Thursday, August 9, 2007

Medicine-Chiral drugs

Business India, February 13-26, 1995

Molecular Jekyll and Hyde

Mirror images of the same molecule could have widely differing effects on living organisms

Shivanand Kanavi

Can the mirror image of an object differ from the original? Common sense would suggest not. But, sur­prisingly, the mirror image of a molecule may not only be different but even have opposite effects on the human body. The most dramatic example of this duality was thalidomide. Thalidomide-R is a hypnotic drug, introduced in the 1960s, which suppresses signals from the brain, giving rise to nausea and morning sick­ness in pregnant women. However, when its use resulted in the birth of a large num­ber of severely deformed children, the world was shocked. It was discovered later that the mirror image of thalido­mide-R, called thalidomide-S, was pre­sent in the dosage in equal quantities and was the culprit that led to these terato­genic, or foetal, effects.

'Chirality' , or the different behaviour of 'enantiomers' (molecular mirror images) was, in fact, discovered way back in 1848 by Louis Pasteur. He found that tartaric acid exists in two forms - which were later found to be mirror images of each other. While one form of tartaric acid polarised incident light in one direc­tion, the other did it in the opposite direc­tion. However, chirality remained little more than a curiosity till the thalidomide tragedy struck.

The last 30 years of research in chiral­ity has yielded many such startling exam­ples. But what is the difference due to? "Nature is chiral," explains A.V. Rama­rao, director of the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, Hyderabad, and a world authority in chiral chemistry. "Amino acids, sugars, enzymes, peptides and carbohydrates found in the human body are chiral. In fact, the complexity of chirality seems to increase in plants and animals that are higher in the evolution­ary scale. Higher chirality 'shows greater selectivity in reactions arid higher specialisation in the functions of different molecules. So participants in biochemical reactions like drugs, pesticides, per­fumes, flavours, etc., have to be of the right chirality. Only the right key can open the lock. A wrong key at best might not open any lock, as in the case of non­toxic and non-therapeutic ibuprofen-R, or at worst might even open a Pandora's box as in the case of thalidomide-S," he points out.

Even if a mirror image were non­toxic, as in the case of ibuprofen, the fact that the body has to metabolise 50 per cent of the dosage given without any use­ful effect is tanta­mount to polluting the human system. This could become particularly serious in old age when pain­killers are increas­ingly used even as the body's metabolism weakens.

Nearly half the drugs that are com­mercially available in the market have chi­ral centres and hence exist as paired enan­tiomers. Many of the pure enantiomers sold today are derived from plants or micro-organisms. Only about 10 per cent of the synthetic drugs are sold as chi­ral molecules while the rest are marketed as mixtures of both enantiomers called 'racemates'. But the situation is fast changing with drug regu­latory authorities in the US, Switzerland and Japan insisting that pharmaceutical companies start introducing new drugs as chirally pure molecules, although no defi­nite deadline has been set for the same. It is expected that nearly 50 per cent of the new drugs in the next ten years will be introduced in a chirally pure form. Among the top-selling drugs today, cap­topril, enalapril, diltiazem, cefaclor and naproxen are chiral.

So the race is on to develop chiral technology for both old and new drugs. While various methods are available for chiral synthesis, the tricky part is to develop cost-effective methods. Ramarao ­believes that if we invest time and money ­in chiral chemistry now in India, we will soon be able to develop the necessary technology and join a select band. His work in the case of a new wonder drug, the immunosuppressant FK-506, has become internationally known – IICT is the only group that has been able to synthesise FK-506 outside the US.

It all began with an innocuous news item that said that a prominent politician from Tamil Nadu who had undergone an organ transplant in the US needed drugs worth Rs50,000 a year to keep him alive. The expenditure raised a storm in the Tamil Nadu assembly. Ramarao found it interesting enough to investigate what the particular drug was. It turned out to be a cyclosporin which is used as a post-operative drug. Following an organ transplant, the body normally tends to reject the new organ as the immune system is programmed to treat it as a foreign body and fight it. Cyclosporins suppress this immune sys­tem, thereby making the body co-exist with the new organ. But if the immune system as a whole is suppressed, the body becomes prone to attack by other serious infections. Thus, cyclosporin levels have to be closely monitored and the drug needs to be taken continuously.

