Top Position : A Man Of Mettle

He thinks fast and is ever-energetic. He has profound thoughts and can express them with lightning speed, sometimes tinged with humour when it gets too heavy. Meet A THIRUNAVUKKARASU, popularly known as A THIRU, currently President, Corporate HR , JK Organisation (EZ) based at New Delhi. Prior to joining JKO in June 2015, Thiru served Vedanta Resources, (a $US 13 billion global diversified natural resources major with interests in zinc, lead, silver, copper, aluminium, power, iron ore, oil and gas with world class assets and operations in geographies spanning India, Australia, South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, Liberia, Ireland and Sri Lanka) for a little over a decade in various capacities, commencing with his journey as GM-HR in April, 2004 in the erstwhile Sterlite Copper in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu and subsequently moving to Mumbai in September 2007 to assume responsibility as the Group’s Global HR Head. Thiru also had a prestigious stint as President- Corporate Development in the Chairman’s Office handling key assignments like hiring global CEOs and NEDs (non-executive directors) to the Board.

After finishing her B.Tech in Computer Science and Engineering, Aditi decided to pursue her post-graduation by specialising in Systems, from a leading management college. Today, she is placed in the IT division, Functional Domain Consultant-Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) with Dell India Pvt Ltd

Prior to Vedanta, Thiru worked in various companies including TVS Electronics, Hindustan Lever Limited (currently HUL), Wimco and English Electric. Wherever he was associated, Thiru made an impact with his spirit of innovation, commitment and determination, coupled with sensitivity to the prevailing organisational culture. This enabled him to align the HR processes in tandem with organisational needs, besides shaping its culture to adapt progressive practices.

What were your childhood dreams and influences?

A Thiru: My father, the late Shri A Aiyasaamy used to work for the Southern Railways. He is no more now, but the values inherited from him, especially uprightness and pragmatism still holds good, besides of course, brand consciousness (he bought me trouser material from Raymond’s, for my first set of full pants while transitioning into early adulthood). We – a family of five (including two sisters) - lived in the railway colony in Mint area in Chennai during my school / college days. I studied in an ordinary Tamil-medium school but was always amongst the toppers in academics. I had lot of extracurricular activities to my credit as well. I used to win state level oratory and essay competitions. Despite being a lean person in my school days and therefore ridiculed for my desire to join NCC with the ambition of becoming the Cadet Sergeant Major (CSM), I could make a mark, becoming the CSM, in addition to being awarded the prestigious medal of Best Cadet. I also got to attend the most admired All India Leadership Program at Ranchi, learning to swim within a week, a pre-condition I came to know only 10 days prior to my departure. I was also awarded the Best Pupil Award for academic and all-round excellence in the final year at school.

In the southern part of India, children are generally studious and encouraged to become either engineers or doctors. So I tried engineering and architecture initially, but was quick to change track to build on what I was good at and decided to pursue a degree in literature at Loyola College, Chennai. Since I followed my passion, I naturally did well and got gold medals for three consecutive years. In addition, I took up journalism and mass communication as extra-credit courses and was getting noticed and appreciated by external examiners / media personalities for my poems and articles.

Thereafter, I pursued my PG degree in Personal Management and Organisational Behaviour at Loyola College, Chennai. When I applied for it, the college initially showed some reluctance, since they never took any Arts graduate for this programme, only B. Com graduates until then. I argued my candidature not only because I was a gold medallist from the same institution, but also to eliminate arbitrariness and to pave the way for any graduate to apply and be treated on par. I was the first Literature student to break the glass ceiling and step into the programme (1982-84 batch) and came out not only with flying colours, but also with an appointment letter as an Asst. Professor in the same department, on completing the course. Loyola College followed a 360 degree selection process three decades ago, my selection involving both faculty members and students of the next batch, besides the Head of the Department and the Principal of the college - which is unheard of even in today’s context.

From teaching, when did you get into the corporate world?

