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Vik Bansal on the “No Limitations” Podcast | “A Leader is a Dealer in Hope” Part One

In episode 13 of the “No Limitations” podcast, Blenheim Partners’ Gregory Robinson spoke with Vik Bansal, CEO and managing director of Cleanaway Waste Management Ltd. In part one of the transcription of this episode, Vik and Greg discuss how his willingness to tackle difficult or new territories saw him go from electrical engineer to executive, his evolving leadership style, and the underestimated value that is placed on good leadership in today’s society.


Greg Robinson: Hello and welcome to the No Limitations podcast, a show where we talk to people who have achieved outstanding success in their careers and discovering the influences that have shaped their destinies. I’m your host Greg Robinson, managing partner at Blenheim Partners, executive search and board advisory firm. Today I’m joined by Vik Bansal, chief executive officer and managing director of Cleanaway Waste Management Ltd. Vik was previously president and chief operating officer of Valmont Industries, a $3.3 billion New York-listed global engineering and manufacturing company. Prior to that, he’s held senior line leadership positions with OneSteel and Eaton Corporation. He’s a founding board member of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council – Vik, welcome to No Limitations.

Vik Bansal: Thank you Greg, appreciate it.

Greg: Vik, you started life out in India.

Vik: I did, I was born in India so I guess that’s where I started my life. 

Greg: Well you’ve traveled the world, have you not?

Vik: I have, I have been fortunate enough. I was born in India in Delhi, and then have had an opportunity to work and study across the globe both in Europe, America, and Asia. 

Greg: And what drove you into engineering?

Vik: That’s a good question. I still don’t know that, but growing up I had a very strong interest in physics and maths, and generally when you grow up in an environment in India there is absolutely no choice of not going to university, so there’s no option. So the options – my father was a pretty successful lawyer – so the option was I had law or something else, and I definitely didn’t want to do law. Plus I was good in maths, so engineering obviously appealed. 

Greg: How did you get to Australia? 

Vik: I followed a girl.Greg: You still following her?

Vik: Kind of – after twenty five years of marriage you kind of follow her, yeah.

Greg: Vik was she from Australia?

Vik: She was born to Indian parents but in Australia. 

Greg: Okay so you follow her all the way to Australia, what were you pursuing in a sense of career?

Vik: Well I think one thing I realized early when I finished my engineering – in those days this was the early 90’s – computer science was a big field so actually I wanted to do a master’s in computer science. I actually got an admission to RMIT in Melbourne, so that was also one of the core reasons to come to Australia. I came here and found out that you need to do a post-graduate diploma in engineering before you do your master’s, and I started doing that but within six or seven months I found out that was probably not my calling. So I went and started looking for an engineering gig frankly, and ended up getting a role at Alstrom – which is a French engineering company – as an engineer, and I guess that’s how my career started. 

Greg: How does an engineer progress to become a chief executive?

Vik: I get this question asked quite often Greg. After doing engineering for three or four years, I always wanted to do an MBA so I did my MBA and I think that was a time I had a choice to make. I saw a lot of my peers who were quite good engineers, and I knew I was not a good engineer but I was very good with numbers. Doing an MBA was almost one of those seminal things when you did it, it was kind of a – I won’t say it’s as strong as it’s a calling, but I just loved it. I absolutely loved it, and then I pursued my career in both sales, marketing, management after that. 

Greg: What did you love about it, was it the fact that you got to meet different people that weren’t engineers? Actually business leaders or from the sales background? What was the drive there?

Vik: Now I realize looking back, I loved the commerciality of it. Having a single dimensional view of a business from an only engineering perspective never appealed to me that much. So once you’ve done the engineering and you’ve got the maths and the numbers, all that right, the whole commercial piece of creating value, the commercial piece of engaging with people, the commercial piece of seeing a team or a business successful – that I find is quite engaging. Quite intellectually challenging and engaging. 

Greg: So what was the stepping stones after the MBA Vik?

Vik: That was an interesting thing, and I have been fortunate enough – I guess most people who have been in my role, they’ll go back and say there were lucky moments or lucky breaks. I did my engineering, the company had just taken up a particular product portfolio and without going into details nobody wanted that because that was a failure written all over it – I took it. I took it, and that was a joint venture with Alstrom and with an overseas company, and that was my stepping stone. I made that a pretty big success, I loved doing it when it was absolutely class failure all over it, and what that told me consistently in my life I took chances which people would not take. 

Greg: But why was it a failure in everybody else’s eyes but not yours?

Vik: Because it needed hard work. It needed hard work, it was unknown territory, and there’s a lot of fear of the unknown. People didn’t want to challenge existing status quos. And you know it happens that the more experienced an executive you are you tend to become a lot more traditionalist, so people were thinking from the eyes of what the past was rather than what’s possible. You know I was 27 years old –

Greg: And this is coming from an engineer who liked facts all the way through!

Vik: Amazing! Think about that! But I had just done my MBA and I think my ambitions got better of me and at 27 I did not know any better frankly in hindsight and I just wanted to give it a go. I was so keen to give it a go and so I had no status quo to meet, I had no status quo to follow. I remember we launched the product and I launched it the way I thought it was best to launch and lucky me it got successful. 

