University of Washington and through Chevron we help United Way. We hold a silent auction and the highest bidder comes to my house to be treated to fine wines and a four course dinner before we hand over the money to United Way.
Iím involved in educating underprivileged children especially girls in Ranikhet, in Uttranchal State in India, and my friend Gopal Mehrotra and his wife handpick the children who they feel are very bright students but donít have the means to continue higher studies. Recently when they were announcing scholarships for the 15 children one of the recipients, a girl, started crying and saying she was fortunate to be a recipient but her older sister had no support at home and was relegated to just doing household chores, Gopal and his wife immediately spoke with the School Principal and offered a scholarship to the girlís sister as well. I think educating a girl child is the greatest step in educating an entire family and you really have to give back to the community.
So what has been your proudest achievement so far?
My proudest achievement? I was asked this question recently at the Chevron XYZ network.
I was stumped for a moment, but then said that my greatest achievement has not been my corporate success but raising 2 boys who are good human beings and didnít acquire any bad habits. Today they are productive citizens of the American community.