I yearned to pursue my career in the industry, because that was the primary reason for me to pursue my PG in Personnel Management and Organisational Behaviour. I got two offers at that point – one was from JK Synthetics, part of the JK Group. I came all the way to Kota, Rajasthan to undergo a two-day selection process of the prestigious All India Management Trainee Scheme and got selected soon thereafter. I also got an offer from The English Electric Company of India Limited at Chennai. Since my father was about to retire, I chose English Electric and avoided moving to a city, far away.

How was your experience at English Electric Company?

It was fantastic, I would consider it as an ‘electrifying start’ to my professional life. Being the first ever Management Trainee in P&A, I was quickly groomed to handle key multidisciplinary roles ranging from recruitment, training, industrial relations to labour disputes pending before various courts. English Electric witnessed the winning of a few labour disputes - unheard in its history - during my tenure (1984-1989) through my sheer determination and my working closely with the reputed counsels, providing the right information at the right time.


  • TRUST FIRST: Trust begets trust; trust first, unless proved wrong, once but not twice.
  • BE PRAGMATIC: Every unresolved problem has a solution and is a potential opportunity to prove your mettle for creating a win-win situation.
  • BE EMPATHETIC: No one expects sympathy from anyone. Be an empathetic listener and catalyst. Help people to help themselves.
  • ENVISION: Never get constrained by current realities. Always envision a better future without any selfish motive. At the right time the universe will open the right doors, not just windows.
  • ENDURE: Endurance will pay off. Be honest, Be a torch bearer to your profession even during testing times. A diamond, after all, is just a piece of charcoal that handled its stress exceptionally well.
  • Compromise: Compromise on managerial egos and not on the principles of the organisation.
  • EXTRA MILE: Walk the extra mile. Hard work and smart work are fine. But the real crux is that ‘extra bit’ you bring to the table as a differentiator.
  • JUST BE: Do not get bogged down too much by a few percent less increment or promotion delayed by a year. Just be and be remembered for good. Good deeds will always pay off significantly.
  • NEVER TEST GOOD PEOPLE: Do not test good people who have worked for you, lived for you. They are like mercury. You cannot break them. They will simply move away from your life and will not be available to you when you need them most.
  • NEVER APOLOGIZE FOR BEING CORRECT: This quote of M K Gandhi has inspired me a lot. “Many people, especially ignorant people, want to punish you for speaking the truth, for being correct, for being you. Never apologize for being correct, or for being years ahead of your time. If you’re right and you know it, speak your mind. Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.”
Tell us about your experience with companies before your decade-long careers with HLL and Vedanta.

One thing that appealed to me, when I was in Wimco (Swedish multinational manufacturing matches) during 1989-1990 at their Thiruvottiyur unit near Chennai was the existence of a cooperative society which provided livelihood opportunity to the deceased workmen’s spouses --refilling match sticks on the shop floor.

I joined a Chinese MNC in the Madras Export Processing Zone, Well-knit Apparels Limited in 1992, after briefly working for a Korean export oriented unit near Sriperumbudur in 1990-1991. Well-knit, headquartered in Honk Kong, produced knitted garments and was the fifth largest exporter in the world. At our Chennai facility, we had nearly 2,000 workers, mostly women. There was a resident manager of Chinese origin who never allowed us to increase the basic or dearness allowance beyond the minimum wages and tried to offer production incentive arbitrarily, based on shipment schedule dates. After constant persuasion I could impress upon the local and HO and introduced a simple incentive format. The format showed the workers how much incentive they could earn, based on the number of pieces knitted per shift on a standard style with additional quantum for complex designs. This clicked well and inspired them to work hard and earn more. More importantly, they were able to experience the correlation between effort and reward. The key lesson learnt here was, “you can always create a win-win situation without compromising on principles, if you have the will.”