A Japanese company introduced FK 506 as the next generation immunosuppressant which has a very high selectivity. In fact, without suppressing the immune system indiscriminately it makes the body accept the new organ. The drug has performed wonders. Recently, a patient at the Pittsburgh med­ical school needed a liver transplant but, as a human donor was not available and the patient was sure to die, the doctors transplanted a baboon's liver. They then treated him with FK-506; quite incredi­bly, the patient survived for 30 days!

FK-506 has 14 chiral centres in its structure. During chemical synthesis, one can go wrong at any of the 14 points. By contrast, thalidomide has only one chiral centre. That is why Ramarao and nCT, Hyder­abad, created waves in the world of organic synthesis when they suc­ceeded with FK-506. But, as Ramarao admits, "This is still basic research. We are far away from developing a commercially viable process for FK-506." However, BCT'S chiral technology for anti­hypertensive beta blockers, etc, has already been transferred to industry.

Chiral synthesis has three basic approaches. The first is resolving a racemic mixture of two crystals with different melting points by preferential crystallisation. The anti-typhoid chloramphenicol is separated thus. This is used widely in the industry but hardly 20 per cent of racemates appear in this form of mechanical mixture or 'conglomerates'. In many cases the enantiomers can be resolved by making the mixture react with a pure organic acid or a base of the right chirality. The racemates separate to form two diasteromeric salts, ie salts with two chiral centres where one chiral centre is identical but the other one is dif­ferent. The popular anti- TB drug etham­butol, phenyl glycine and the cardiovascular drug diltiazem are sepa­rated this way. These methods of resolution are industrially very widely used.

The second method is called asymmetric synthesis. Here one makes use of the fact that most natural products such as amino acids, carbohydrates, etc, are chiral. They are used as starting materials and as molecular templates to synthesise the required chirally pure compound. Another popular method is to use chiral catalysts, called 'chemzymes' by Nobel Laureate E.J. Corey. A large number of drugs like Vitamin C, semi-synthetic penicillins, cephalosporins, timolol, propranolol, diltiazem, thienamycin, ampicillin, dopa, naproxen, etc, are man­ufactured this way, using asymmetric synthesis.

The third method which is also creat­ing a lot of interest is enzymatic transfor­mations. Enzymes are naturally occurring chiral catalysts and are highly selective. The stages in this method involve fermen­tation to produce the required enzyme, enzymatic transformation reaction, sepa­ration of the enzyme without losing its bio-catalytic activity, and separation and purification of the product. One has to find economically viable conversions at all stages. Enzymes can be used to sepa­rate racemic mixtures as well as for bio­asymmetric synthesis.

Chiral technology will be important enough to attract funds for development in India too. Abbot Laboratories of the US, Lupin Laboratories and Cipla are funding research in this field at IICT. Ramarao is convinced that India, which has already shown its strength in organic synthesis both in academia and industry, can get into the big league in chiral tech­nology if sufficient investment is made in the field now.

Sales of chirally pure drugs crossed $35 billion in 1993

Class of Drugs 1998 world wide Sales ($ billion)

Cardiovascular 11.3
Antibiotics 10.8
Hormones 4.5
Neurological 2.0
Anti-inflammatory 1.5
Anti-cancer 1.0
Others 4.5

Total 35.6

How L N Mittal built his steel empire

Business India, May 10-23, 2004

Sultan of Steel

Lakshmi Mittal’s juggernaut rolls round the world building the most globalised steel MNC

Shivanand Kanavi

Last week a handful in India received a gold-embossed envelope from Summer Palace, Bishops Avenue, London. If the recipients surmised that it carried a summons from the British royalty, they were not quite correct. It was from a modern-day empire-builder, Lakshmi Mittal, better known as LN in India.

After jetting around the world in his Gulfstream IV, acquiring steel mills and iron ore mines, rolling mills, and coke ovens in Algeria, South Africa, Romania, the Czech Republic, Poland, Serbia, Macedonia, and so on, is Mittal inviting people for a coronation of sorts? Is the latest acquisition of a £70-million house at Kensington, next to the royals, a sign?

