Menu Close

Planting seeds for future harvests: Sanjay Singh

Sanjay Singh, CEO of ITC Limited Paperboards and Specialty Papers Division

Sanjay Singh has spent more than 40 years in the employ of ITC Limited, one of India’s largest private sector players. Currently CEO of the conglomerate’s Paperboards and Specialty Papers Division, Sanjay has forged a career marked by loyalty to both the company and its commitment to contributing to
a new India.

The Division has left an indelible mark on the paper industry in India and is moving forward in line with government initiatives and global sustainability efforts. It continues to nurture the relationships, both internal and external, that enable it to act as a pioneer within the sector.

A Brief history

The history of ITC goes back to 24 August 1910, when the Imperial Tobacco Company of India Limited was incorporated, based out of an office on Radha Bazar Lane, in Kolkata. To reflect the growing Indian ownership of the company, in 1970 it became the India Tobacco Company Limited, shortened to I.T.C. Limited in 1974. It finally became ITC Limited in 2001.

The name changes reflect the transformation of the business from a tobacco company to a conglomerate incorporating operations in six major divisions: fast-moving consumer goods, hotels, paperboards and specialty papers, packaging, agribusiness, and IT.

Sanjay Singh, CEO of ITC Limited Paperboards and Specialty Papers Division
Sanjay Singh, CEO of ITC Limited Paperboards and Specialty Papers Division

In 1979, ITC entered the Paperboards business by promoting ITC Bhadrachalam Paperboards Limited. Bhadrachalam Paperboards amalgamated with the company, effective 13 March 2002, and became a division of the company – Bhadrachalam Paperboards Division. In November 2002, this Division merged with the company’s Tribeni Tissues Division to form the Paperboards and Specialty Papers Division (PSPD). Later it acquired Unit Kovai near Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Now the Division has four units in India: Bhadrachalam, Tribeni, Kovai, and Bollaram with a combined capacity of 700,000 tons of paper and paperboards per annum.

Today, the Division is the market leader and largest exporter in India, of value-added paperboards. All four units of ITC PSPD are Forest Stewardship Council chain of custody certified. This is considered as the gold standard of responsible sourcing of fibre.

Now overseeing the Division’s operations, Sanjay joined ITC as a management trainee in 1977. He has never worked for another company and, in the four decades he has been with ITC, he has observed “phenomenal” changes, particularly in terms of the company’s increasing commitment to sustainable growth and the development of rural areas. He has also witnessed an internal maturing of the company, something he is quick to celebrate. “One thing I truly love,” he tells The CEO Magazine, “is interacting with people. The strength of our company lies in our team, and management spend as much time as we can with the staff as the organisation grows.”

In the early days of his leadership, Sanjay’s role involved coming up with strategies and providing direction for his employees, but he has come to learn that as people settle into their roles, direction is less needed than an understanding of the problems they face. He acknowledges that “you still need to spend time with them, understanding their issues and finding solutions to them”. This is a two-way process. “We, at the senior level, focus on being listeners more than being talkers. We listen to their ideas, and then agree on a common platform that is beneficial to everyone, before efficiently implementing it.”

Efficiency is evidently a top priority for Sanjay. He has committed to incorporating lean manufacturing practices, designed to minimise waste and improve eventual profitability, in all four of the Division’s units. He also follows the total productive maintenance (TPM) system, seeking productivity improvements through recurring investment in maintenance. It is, however, at a level of greater global significance – one that lies beyond the paper industry – that Sanjay has seen the Division make its greatest contribution.

Impact on industry

When the Division’s Bhadrachalam unit was established, Sanjay recalls, “we were told we could get wood from the nearby forest. After we started the factory, we realised that there would not be a large enough supply of wood in the long-term, and we would have to look elsewhere.” The leadership team in place at that time saw the potential in the process of clonal multiplication, travelling to Brazil to learn about the method first-hand. The team returned to India and started employing the techniques, beginning with eucalyptus.

“This was the start of a huge program of plantations with farmers in the local regions. We told them eucalyptus could be a viable crop, and we developed high-yielding clones, giving them to the farmers to grow on their land.

“From small beginnings, today, the whole paper industry is surviving in India because of this process; farmers are growing wood of different species across the country and, because of that, nobody now cuts a tree from any forest.”