Greg: What did you inherit? What sort of staff did you have, what support did you have?

Vik: I had none. I was just given a product class – product category – that was successful in Japan at that point but had not been launched in Australia. I remember my boss telling me once ‘well, I’m not so sure this will go. You want it you can have it, but you do understand if you fail you don’t have a job?’ I said ‘well thank you for the motivational talk, I really appreciate that.’ So there was no going back, right? By the time I finished three and a half years after it was the most profitable product for Alstrom in Australia. I had a staff of 83, I was 30 years old, and it was a star product in the Alstrom category. So it was a very successful launch – successful product marketing.

Greg: What were you looking for in the qualities of the people who joined you?

Vik: If anything I’ve learnt – and I’ve reflected on that quite a lot – my leadership style and management style has significantly evolved over the last 20 years. I played sports quite young, I was pretty good at playing sports so you understand the team dynamic, you understand how to get people motivated. But I’ll quite often say at that point in my career it was all about me. The whole ambition was about Vik Bansal. I hadn’t achieved the self-awareness of thinking ‘well actually this is about team, this is about the people who are hired.’ I had absolutely aligned my personal ambition with that product launch so everything I did was around that. In hindsight I look at it and it looks so immature and so childish.

Greg: Yeah but there was a lot resting on it.

Vik: But I think if I would do it again, my approach would be the same – maybe even have similar team members – but I would manage them differently. It wouldn’t be about me. It was all about me at that point and that reflected my management style. That reflected my leadership style. And we got them excited, the team was highly motivated, but everybody knew it was Vik Bansal’s show and I think that is not good leadership. That’s not what I would do now, and that’s not what long-term sustainability is all about. 

Greg: So is it the old classic ‘control and command’ style?

Vik: Yeah I would say so. At the early stages of my career that was the driving force – it was me, ambition, my way or the highway. And as you evolve as a leader, evolve as manager, as you actually evolve as a human being, you understand it’s never about you. The product would still be successful without me, and quite often leaders just make everything about themselves. 

Greg: How much time do you put into the actual strategy Vik? Like you said you had a broken business, you’ve got to go and hire people so you’ve got to sell them the dream and you obviously saw something in it, so where did you spend the time initially to make this successful?

Vik: I spent a lot of time thinking. I still do that, I did that as a young lad, I did that in college. Believe you me, I’m an introvert by nature – I don’t mind my own company which basically means I don’t mind thinking, right? And quite often by the time I’ve landed on a position even today, I probably put in ten hours of thinking on a subject while others probably would come to the table with half an hour of thinking. 

Greg: Where does this thinking take place?

Vik: Quite a lot on the weekends. I’m kind of a golfer – trying to be a golfer I should say. But I have a lot of Sunday mornings, I fly a lot, and while people say ‘how do you do a lot of flying?’ it’s good for me. I actually find it quite therapeutic in a strange way because that is my ‘me’ time. Some people come out of the plane quite tired, I come out of the plane quite energized. 

Greg: Because you live in Sydney don’t you Vik? But your head office is in Melbourne?

Vik: Yes the head office is in Melbourne. And prior to that in Valmont I did a lot of global jobs. So I don’t mind that, it’s just my time when I get to think a lot. 

Greg: And what do you think of the level of thinking in Australia? Say business executives compared to what you said you’ve worked in global roles: what do you see the difference in dynamics? 

Vik: I remember the first time when I worked in China I could see the differences between Australia and the western world, and actually when I went to the U.S. I thought culturally they were quite similar, but from a leadership perspective there was a fundamental difference. Nothing is good or bad, this is not about comparing, and I joke around – in the U.S. when you become a CEO or a COO as a leader generally people would say ‘you must be smart otherwise you would not have got that job.’ In Australia it’s exactly the opposite. When you become a CEO they think you’re the dumbest guy because ‘why would you want to take this job?’ unless you prove yourself smart. So you start in a very different view. Ultimately they catch up, you’ve got to be clever enough and smart enough to be able to manage people, but the starting points are always different. So there is a heavy burden of leadership in Australia. There’s a heavy heavy burden of leadership, and if you can manage in Australia, you generally are a very good leader. And I have said it consistently: that is the reason why Australian leaders are very successful in the United States. Because there is an egalitarian culture in this society so nothing is given to you, nothing is granted. Even if you have a title you have to earn your capacity, you have to earn your leadership position. And that goes back to the earlier discussion I was having – that ‘command and control’ of 27-year-old Vik Bansal would not succeed as a 51-year-old CEO. It just would not work. You’ll get a chance for a year but ultimately you cannot lead a team of 6,000 people with that kind of a style so you engage, you improve. 

Greg: from 27 to 51 Vik you must have been, are you one of those people who puts their hand up for the next challenge?