Perish the thought. Nothing so megalomaniacal for this very down to-earth steel magnate. A doting father, he was sending pre-invites for his daughter’s wedding this summer.
If a number of wannabes are disappointed at not receiving the letter, his own exuberance is only constrained by the size of the venue in Paris.

Despite being a hardworking and bottomline-driven businessman to the core, the family is his soft spot. He has groomed his son Aditya, 28, as an intelligent partner in building the most globalised steel company in the world. His executives, many of whom are former S A I L engineers, swear by his quick decision-making, tight control, and the management style of a benevolent patriarch.

Steel analysts round the world are going gaga at his juggernaut that has rolled insatiably through the downturn and the upturn and grown from 19 million tonnes in capacity in 2001 to 43 Mt in early 2004. However, his style and value systems are not unusual for a first-generation entrepreneur building a family-owned business in India. His distinction is that he has chosen the tough world of global steel as his playground, totally focused on it, and single-mindedly acquired an enviable group of assets round the globe. He has knitted these disparate assets together into a global and unusually nimble organisation, a creature never seen before in a flabby industry that was essentially national and inherently inert.

He might appear with boring repetition, in all sorts of ‘rich lists’ produced by newspapers, but there are always sheikhs and sultans that have fancier jets, yachts, and palaces than Mittal. To British tabloid-readers tired of the shenanigans of David and Vicky Beckham, it might provide more grist to the mill. But sooner rather than later, LN will be studied by the more serious students of business for having created a new paradigm in the steel world.

This summer LN and young Aditya Mittal will have a well-deserved break. In the last four years since we featured them on the cover of Business India, the duo have increased steel production in their group to 42 million tonnes a tad less than Arcelor, the European giant that has arisen out of the merger of Aceralia, Usinor, and Arbed, which has a capacity of 44 million tonnes. Already market sources are pointing out that this quarter the L N M Group might have produced more steel than Arcelor. But the rate at which the M&A division headed by Aditya is carrying on due diligence and putting in bids, L N M might become the largest steelmaker sooner rather than later.

When LN first popped up on the radar screens of international journalists after the acquisition of Chicago based Inland Steel in 1998, he was called “Carnegie from Calcutta” by T h e Wall Street Journal. Today the LNM Group has grown to three times Andrew Carnegie’s legacy, 103-yearold US Steel. But the king is blasé about it. “Becoming the largest producer of steel in the world is not an end in itself. That can happen now or a year later, but the vision that we have put forward of a globalised steel industry is the more important thing,” says LN. “He has been opportunistic and acquired cheap assets from the public sector wherever they were put on sale— isn’t ‘vision’ too grand a word to describe it?” asks an observer who does not want to be quoted. But if you observe how LN functions and what he has been repeatedly saying at international steel forums, it becomes clear that there is a method in his global meanderings and acquisitions.

They all fit into a grand strategy, and now his rivals have also started acknowledging it. In May 2000, when LN spoke at the American Iron and Steel Institute of the need for consolidation and globalisation of the steel industry, the industry bigwigs listened carefully. In fact too carefully. A year later the slumbering US Steel ventured out of the US and acquired a steel plant in Slovakia in a closely contested bid with Mittal. Last year a new group, International Steel Group, emerged in the US, which acquired three bankrupt steel companies. And in December 2003, in a global steel conference in Paris, Arcelor CEO Guy Dolle spoke Mittal’s language of globalization and Mittal was quick to take a bow in his keynote address later in the afternoon.

“I have seen the steel industry for over 30 years. It has become increasingly clear to me that there is too much flab, there is too much fragmentation, and too little attention to lowering the cost of production. If other industries like auto and aluminium saw the virtues of consolidation and the virtues of globalisation, why not steel?” he asks. Four years ago, when he had a capacity of 19 Mt, Mittal told Business India that he considered 35–40 Mt as a decent size. However, now that he has reached that size, he has raised the bar further to 80–100 Mt. It does not take a genius to guess who might get there first! Malay Mukherjee, president and C O O of the group, who is himself becoming a legend in the industry as Mr Fixit, is confident that in Central and Eastern Europe alone the group will add another 10–15 Mt at existing sites in the next 3–4 years.