Fair & Lively: My tenure at Hindustan Lever Ltd (1993-2002) can well be coined as ‘Fair and Lively’. I became a natural choice for Hindustan Lever Limited (currently HUL) when it was looking out for an HR Head in 1993 for their greenfield tannery as part of their exports division near Neyveli in Tamil Nadu. I worked closely with their technical collaborators - expats from Sawyer of Napa, California - and facilitated a dream rampup of the project, achieving global productivity and quality standards in record time, with focus on ‘think global, act local’ through hiring and meticulous training of locally (Gandhigram, Dindugul) trained tannery operators. I then became the obvious choice when HLL was establishing its greenfield detergents, personal products and beverages factories in Punducherry, to head HR functions for these new units and provide support to the existing foot wear and chemical units besides units acquired through Pond's merger. From 1995 - 2002, I was actively involved in establishing these new units, achieved record productivity levels, introduced Total Productive Maintenance (TPM), signed productivity linked settlements, and effectively managed the external pressures upholding the ethical principles of HLL.

I followed a straight-forward, firm, fair but equally lively approach in handling people-related issues, even during testing times. When workmen wanted to gherao me, I never called in security personnel. On the contrary, I stepped out of my a/c cabin and walked towards a tree, sat under it and asked them to continue their gherao under the shade and not in the hot sun. I used humour as an effective tool to respond to external pressures whenever there was demand for bribery. I used to tell them, “We at HLL are constrained and hence can’t help, but please use our Lux to wash your hands after receiving bribes from others who have no such constraints,” and thus could cut the ice and pave the way forward.

The integration of erstwhile TOMCO and Modern Foods Units of the South were some of the experiences which further sharpened my skill-sets. Needless to say, I was awarded prestigious Chairman's awards on a few occasions besides achieving a stupendous career growth. Thus my tenure in HLL made me transform from a young Personnel professional to an all rounder in the sphere of HRM.

Dignity of labour: I moved to Chennai to join TVS Electronics as its Head - Employee Relations in 2002 and worked for two years till 2004. The key learning during this stint included Six Sigma and Change Acceleration Process (CAP) from GE, Total Quality Management (TQM) from JIPM, besides the exemplary welfare orientation of the TVS culture. Above all, I cherish my stint at upholding the dignity of labour, as I proudly recall my cleaning of workers’ toilets on May Day.

Tell us about your journey to Vedanta

Pearl of wisdom : During 2004, when Sterlite Industries India Limited advertised for the position of GM-HR for their copper smelter at Tuticorin (Pearl City), my inner voice directed me to apply for the same. Aft er a brief meeting with the consultant at Chennai, I was advised to meet the top brass of Sterlite at Mumbai. The high-powered panel met me for an hour or so and I was astonished at the size and scale of projects and investments in the pipeline. I joined the group and there was no looking back. During 2004 - 2007, I served Sterlite Copper at Tuticorin, started initially as GM-HR and had risen to VP / Sr VP within a short span of time, providing leadership to HR, TQM, PR and CSR functions. During my tenure Sterlite Copper figured as one of the Top Ten companies in BT survey on HR metrics and won several accolades in TQM and CSR at national and international levels. Besides, the local communities including women and youth experienced a 'new Sterlite' impacting their life more positively. The competency based assessment and the global leadership programme piloted in the copper business became the model across group companies.

Hidden gem, unearthed : I still remember how our chairman Shri Anil Agarwal motivated me in his unique manner, “HR professionals have a Midas touch; if you touch copper, it becomes gold.” This was when I moved to Mumbai post my selection as Head Corporate HR in September 2007 for the Vedanta Group, through an internal job posting selection process. I was also inducted into the prestigious Executive Committee of Vedanta Resources Plc soon there after, post my elevation as President-Group HR, driving strategic HR initiatives such as leadership hiring, revitalising performance pay schemes, implementing HR score-cards across the group, covering young talent in Vedanta's Long Term Incentive Plans, senior management compensation and brand building at campuses. I also passionately improved diversity at Vedanta and formulated policies to prefer women professionals, hire young talent from remote locations and minority institutions. One of the group companies, HZL emerged as one among the top three companies in Hewitt's best employer survey too.