Trees with desirable genetic qualities across India have been selected for mass multiplication, including eucalyptus, casuarina and leucaena, after testing took place across a range of different climatic conditions in Andhra Pradesh. Seeds are also imported from Australia’s CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) and USAID (United States Agency to International Development) in Hawaii.

The survival rate of the resulting plantations exceeds 95%, a remarkable improvement on the 40% to 60% survival rate of traditional plantations. The time to harvest has shortened to roughly four years, down from seven, with productivity increasing from 6-10 tons per hectare per annum to 20-58 tons.

ITC managers support the farmers throughout the process, offering technical guidance and research assistance, and conducting meetings to help farmers tackle any problems that arise. ITC buys back the wood from the farmers at market prices, and Sanjay notes that the scheme has had a positive impact on workers in remote areas, who had land but didn’t know which crop to grow on it.

“We wanted to create jobs in areas where unemployment was an issue, and plantation was an activity that could create opportunities for employment in rural areas. We pioneered this change; now, many others are also planting wood and, by and large, we are self-sufficient.”

The company’s farm and social forestry programs have greened over 680,000 acres across India. ‘ITC Bhadrachalam’ saplings are being used by paper mills, farmers and forest development corporations.

Moving beyond Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, in March 2018, the company announced plans to test a social agroforestry project in the Malkangiri district, in the State of Odisha. Like the earlier projects, this one, intended to eventually occupy a 20,000 acre space in the region, involves providing work for the farmers and becoming a reliable pulpwood source for the Bhadrachalam unit, thus reducing the Division’s reliance on imports.

Environmental standards

Among ITC’s top management, there is a concerted effort to meet head-on the challenges that environmental sustainability legislation presents. “With laws regarding environmental standards becoming more and more stringent,” Sanjay explains, “the challenge was to make sure that we stayed ahead of the legislation. Today, we are one of the best companies in the country in terms of meeting environmental limits. In fact, we were the first to eliminate chlorine in our bleaching, using a process known as ozone bleaching instead.”

The pulp bleaching process used to rely heavily on elemental chlorine, resulting in the production of a large amount of toxic organochlorine compounds and their release into the environment, » with adverse effects. In ozone bleaching, elemental chlorine is replaced by chlorine dioxide, the amount of chemicals used is reduced, as is the water pollution resulting from the bleaching process. This is also known as the Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) process.

Additional sustainability efforts by the Division include the initiative Well-being Out of Waste (WOW) that was launched in 2007. Sanjay explains the idea behind the initiative, recalling that back then, “Large quantities of waste paper were being imported from all over the world, while in India, waste paper was going to the dump yards. We realised that, instead of spending on waste paper, we ought to use our own.

“We now go to houses, offices and schools in large cities and propagate segregation of dry waste, which would normally go to the dump, to be recycled. By doing so, we are also increasing awareness of recycling. We are one of the first in India’s paper industry to start a program like this. Thirty years ago, we started our plantation program; today, we are making an additional impact through waste paper collection and recycling.”

In October 2014, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission, a campaign designed to clean up the streets and infrastructure of India, from its largest cities to its most sparsely populated rural areas.

ITC’s WOW program allows the company to make a significant contribution to the realisation of a clean India, through educating India’s population about reasonable recycling efforts that individuals can make, contributing to a cleaner environment, and improving the working conditions of sanitation workers. In July 2017, the company launched an extension of the initiative, the WOW Clubs in Schools program, hoping to increase awareness of the importance of recycling among a younger target audience – school students – and encourage them to adopt sustainable waste practices from a young age.

These days, the combined initiatives cover more than seven million people, in six states, and ITC continues to commit to its solid waste recycling program, recycling close to 100% of the waste generated by its operations. There will also be an opportunity for the company to make its mark in response to increasing calls for reduced plastics use. “With a ban on plastics growing in popularity,” Sanjay notes, “there’s a great opportunity for the pulp and paper industry to provide a substitute for plastic, and we are also working on ways that will allow us to avoid using plastics.”

Initiatives like WOW, and a commitment to environmentally responsible practices, make a great contribution to the Division’s reputation, and to its success. Considering the latter, Sanjay acknowledges that when you invest, you’ve also got to be able to show a return on that investment.

“ITC is a debt-free company, and our money comes from corporate, whose expectation is that we show a return on the capital. In addition, we need to make sure that we run the business in an ethical way, pursuing sustainable growth and committing to being environmentally friendly.