On 1 May LN and Aditya joined in the festivities in Warsaw on the accession of Poland and Czech Republic and eight other new states to the European Union by participating in the European Economic Forum. And they were smiling. After all, the LNM Group has emerged as the largest steelmaker in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), and sees a big upside in these countries joining the EU. First of all, access to Western Europe becomes smooth. But that’s not all; with lower costs the region might become the manufacturing hub for Europe and one expects more investments from Brussels for upgrading roads and other infrastructure in the region. Thus there is going to be considerable demand growth within C E E, which L N M is best placed to supply. The auto industry, which requires high-end steel products, is also increasingly shifting to this region.

“I consider L N M’s acquisitions in CEE very positive. These countries are likely to grow fast economically, have a growing demand for steel (e.g. in construction), and have relatively low labour costs compared to Western Europe. EU accession will affect plants in Poland and the Czech Republic. Romania is expected to join in 2007. These plants are well located to supply both C E E as well as nearby Germany and Austria,” says Roger Manser, editor of Steel Business Briefing.

“The engineering skills in Czech Republic and Slovakia can be favourably compared with those in Germany,” says K.A.P. Singh, a former managing director of the Bhilai steel plant and now COO of Ispat Nova Hut and Ispat Polska Stal. Clearly Arcelor, ThyssenKrupp, and Corus, the European steel troika, will spend many sleepless nights now that L N M has outflanked them.

In a bid to use the geographic contiguity of Czech Republic and Poland to his advantage LN announced a common senior management team for the Czech plant and four other plants in Poland. “Together they have over 10 Mt of steelmaking, common iron ore sources in Ukraine, and are literally sitting on coalbeds with excellent coking ovens. With marginal investments the steelmaking can be increased by another 5 Mt,” says Frantisek Chowaniec, former C E O of Nova Hut, who has become a key member of Mittal’s team in Central Europe. “These plants are closer to each other than Bhilai and Bokaro. So their operational amalgamation was a given, but the key is to improve quality of products and move up the value chain,” says Mittal. So Malay Mukherjee, K.A.P. Singh, and Frantisek Chowaniec are using their 100 man-years of steelmaking expertise in executing LN’s strategy in weeks, rather than months.

Was becoming the largest player in C E E fortuitous or was it really part of a grand plan? “It was part of a grand plan and we have worked hard to execute it,” says Aditya Mittal, vice-chairman of the group. Aditya came fresh out of Wharton on 1997 and was thrown in at the deep end by LN to handle the I P O of Ispat International N V on N Y S E. “I took the company public. That was my first project. That helped me in many respects. I learnt a lot about the company, I met up with all the C E Os, etc, did a lot of due diligence. It also came to be known as my project, which got me a lot of publicity and respectability. It was a smashing success and was called the ‘equity deal of the year’, etc. It was a $400 million offering and we raised $727 million. Creating Ispat International was nontrivial too. We had to satisfy Mexican G A P, Canadian G A P, and so on. It was a multifaceted project. It was followed by discussions with Inland and a year later we acquired it,” says Aditya.

“It is wrong to say that Aditya has only seven years of experience in the business. What about those 21 years prior to that, when he had steel for breakfast and lunch with his father?” asks B.C. Agarwal, C F O of Ispat International, half in jest. Agarwal is a very low-key member of the core team that runs the company and goes back 30 years with LN, starting in the paddy fields of Indonesia.

Chicago-based Inland was the most ambitious acquisition of the group. The publicly listed company was an icon of the American steel industry with a customer list that read like the who’s who of Detroit’s auto industry. It was an integrated 5 Mt plant with its own iron ore and coal mines and a large R&D and product development centre with over 120 steel technologists. The $1.4 billion deal made Mittal a major player in the US market.

Mittal’s management has turned Inland lean and mean, saving $270 million in annual costs and increasing hot metal production by another million tonnes. Today, with a 6,500- strong workforce producing 6 Mt, Inland is one of the most efficient integrated steel companies in the US.

Ironically, Mittal’s magic seems to have hurt him in Inland. Other nearby companies like Bethlehem Steel and L T V went bankrupt and were acquired by I S G after reducing the liabilities through Chapter 11 proceedings, whereas Inland remained afloat through all this turbulence and still carries a large liability in terms of workers’ pensions and benefits, thereby dragging the group’s profitability down. Will bottomline-driven Mittal get rid of Inland? “That is totally hypothetical. Inland is one of the better companies in the US and there are many intangible benefits like access to high-end product technology and an enviable customer list, he retorts.