As a global HR head for Vedanta till June 2014, I provided support to HR counterparts at KCM Zambia and Zinc International facilities in South Africa, Ireland and Namibia, besides Sterlite's copper mine in Australia. Post-merger integration excited me always at Vedanta, but I did it quietly, influencing only the vital few and leaving the rest to the operating companies whether it was KCM at Zambia or Sesa Goa in India, Anglo Zinc Assets in South Africa, Ireland and Namibia or the latest high-profile entrant to the Vedanta family, namely the oil and gas vertical, Cairn India Limited. Prior to leaving Vedanta in May 2015 I had worked for the Chairman’s Office as President–Corporate Development for a year, contributing significantly in helping the group acquire a few high profile global talents / CEOs, iconic Indian business leaders as NEDs (non-executive directors), besides winning over exemplary ex-bureaucrats for social initiatives.

What one thing you would consider the most significant contribution that you have made in Vedanta?

Improving gender diversity. I could improve gender diversity across group companies from 7 to 12 percent in a period of five years since assuming charge as its Global HR Head. This across level not just professional population or entry level. Not just at head office/s, but including manufacturing locations. Not just in support functions like Finance, IT, HR, Admin etc. but including core technical stream – mining, metallurgy, exploration besides mechanical, electrical and others. This could not have been possible without our Chairman Shri Anil Agarwal’s constant follow-up with HR team/s and inspiring women professionals to take up higher responsibilities during his highly interactive internal workshops and during our campus visits in India and abroad. We could demonstrate in a greenfield - manufacturing - remote location in the interior of Odisha as high as 30 percent women employees including B Sc graduates working on the shop floor. We thus could create a women friendly environment across our group companies, which I am really proud of, having played a significant but humble role.


Thiru is also an empanelled member of the Association of Management Development Institutions in South Asia as an Industry Expert and also serves as a governing council member for select few management institutes in India. Thiru also delivered the convocation address at BIMM, Pune. He has also been conferred with several accolades / awards like Super Achiever, Super Boss of the Year, Most Powerful HR Professionals of India, 30 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia, Thought Leaders Award and the latest honour, “100 Most Influential Global HR Professionals”

How did you manage to change your role in the different companies, dealing with different kind of products

Alignment is vital - alignment with the vision, connecting with business realities and of course always keeping the larger purpose in mind, a customer-first approach, pragmatic outlook, benchmarking with the best and consistency in people-practices were some of the values which helped me to navigate.

And now your stint with JK Company… how did it happen?

When I decided to open the next chapter of my professional journey and move on from Vedanta, I looked at only a select few options – reputed conglomerates with high degree of professionalism. What triggered my joining JKO was the following quote which I saw during my stay at their guest house when I landed in New Delhi for the final discussions with the directors-in-charge of the group.

“We seek a society which is proud of its past, conscious of the present and full of hope for the future - a society where every citizen would be equally conscious of its rights and responsibilities.” - Lala Lakshmipat Singhania.

Living the Legacy : I joined JKO in June, 2015 and my current role as President–Corporate HR at JKO, encompasses providing strategic HR inputs to CEOs of group entities (JK Tyre, JK Lakshmi Cement, JK Paper, JK Fenner, JK Seeds, Umang Dairies and others including JK Lakshmipat University) on strategic hiring initiatives including CXOs, leadership development for top talent and succession planning, greater linkages to performance and rewards, employer brand building, revisiting competency framework and other HR processes keeping a ‘business first’ approach, up-skilling the organization through the induction of high-potential talent from premium business schools as change champions, improving diversity and enhancing our competitive edge through innovation and agility, leveraging initiatives such as Udaan and Reimagining HR: Leading Change for making JKO a future ready organisation.

All our businesses uphold the right priorities, practising a ‘Customer First and Employee Next’ policy with excellent processes ensuring safety, safe environment, quality and productivity besides being energy efficient.

Care and concern for the people is synonymous with JKO which is amply evident from various employee engagement initiatives, customer – vendor interactions, besides CSR initiatives. Yet another key differentiator is that a considerable slice of top management time is spent at JKO in talent management, more importantly, mentoring young professionals.