Vik: I always have. I have to say, if anything has helped in my career it is all the risks I have taken are the risks which have either been declined or haven’t been taken yet. So I took that chance, then there was a company called Delta which was part of the Eaton Group. They were in a lot of trouble and they were looking for a general manager. I took that job and that went very well. Then that got acquired by Eaton globally and everybody said I should leave but I stood there and we ended up becoming the AsiaPac head of Eaton – I was the acquired company. Then there was Volcum in the U.S. I took that chance to go to the U.S., there was a global product I took which was not doing well, so that worked very well.

Greg: Is it the product or is it the people? You’re working and you’re solving a problem, what’s the nutter that you’re finding nine times out of ten?

Vik: Oh it’s people. It is always people. You’ve got to have the foundation of a product or a service or a business – I mean you can’t really create good out of something which doesn’t exist – but in my experience nine out of ten it’s people. It’s management, leadership – I think leadership is a highly highly underestimated trait in society. And the problem that we can talk about is that in the modern world, attacking leadership whether it’s political, social, commercial, business leadership has become a modern fashion. And I worry about the future generations. I grew up looking up to leaders, whether they were political, social, sports leadership or business leadership. And in society it has become a common practice that the moment you become a leader you’re up for everything. I worry about my children, I worry about our children – who do they look up to? It’s unfortunate. One, it’s an underestimated trait, in most businesses I think we underestimate that generally, but when you get there I think we should be very careful before we’re attacking it. 

Greg: It’s a pretty lonely position.

Vik: It is, and it is not for everybody either to be fair. It is a lonely position, and that’s why I say it needs to be cherished to some extent – especially good ones – and it needs to be supported. 

Greg: Leadership was certainly required when you walked into Cleanaway a number of years ago. What did you find and why did you take it? 

Vik: Well because I was coming back to Oz to be fair. At Valmont I was COO as you mentioned before, and I was on a path to become chairman and CEO there – companies in the United States have chairman and CEO as one position as you know – and I was definitely on the path. That company only had three CEOs in an 85 year history, so for an Aussie-Indian to go to Omaha Nebraska – midwest country – to become a chief operating officer and then hopefully to become a CEO – it was kind of quite a big deal for me and I was really looking forward to it. Having said that, my family decided ‘enough is enough, you’re going back to Oz’ because my daughter was at an age – generally women and wives have a very good sixth sense on these things – and [my wife] did say to me at that point ‘our daughter is at that age that another couple of years in the U.S. and we’re not going back to Oz. She’ll settle here and so you need to make a choice.’ Men generally are quite single-dimensional, so I couldn’t think that through and she was 360-degree thinking and that made a lot of sense. So we came back, I had a couple of options in Australia and one of them in those lists was Transpacific. Now I can tell you – and it’s public domain – that of the three offers I had Transpacific was the worst of the three performing. By far. But it had an amazing potential. It was an absolute diamond, the board was kind enough to let me do some due diligence which I did.

Greg: What did that involve?

Vik: Well I checked with investors, I checked with shareholders, I checked with a lot of employees I could talk with. I actually drove around in an old beaten van because I hadn’t bought a new car yet. I [went] to a couple of transfer stations just to have a look around Transpacific, safety record, people, etc. I spent a lot of time looking at the books and that’s where your maths, engineering insight comes into it, so I knew where the challenges were. I knew what I could fix, I knew what I could not fix, but I also knew what I did not know. And coming back from the U.S. I had a very good relationship with the senior executives of waste management companies in the United States who are amazing leaders and I took a lot of their advice before I took it. So [asking] ‘tell me what you would do with this’ and they were very helpful and then I took it. I can tell you the day I took it I rang a couple of people to let them know and their answer was ‘you dummy, why would you do that?’ Because the company had four CEOs in three years if you remember Greg, and the share price was sitting at 57 cents and it was a lot of trouble as you would appreciate. I remember going to a couple of investors early and I’ve never seen a hostile investor like that. And rightfully so, I mean the company had lost a lot of money for them and nobody likes that of course. So, quite a challenging time, but people were good. The people were amazing. I mean I knew they were salt-of-the earth people, knew what they were doing, and I said to myself ‘in spite of four CEOs in three years, they could not destroy this business,’ which basically means the core is very good. And I remember the old Cleanway, which is now back to the new Cleanaway – the same Cleanway – is an 80 year old company. There has to be something good. The people have to be good right? In spite of all of that customers were getting served. So what the business was missing was a good leadership. And then we got on with the journey. I did not call it transformation, I did not call it revolution as a lot of leaders do.

Greg: No buzzwords? 

Vik: No buzzwords. All I said was ‘we’re on a good to great journey.’ So this was a good company, and this was the first time in our business executives had actually heard somebody describe the company as good, because everybody had said before ‘we’re going to transform this.’ I said ‘this is a good company, we’re going to make it a great company.’ Now I knew our cost was high, and I remember this was the only place where I announced that I was going to do cost-cutting and people clapped, and the simple fact was because for the first time somebody was honest. I said ‘cost is high, it’s in the numbers, I have no option, we’ve got to do this’ and people said ‘we understand.’ And the biggest personal lesson in that for me was just be honest. People are smart. They could see it, they could see the problems. And that worked out quite well. So rest is the numbers for the last three years. 


Click here to read part two, where Vik discusses Cleanaway, technology, and the most important trait to look for in a leader.