Be that as it may, after the initial high of acquiring Inland came the downturn in the world steel market caused by excess capacity and stagnation or recession in demand. In the meantime Mittal tried his hand at buying a steel company in a collapsing, post-Soviet Kazakhstan in 1995. He thereby took over a huge human resource liability. Karmet, the third largest steel plant in the erstwhile Soviet Union, had 30,000 workers, the coal mines had another 30,000. The company had to supply hot water and electricity to Temirtau town and run a 100-room hotel, a T V station, a newspaper, a summer camp for 1,400 children of employees, a hospital, and so on. But the 5 Mt plant itself was a shambles, producing less than a million tonnes, its 300M W power plant producing less than 90MW.

“We learnt a lot about hidden costs and surprises in such acquisitions,” says Mukherjee, who was dispatched to set up camp there and bring the plant back to life. It is said that a former high official in the Soviet government had set up a shell company as a marketing consultant to Karmet and had made a fortune through dubious practices. It took some time for Mittal to discover the minefield and eliminate the leakage. Today Karmet, headed by N.K. Chaudhary, a former Hindalco executive, is reported to be one of the most profitable parts of Mittal’s empire. However detailed financial figures for plants in Kazakhstan, Indonesia and the new acquisitions in Algeria, Romania, Czech Republic and Poland are not available to be compared with other companies as Mittal does not disclose them under the guise that they are privately held by his family.

By 2000, however, it was clear that the opportunities in former socialist countries of Eastern Europe, if properly utilised, would lead to a preeminent position in emerging Europe. One of the drivers for easy political acceptance of privatisation of steel and coal in Eastern Europe was the carrot of accession to EU. Chapter 15 of the EU accession document forbids governments from subsidising their steel and coal industries. If they could not raise finance from international financial institutions like I F C or the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (E B R D), these companies would be forced to lay off with heavy political risks to the governing dispensations. So the governments found it better to privatise. However, they stipulated strict liability criteria, which prevented asset-stripping. The new owners could not transfer other debt onto the asset.

The father-and-son duo took the risk and cast their eyes eastward. “I became the head of M&A and with a small team I started looking at various government-owned steel mills up for privatisation. The first to come up was the steel plant in Slovakia. We put in a bid that was financially sound and expected to win it, but soon found that a good financial bid is not enough. One had to win over the unions, the old management, the government of the day, and so on,” says Aditya. What he does not say is that Bill Clinton, the then US president, used his considerable charm to persuade the Slovakian government of the day to award the plant to US Steel.

“Those were tough days. The industry was in the dumps and here I was so-called head of M&A, with a failed acquisition to show at the end of the year!” says Aditya. “I learnt the most lessons in business during those days. My father’s vision and style were definitely inspiring.” To overcome the angst of failure and a business cycle, Aditya took to skiing and long distance running. His creditable performance in the London Marathon a fortnight ago, where he ran “the whole nine yards” of 42 km despite a serious knee injury suffered in a skiing accident, showed that finally the frenetic sprinter has learnt the loneliness of a long-distance runner. Today, with several successful acquisitions under his belt, Aditya surprises many a visitor with his boyish charm.

“Aditya is startlingly assured. At a recent Metal Bulletin – World Steel Dynamics conference in Paris, his answers to a series of questions were clear, concise, and cogent. The audience was obviously impressed. When his father rose to address the delegates at lunch on the same day, he was asked how he intended to top his son’s performance that morning. “I don’t intend to try,” Mittal said with disarming modesty. “I intend to follow him. He is the future.” Mittal got a round of applause, Metal Bulletin edit or Bob Jones recalls.

“My most challenging period was 2001. Steel was dead, capital was scarce, we were doing three attempts at acquisition simultaneously. In fact we were doing circuits — Monday to Wednesday I was in Romania (the cabinet would meet on Thursday), Thursday and Friday in South Africa, and over the weekend in Algeria (since they are closed on Friday). And then Annabas in Algeria happened in June, Sidex in July, and Iscor in August. Altogether it was 14 Mt! That was the most challenging and rewarding period. I also got promoted to V C,” Aditya grins.