As part of my visit to various manufacturing locations of JKO, I had the opportunity to visit a home for mentally challenged children supported by us through an NGO. These children are in that situation for no fault of theirs. Spending time with them was a very satisfying experience. Another commendable initiative undertaken by us is to support old age homes to ensure that elderly people live with dignity. We not only extend financial and infrastructure support, but encourage our employees to spend quality time with them. Yet another initiative was facilitating adult literacy in prisons. I had the opportunity to interact with those inmates - both men and women -- and was pleasantly surprised at the speed with which they were progressing. I was also astonished with their hidden talents in arts and crafts.

I also visited JK’s Rayagada Paper Unit, in Odisha. There are about 24 farmer clubs and around 55 self-help groups engaged in plantation. We planted eight crore tree saplings last year.

Other initiatives are in the sphere of education, general and vocational, healthcare, tie up with government ITIs for upgrading and upskilling, mother and child care, HIV-AIDS prevention, environmental conservation, road safety awareness and disaster relief. For example, Naya Savera an integrated family welfare programme initiated by JK Lakshmi Cements has substantially reduced the maternal and infant mortality rate to almost zero. Other initiatives like rain water harvesting, creating better drinking water resources, eco-friendly chullahs, installing RO and building toilets in government schools have made a positive impact on their lives, in addition to providing e-learning facilities at schools and mobile jhola library and creating plastic free zones.

HR means recruiting and managing people, what has been your observation about young corporate managers?

Today’s young talent doesn’t want control; they want more empowerment. They don’t want instructions; they want inspiration. Some reverse mentoring also happening. If I have to send very critical mails to any key stakeholders, I put it in a draft mode and sleep over it for a day. The next day I call one or two of my young talents, ask them to read and ask them to suggest. This I have been practising for many years, to get to know what these young people think. Similarly, while in Vedanta when we wanted to implement the stock option, we spoke to young employees and they decided that they wanted the option. Today’s young people are honest. Their integrity standards are very high and they will thrive in a self-governing structure and not in a controlled atmosphere. They want faster decisions, so we have to be in a position to take faster decisions. The best way is that you empower them.

I see a lot of young people aspiring to make a difference in the core sector, not all are keen on IT/ITeS and e-commerce. The kind of push being given by initiatives like ‘Make in India’ will make India a better place than any other country. Our education system is good, the only thing is we are not focused on vocational training like in Germany. A little bit of tweaking here and there can really help.

Companies are more interested in recruiting people below 40 years of age. Why so?

Now people are thinking about bringing back this wisdom and expertise. When I used to recruit people in the US or UK, you could not even ask them their age in the application form, so you could only assume. We should also follow the same pattern. We should be open about looking for talent without any discrimination, including age or gender. But equally so, companies must retire people on attaining the age of superannuation, or at least move them away from line / lead roles and provide the Gen Next the opportunity to prove their mettle. Otherwise complacency can set in. Conventional wisdom, if blindly followed like a ritual, will not awaken any giant or divine within.

How many hours you spend at work every day?

I start my day at least 30-45 minutes ahead and end in time. I am always punctual to meetings for which I am invited and start and end my meetings in time as I genuinely respect other people’s time. I do not believe in long hours of meetings, where one reviews minutes and wastes hours. Every Monday morning I have a 15-20 minutes’ standing meeting with my team to share views and prioritise the work. I do not believe in being busy or appearing to be busy, but being decisive matters a lot to me. However, I never hesitate to burn the midnight oil when situations warrant, even risking one’s life. When the tsunami alert was made, when I was working in the coastal town, I stayed inside the factory premises along with the night shift in-charge. The Electrical Engineering Head advised families to spend the night in the first floor of the residence, or terrace or even move away to Madurai like many did. But my family too stayed back and supported me as always, in any testing time.

Tell us about your family.

My wife, M Poonkuzhali worked for English Electric and that’s where we met. Her name is a typical Tamil name, quoted in ancient Tamil literature. Since I was a literature student, this name attracted me first and then obviously led me to propose to her. She is an electronics and instrumentation engineer. After marriage she quit her job. We have a son, AT Kaarthik who did his MBA from NMIMS Mumbai and is currently working for a globally renowned management consulting firm in Bengaluru.

By Vinita Deshmukh