“ITC is carbon-positive, water-positive, and solid waste recycling-positive,” he continues. This means that the company sequesters twice the amount of carbon dioxide that it emits, and creates a rainwater harvesting potential that is more than double its net consumption. “When we make plans to expand, or invest, we must keep this in mind.

New investments do cost money, but we have realised that, in the long-term, anything that is good for the environment is good for the company. It pays you back. It may take a little extra time, but it does pay you back.”

Its focus on sustainability is also something that sets the Division apart from its competitors in the pulp and paper industry. ITC prides itself on its “sustainability, environmental management and people”.

“We are the pioneers of plantation programs within the industry, and we have developed new clones. Everybody’s doing it today, but we were the first. Through initiatives like WOW, we make sure that we limit pollution, and that all of our operations are sustainable.”

Ethical relationships

In addition to sustainability and environmental management, it is evident that the company knows the value of its people, as well as that of the relationships with its supply partners.

“With the kind of technology we use,” Sanjay says, “we need to attract the best kind of people, and it’s not easy to retain people in the remote areas we operate out of. Nowadays, everybody wants to stay in the city.” The company’s solution is to ensure that its employees are well taken care of. “We provide comfortable housing, with air-conditioned rooms and wi-fi, making sure the quality of life is high.

If the wives of our male staff want to work, we try to include them in operations. This is one way of making sure that we are able to retain staff; it all costs money, but again, it pays back in the long run.”

Sanjay knows the importance of investing in the long-term, and applies a similar principle to the relationships the Division forms with its suppliers. These relationships are characterised by a mutual willingness to collaborate, with each partner bringing something that the other needs to the table. “We invite suppliers to open their own plants inside our units, because we require their specialisation, including certain kinds of chemicals. We give them the land, and they bring in their technology.”

Sanjay manages these kinds of relationships in line with the TPM philosophy. The Division has been following the TPM model for the past 15 years, Sanjay explains, and it “involves a combination of employees and managers meeting regularly to discuss things that have gone wrong, to understand why they have gone wrong, and to work to prevent them from going wrong again”.

The program has been incredibly successful. “We have been able to improve our efficiencies and reduce downtime.” He points out how important the reduction in downtime is to a capital-intensive industry: “Unless you run machines for the maximum possible time, the returns you seek won’t be there. Through the TPM system, we have managed to significantly improve our profitability.”

Due to the success engendered by following this system, the Division invites the suppliers who operate out of its units to participate in the program, and “many of them share that they have been able to improve their efficiencies” as a result.

The company commits to having open and transparent relationships with its suppliers, and every year Sanjay personally addresses these partners, “communicating our value system to them to give them confidence to express their views”.

He illustrates the Division’s refusal to be driven by the bottom line by way of this example. In the sodium chloride market, there is a single Indian supplier. The Division’s demand for the compound is high enough that it also relies on imports, which are often available more cheaply than the product supplied by the Indian company. It would make economic sense to buy just the imported product, but this is where the long-term relationship ITC has established with the supplier comes in.

“We believe it is better to stand with an Indian supplier than a foreign one,” Sanjay says. “We give him a higher price than the imports so that he doesn’t incur losses. He survives, and we assume that everything will balance out over a period of 10 or 15 years.”

As a general rule, “we work with people who are good, and in possession of values and ethics, so that we don’t do anything wrong”. ITC has received a great deal of recognition for its sustainability efforts, and interactions with suppliers play a role here, too.

“In the CII Sustainability Awards, which take into account environmental management and energy and water usage, two of our units have been rated platinum. This is the highest rating, and no other company in the sector in India has a rating like that. Part of the platinum rating involves demonstrating how the company works with its suppliers, so we made sure that our suppliers also improved on their environmental standards, helping them to reduce their energy and water consumption, and improve their quality.

Any benefits they see in the long-term, they’ll be sharing with us. If they’re not sustainable, the extra cost will come to us. If we make them more sustainable, we make them more profitable,” Sanjay notes.

Sustainable growth

One of the Division’s enduring goals is to have the environmentally responsible processes it has worked hard to put in place certified. The company was the first in India to be invited, in 2009, to partake in the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature’s Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN) program. The GFTN is one of WWF’s leading initiatives to eliminate illegal logging and drive improvements in forest management. Participants are committed to promoting responsible forestry and trade, as well as credible certification.