Perhaps the most recent acquisition, of four Polish steel companies rolled into one entity for the purpose of privatisation, has been the most difficult and rewarding of all. It has added 6 Mt to the Mittal stable andfinally made Mittal the most formidableforce in Europe. But it wasn’t easy. Here too the Mittals encountered US Steel and the persuasive powers of George W. Bush. In the midst of war in Iraq, Bush made a stopover at Warsaw and not only persuaded Poland to provide troops for peacekeeping in Iraq but also did his bit for US Steel. So certain were observers of another battle lost by Mittal after Slovakia when confronted by the White House, that The Independent of London carried a bylined story on 25 May 2003 with the title ‘Bush beats Mittal at his own game’. Leaving nothing to chance, the US ambassador to Warsaw met the Polish union leaders 11 times to help them make up their minds. But all the high-pressure lobbying eventually backfired. The Mittals won the bid.

They had learnt their lessons from Slovakia well. They assembled a nine member negotiating team which included Polish American executives from Inland; Chowaniec, the C E O of the Czech plant across the southern border to reassure the Poles that the Mittal weren’t destabilisers; union leaders from other plants to show that they deliver what they promise in terms of the social package; and so on. In the final analysis, the American artillery proved counterproductive. The Poles must have thought, “If this is the pressure before privatisation, what will we have to go through afterwards, if it is sold to the Americans?”

“Poland has taken us to new levels in the corporate world. The press, unions, and the government scrutinized our organisation extensively technical competence, corporate governance, people, and so on. We came out with flying colours. Today nobody can say that L N M is a secretive group that can only take over run-down companies. We had a better financial offer and a fine track record of turning companies around in more than nine places in different cultures and societies,” says Mukherjee proudly.

However, the acquisition in Romania led to a lot of controversy. Sections of the British press went hammer-and tongs at Mittal and Tony Blair. They claimed that Mittal’s donation of £125,000 to the Labour Party was a quid pro quo for a little help from Blair in pushing the Romanian government in favour of Mittal. “Finding an opportunity to take Blair’s squeaky clean image down a notch or two, the press went haywire. With a pinch (actually more like a handful) of bigotry against Asian businessmen, they tried to dig up all kinds of dirt against him,” says a P R consultant from London. Lakshmi Mittal himself learnt about the campaign at a party in Delhi, when a well informed Atal Behari Vajpayee commented, “Lakshmiji you seem to have shaken Blair up.”

But the dirt hit the fan soon after the friendly banter. The Mittals refused to comment on the affair and remained incommunicado to the press. After all, the donation to Labour was an open affair publicised on several Websites that track such things. The letter from Blair to the Romanian P M pushing Mittal’s case too was a routine one that all western governments do for their businessmen. But the British press found fault with Blair since they alleged that Mittal was an Indian and not British, and that though he runs his empire from London the companies themselves are incorporated in Holland, and so on.

“The whole thing was nonsense. Privatisation of Sidex was one of the most transparent processes. L N M was the only one left standing at the end of it and naturally won,” says Chris Beumann, senior advisor to E B R D, an international financial institution formed with contributions from 60 governments with the express mandate to help former Eastern European economies move towards privatization and market economies. The bank has funded over 100 privatisation projects in Eastern Europe deploying 3.5 billion. Mittal has nothing more to add than a cryptic “The whole thing makes me sad.”

Be that as it may, it is one thing to acquire a company but another to successfully turn it around. Here the engineering skills of Mukherjee and his team have played a major role.
Mukherjee, an IIT Kharagpur alumnus and former general manager at Bhilai, has become a globetrotter who has fixed problems with the direct reduced iron (D R I) plant in Mexico and the whole plant in Kazakhstan, getting out of the barter system that was bleeding Sidex in Romania, getting outdated twin-hearth furnaces in Algeria up and running, and so on.

“India has a huge resource of highly skilled and knowledgeable engineers, educated and badly paid in the public sector. The Mittals pick the best managers – even ones who might appear to be past retirement age – and pay them handsomely. But these managers have to perform and perform brilliantly in some of the world’s most unpleasant and dangerous environments,” says Jones of Metal Bulletin.

