“Water treatment is the next sunrise industry,” says Rajiv Mittal, the managing director & chief executive officer of VA Tech Wabag Ltd. It is the largest water solutions company in India which is based in Chennai and has a turnover of R2,000 crore. “There are so many companies in the water business,” I remark. “Don’t confuse us with infrastructure and construction companies which build water pipelines. We are a technology company. We are the only company in total management of water services.” Wabag is a multinational, operating from Chennai, implementing projects in 19 countries. “Half of our order-book is from outside the country,” says Mittal, as we walk down the green laden pathway to the Raintree, the spacious and well-lit Chettinad restaurant in Taj Vivanta, for lunch.
Mittal came to Chennai in 1996. A chemical engineer from the Bombay University, he started his career with Hindustan Dorr-Oliver Ltd. He was working in the UK, and joined Wabag in 1995. The company sent him to India to set up a strategic business unit in water. “We made a major breakthrough that year when we got an order from Reliance for their Jamnagar refinery project. We executed the largest effluent treatment plant in Asia in 1997. When I came back from the UK, the water business was unheard of in India. I had to do a lot of aggressive selling. What we offer is life-cycle solutions for water: sewage treatment, effluent treatment, sludge treatment desalination, and reuse for industrial and municipal corporations. It is not a sexy business,” he laughs.
As we wonder whether to order some starters or not, we find ourselves unable to resist the tiny idlis tossed in curry leaf powder that the restaurant attendant has just brought to our table. I ask Mittal how he ended up acquiring the business in what is described as one of the most interesting management buyouts in the country. We order our main course: appams, idiyappams and some usual Chettinad fare—mushroom & dry beans, sundakkai cooked in a tangy gravy, chow chow kootu (cooked with lentils and coconut) and the flavoured watery buttermilk. We are both vegetarians and the cuisine doesn’t disappoint.
The water treatment division, Wabag, was one among the four units of Deutsche Babcock. In 2000, the Austrian conglomerate, VA Tech, acquired 100% stake in Wabag, forming a new company known as VA Tech Wabag. Wabag India became a wholly-owned subsidiary of this