Annual demand for wood from forests and plantations could triple by 2050, putting forests at risk, and the challenge lies in establishing market conditions that favour forest conservation without punishing the businesses whose existence relies on the materials provided by these forests. With membership of the program spanning more than 14 countries, and incorporating more than 95 companies, community organisations and governments, the market incentives offered by the GFTN program to encourage responsible forest management are evidently having an effect, and ITC’s involvement in the program gives it a method by which it can have more of its products and processes given credible certification.

PSPD is in the middle of a period of sustained and responsible growth, due to the efforts it has made to increase the capacity of its four units. A strategy involving continued injections of capital into the Bhadrachalam unit has seen it become the largest single-location unit in India, growing from a capacity of 40,000 tons per annum when it was first built to more than 500,000 tons per annum today. The increase in production capacity has come hand in hand with technological improvements.

Sanjay once again points to the Division’s success in phasing out the use of chlorine in its bleaching, which allowed it to position itself as a trailblazer within the industry. “There are only 10 or 15 companies in the world using ozone bleaching,” he says, “so we consider ourselves to be pioneers
in bringing new technologies to the industry.”

Recent and projected economic growth in India means that new opportunities and challenges will continue to appear on the horizon for the Division. “As the Indian economy is getting bigger and bigger, demand in the packaging segment is growing, particularly due to the rise of ecommerce. We are going to focus on improving the capacity of our existing units to meet this demand, and will consider the possibility of acquiring new buildings.”

Much of the demand in India is coming from printers and converters, and Sanjay knows that the Division must keep pace with them to prevent these businesses from turning to imports to meet their needs. It is not only increased quantities that they seek, but a high-quality product, too. To this end, Sanjay notes, “We are bringing in new technology, modifying our machines so that we can meet the quality demands of the printers and converters that use our product.”

Having drawn valuable lessons from his experience leading the Division thus far, and knowing the sector intimately, Sanjay has a clear message for the paper industry. “We should grow more wood,” he says. “India imports a large quantity of pulp, but the trees must grow somewhere, and
the farmers in the countries where they do grow are getting the money.”

He would like to see the developmental benefits and the profits stay in India, and details more of the company’s efforts to contribute to a greener nation. “We are working with the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) to green the country’s national highways,” Sanjay says.

The company was chosen as the knowledge and implementation partner of the National Green Highways Mission under NHAI, which has been entrusted with the task of planning, implementing and monitoring roadside plantations along 100,000 kilometres of national highway. The plantations are meant to stimulate employment opportunities in surrounding areas, as well as contributing to greater green cover.

In the Division’s pilot phase of these plantations, focusing on highways in Andhra Pradesh, it was assigned two stretches of highway, running from Kurnool to Kadapa and from Hyderabad to Bengaluru. Each site provides the company with a stretch of approximately 113 kilometres of space, and extensive experience in plantation management allows the company to contribute to the government initiative in a meaningful and practical way.

The Division is also working with the country’s railways, which has consented to ITC greening the extensive stretch of land running alongside the tracks. “We grow trees, improving the environment and reducing pollution levels, and providing the cities with a supply of wood. We are working with
temples occupying large plots of land, too. When we grow trees, everybody benefits.”

That these benefits are spread among India’s greater population is of immense importance to Sanjay. He is adamant that “in anything you do, the benefit must be shared by everybody, otherwise nothing works in the long run”. “In my mind, India has the potential to grow more trees, making the country greener; indirectly, we’re also improving the country’s forest cover.”

The paper industry, again, is already offering something equally invaluable: the creation of jobs in India’s rural areas. “Everybody talks of Bengaluru and Hyderabad, but somebody needs to talk about some of the rural areas,” Sanjay notes. “The paper industry is ideally suited for creating employment
in these places.”

Sanjay’s leadership of the Paperboards and Specialty Papers Division has seen it make a series of enduring and consequential contributions to the future of the paper sector in India, providing jobs to rural areas, educating the greater population about the importance of environmentally conscious waste management, and ensuring the industry makes a positive impact on the environment where possible.

One can only imagine that the next few years will continue to see Sanjay and the Division play a substantial role in India’s continued development.

Leave a Reply