“The body of technical knowledge that exists in the group is to be found nowhere else in the world,” says director (continuous improvement) Bill Scotting, a former McKinsey & Co veteran. “Blast furnace relining, D R I, Corex, billet casting, ingots and slab casters, thin-slab casters, and a variety of rolling mills... The list is endless. A veritable school of steelmaking exists here,” says Scotting. “The strength of the group is that it not only uses its global operations to purchase raw materials at the lowest cost and sell the right mix of products at the highest value but also pools its knowledge to benchmark performance and to fix technical problems in any of the plants,” he adds.

When Business India visited Ispat Nova Hut in the Czech Republic, this factor was amply evident. The Steckel mill in the plant went down, disrupting production. The mill, built at a considerable expense of over $275 million by the Czech government, has been a continuous source of problems in an otherwise well-maintained plant. The American contractor went bankrupt in the middle of commissioning and caused untold delays and problems. Having had experience with a similar mill in its Quebec plant, LNM was able to get it up and working when it took over. On the day of this writer’s visit, an electronic card responsible for communication between two parts of the mill went kaput. It was diagnosed as due to problems in the embedded software. However, no vendor was available to fix it. The top management pooled their resources and had wires burning across the globe, restoring the mill to full functioning in 24 hours — a matter that could have taken weeks in any other company, waiting for an expert from the vendor.

In fact the turnaround and successful operation of every single acquisition has been a result of using such global expertise. The Algerian plant Annabas, for example, was built by the Russians, but also had considerable French technology. The blast furnace and sinter plant were French, while the steel melt shops were Russian. It was an isolated country. External help from vendors was not available because of riots and religious fanaticism, etc. A new plant that was commissioned in 1994 ran for two days before a problem arose and the people who built the plant did not come. The plant had 400 experts from Russia. But Ispat hands who had plenty of experience dealing with Russian experts in Bhilai and Bokaro dealt with the issues appropriately. They also used their own knowledge of Russian and Russia to source spare parts. Experts from plants in France and Quebec also arrived and unraveled the problems. It all helped. A plant that produced barely 700,000 tonnes now makes 100 per cent more.
Tying up appropriate raw material supplies will soon lead to another blast furnace becoming operational here. Today the government showcases it as a successful privatization and L N M has become the dominant player in the Maghreb region comprising Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria, where considerable developmental activity is going on.

Then came Sidex. A huge plant where the shop floor knew how to run the plant but did not have any support from the management. It was driven by the Mafia. Everybody was taking away whatever he could. It was said that there were many millionaires in Galati, while the plant lost a million dollars a day on an average. So straightening out the commercial side was important. There were operational issues like tying up iron ore, coal, electricity, and gas as well. Narendra Chaudhary, another former Bhilai hand who had earlier managed the Kazakh plant, was transferred here. The local plant management was sent to other plants in the group to learn innovations in maintenance practices, etc. The plant had 27,000 people, 9,000 of whom accepted a VRS. The better lot in the old management were empowered, while corrupt ones were sacked. When the new marketing team from L N M itself caught the virus of corruption, the whole team was sacked.

Today the government talks to LNM first when any new thing comes up for privatisation. Of course there is still competitive bidding, but L N M’s credibility is very high. In fact the group bought four more downstream plants recently in Romania, thereby becoming a very strong player in steel tubes for the global oil and gas industry. On the other hand two plants, which had been privatised to a US and an Italian group, are now closed. But Sidex has seen its stock rise 350 per cent after privatisation. No wonder that E B R D officials like Chris Beumann don’t hesitate to sing paeans to Mittal. The success in Romania has had a snowballing effect and played a major role in the acquisition of the Czech and Polish plants. The local bishop in Galati, Romania, is also happy as Mittal respected his wishes and built a church for the community near the plant.

In South Africa, apartheid and international isolation had left a good plant behind international norms of efficiency. It was part of a coal mining company and was subsidised by the mines. So the government thought it would be better off by demerging the two and bring in a strategic investor for steel. L N M bought 30 per cent of the equity from the market and was offered stock in place of a consulting fee for every rise in profitability. As a result L N M today owns 49.9 per cent of the company and is waiting for the go-ahead from the Competition Commission to acquire a majority stake. The stock of the company has gone up from six rand to 37 rand, which in dollar terms is even more impressive, considering that the rand has appreciated by 100 per cent against the dollar in the interim. Besides increasing the shareholder value of the government’s remaining holding, Mittal has further endeared himself to the ruling A N C by appointing a black African as chairman of the company for the first time in its history.

