Excerpts from Interview of Mr. Harak Banthia, CFO, HPCL-Mittal Energy Limited (HMEL), with Trade Flock Magazine’s Special Edition on ‘Energy Leaders in India 2024’ – March 2024.

Always passionate and hungry about learning, sharing knowledge, and steering through financial landscapes, Harak Banthia has marked an illustrious journey as the Chief Financial Officer of HPCL-Mittal Energy Limited (HMEL) since April 2011. With over three decades of rich experience, Harak's professional odyssey unfolds as a narrative of strategic financial management and global business acumen.

Harak, a distinguished Chartered Accountant, began his finance career in 1988 at Lovelock & Lewes (now PWC), mastering audits, computer assurance, programming, and special assignments for seven years. In 1995, he joined L.N. Mittal's global steel and oil and gas ventures, swiftly ascending to CFO/Executive Director Finance. He played a pivotal role in acquisitions, divestments, turnarounds, and value additions across various sectors in numerous countries, including Ireland, Romania, Macedonia, South Africa, the UK, Germany, Kazakhstan, Russia, Syria, Nigeria, Turkmenistan, Hong Kong, and the USA.

From 1995 to 2006, he held key roles in the steel industry, including Executive Director Finance at Mittal Steel South Africa and CFO at several steel plants in Romania and Ireland, where he led the profitable turnaround of previously unprofitable government-owned plants and the acquisition of three steel plants and a port in Romania. In 2006, he transitioned to the oil and gas sector, making significant contributions through roles such as CFO of ONGC Mittal JV Companies and VP of Mittal Investments, involving in multibillion-dollar mergers and acquisitions. He also served as MD/Director of the Escada fashion design group, managing its acquisition and divestment. As CFO of HPCL-Mittal Energy Limited, he played a crucial role in setting up a greenfield refinery in Bathinda, Punjab, its expansion to a 13 million tonne capacity, and diversifying into petrochemicals with over $9 billion in investments, leading to a company turnover of $10 billion and over 2100 employees. His efforts in finance, contract negotiations, and digitisation have significantly contributed to the company's success.

Harak's journey is characterised by swift decision-making, effective delegation, guiding the team and a focus on strategic financial management. Always accessible to his team as well as various cross functions, he fosters a culture of innovation and excellence. As Harak continues his dedicated pursuit of knowledge, both personally and professionally, his roadmap promises continuous growth and unwavering commitment.

TradeFlock interviewed Harak to learn more about his journey.

Could you summarise your career journey from Article ship trainee at Jhanwar & Co., Chartered Accountants and Tata Iron and Steel Co (TISCO), to CFO at HMEL?

I began my career at Jhanwar & Co., Chartered Accountants, and as an industrial trainee at TISCO, fulfilling ICAI's three-year article ship requirement, and completed my CA and BCom honours in 1987. My journey continued at Lovelock & Lewes (now PwC) for seven years, leading audits and developing software for clients, before leaving as a senior manager in 1995. My time with Mittals involved managing acquisitions, turning around loss-making firms, and profitable divestments, alongside my CFO responsibilities. My decision to return to India to care for my ageing parents led me to my current role as CFO at HPCL-Mittal Energy Limited. A significant milestone was about 4 years spent in Romania, working 16-18 hours daily to turn around five steel plants, transitioning from a barter to a cash economy from day one, a testament to my passion and the application of my learnings.

In past M&A roles, what challenges did you face with government authorities and regulatory parties?

In my past M&A experiences, challenges varied based on the country's context. Ireland's negotiations were relatively straightforward, thanks to the government's willingness to sell assets. However, in Romania, complexities arose dealing with loss-making entities, requiring exhaustive efforts, structuring deals. My role during this period was crucial as not only I was involved in negotiating deals with the Govt but also turnaround of these companies post-acquisition. Success in navigating these challenges was credited to a supportive and empowering CEO, a dedicated team, and rigorous negotiations.

What are your current challenges, specifically disputes and regulatory changes?

Currently, notable achievements involve successful dispute prevention through collaborative efforts with the team and proactive issue resolution. Challenges persist in the form of ongoing regulatory changes and impact of geo-political situation. With great collaboration with my CEO & MD, Positive mindset, forward-looking approach, driving digital journey and encouraging teams to innovate and grooming them into key leadership roles remains some of the priorities.

In your extensive experience, what changes have you seen in productivity, revenue, and overall operations?

Throughout my journey, most of the assets overseen by me improved in terms of productivity, revenue and overall operational and financial performance. Same continues here at HMEL where we keep completing new projects and undertake new projects to keep growing the company in terms of both revenue as well as profitability. Value addition involving improvement in operational efficiency, cost reduction and revenue maximisation remains a key focus area. We encourage proactive collaboration, passionate innovation and boldly efficient behaviour. Treasury management is focused on deleverage the company, interest rate reduction and improving the maturity profile of debt to create space for growth of the company.

What strategies effectively navigate financial management challenges?

Overcoming financial challenges demands fast decision-making, strategic delegation, and a proactive approach. Emphasising volume and efficiency, fostering innovation, automating processes and establishing a well-analysed team structure ensure efficient task handling in the dynamic financial landscape.

What are your key takeaways from working with the Mittal Group?

Working with the Mittal group has provided significant learning. The group's strengths lie in fast decision-making, effective delegation, and fostering a culture of trust. Access to guidance and support from the Mittal family has played a crucial role in the group's continuous growth and success.

If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be?

If I could go back in time, I would use my present learnings and enhance appreciation, encouragement, and rewards for the team while working abroad. However, every experience was a learning opportunity.

What does your roadmap look like, both personally and professionally?

I try to create idle hours of creating thinking time to formulate various strategies whether for my personal passionate activities or for the company. I remain a dedicated workaholic and learner. I plan to remain like this throughout my career, fuelled by enthusiasm and the belief that age is just a number.