Then came the Czech Nova Hut, which was a good plant but the management had miscalculated the returns on investments on the Steckel mill. The other source of problems was the outdated twin-hearth furnaces that exist only in Bhilai, outside of Nova Hut. This technology not only takes 5–6 times longer to make steel, but also needs constant expert supervision. Tuning the plant up and replacing the old barter system with international marketing has not only led to increased profitability of over ...80 per tonne within a year, but the stock of Nova Hut has also gone up 750 per cent.

While the Poland story has yet to unfold, Mittal is proud that he is restoring the glory of a plant in whose guest book Jawaharlal Nehru wrote on 25 June 1955, “This is a magnificent enterprise which deserves a much longer visit than I have been able to give it. I wish I could see it more thoroughly. And all this has grown up where there were fields four years ago. I congratulate those who built it.”

With raw material prices shooting up, everyone in the steel industry is realising the truth in Chanakya’s Arthashastra from the 4th century BC: “The treasury has its source in the mines; from the treasury the army comes into being. With the treasury and the army the earth is obtained with the treasury as its ornament.” (Chapter 2, Section 12). Situated in the midst of Magadh, an empire that Alexander made friends with due its prowess in iron technology, Chanakya very well understood the economics of the metal industry.

Mittal has focused on tying up raw materials by acquiring as many mines as possible. Last week he bought an iron ore mine in Serbia and now his teams are scouring Ukraine, Russia, and Iran for iron ore and Central Europe for coal. The other focus has been acquiring downstream mills as in Romania and Macedonia, while building a new one in China.

Last year the group had a profit of $2.2 billion on sales of $12 billion. Considering that the privately held part is virtually debt-free, that’s a lot of money. But this year, with higher sales and the acquisition in Poland, Mittal has forecast sales of $16 billion. Being the most integrated large steel company, profits too are expected to be higher. However it is to be noted that the public company Ispat International is trading at $11 (the issue price was $27) at a P / E multiple of 21(Tisco is trading at a P/E of 8.5).

“Today we have enough experts to run steel plants, so we are looking for talent elsewhere,” says Mittal. This year the IIMs in India saw the L N M Group visit their campuses for recruitment. “The CEO of our Mexican plant is from the chip industry. The one in Kazakhstan is from the aluminium industry. I am looking for cross-pollination now,” adds Mittal. With more and more experts acknowledging Mittal’s skills in running the first steel M N C, he shouldn’t have any problem attracting talent from the top business schools of the world.

While Asia and China in particular have led the bull-run in the steel industry, Mittal’s eyes are firmly on the EU as the emerging economic giant. And for that nobody is better prepared than he. “Central and Eastern Europe is definitely one of the best places to make steel in the long term. In fact, metallurgy seems to be vanishing as a science and art in the developed world. It would not be surprising if we keep it alive here by building a fine research institution right here,” says Mukherjee.

As for forays into his motherland, Mittal has so far confined himself to philanthropy in the form of building a hospital for earthquake victims in Bhuj and an IT institute in his home province of Rajasthan and a technology institute for women in Mumbai.But what about steel? “Whenever the Indian government is serious about privatising SAIL we are ready to participate,” he says.

“My theme at this time is how to make the steel industry sustainable. Actually it is very simple. The day every steel CEO sees making money as his objective the steel industry will become sustainable through downturns and upturns. We have been able to provide leadership in consolidation, globalisation, and low-cost production, and this is being recognised. Whether we become No. 1 or remain No. 2 is not important, but the leadership we are providing is. We have shown enough entrepreneurship now we have to build an institution,” says Mittal looking forward, which is of course easier said than done.

Commenting on the acquisition of a steel plant in Trinidad by Mittal, Business India wrote 16 years ago (14 November 1988): “A new Indian multinational is born, shall we say!” Last year the Confederation of Indian Industry had Building the Indian MNC as its theme. In a short period of time Lakshmi Mittal has provided to Indian businessmen one successful model of building an M N C and that too in an industry where none existed before. May he inspire a few more.