Rajesh Chokhani, COO of Welspun Tubular, looked out over a sea of workers’ faces. From this spot in the company’s Port of Little Rock manufacturing facility, he was 30 hours by air from his native India, give or take, but right now anything resembling the comforts of home sat on the other side of the universe.
Chokhani was about to convene the first town hall meeting of the plant’s hourly workers, expanding a concept he’d introduced among his salaried employees by which he gained valuable input for making decisions. In doing so, he hoped to go a step beyond the suggestion box to real one-on-one dialogue with the people working the equipment, tending the yard and performing maintenance on the sprawling plant. It was an idea not without detractors.
“I was planning on taking this model of town hall to the people who are hourly, and people were calling me mad,” Chokhani recalled. “They said, ‘You don’t know what will happen. You have 150 people standing in one place and you are, as a COO, doing all of what you want to do and then taking open questions, and you don’t know what will happen.’”
Even today, Chokhani shakes his head in disbelief. That was precisely the point, he thought: We don’t know enough. Enough about each other, about the industry, about the bottlenecks and pinch points keeping the massive plant from operating at peak efficiency. In the retelling of that pivotal moment, he recalled words that have become his mantra.
“These are my people,” he said. “If I don’t have courage to stand in front of my people and look into their eyes and talk, then I have not done the right thing. I am not a good leader.”
There are plenty of reasons why the Welspun plant shouldn’t work in Little Rock, and really only one reason why it does: teamwork. More than just a cozy tagline, Welspun’s teamwork is a marvel of leadership, mutual tolerance and understanding bringing together workers of very different cultures and backgrounds and training them to work and think as one, each bringing his or her own skills and abilities to their fullest fruition.
“Whether he or she’s an hourly employee doesn’t really matter; the person should know how they are adding value by playing their own role in the whole big picture of the business,” Chokhani said. “At the same time, most of the time is spent hearing back from them. What do you think should change over here where you work so that you can be more efficient? It really yielded very good results.
“People saw that they can speak, and there is no retaliation and no ramification. They can talk to their leadership, and leadership is acting on it. Once we have made the decision, we communicate it back into the town hall like, ‘Last month, these two or three points came in, and we are solving this in this manner.’”
Town hall meetings may seem a trivial element in a billion-dollar business, but such is today’s manufacturing climate where the difference between big ideas and very big ideas generally turn on very small details. And that, in a nutshell, describes the success of Welspun Tubular, a subsidiary of Welspun Corp Ltd. of India, a global power in the fields of textiles, infrastructure and energy as well as pipes.
The Little Rock plant was one of the company’s first very big ideas in its oil-and-gas pipe business, stepping outside of its native country for a U.S. manufacturing site. And Chokhani, who’d spent a good chunk of his 27 years with the company shepherding the pipe manufacturing side, was tapped to find the perfect site.
“I have been part of the transformational journey of Welspun right from the textile business to the pipe business,” he said. “Those were the days when you were able to export products and you were OK to be a local manufacturer in one country and send the product out.
“In 2006, we decided to advance our footprint beyond India and construct our first international manufacturing facility of the pipe business out of India. I was given that responsibility, solely, to come to the United States, look for the location, and go around the whole country from mid-2006 to late 2006.”
Little Rock ultimately carried the day based on a combination of tangible and intangible benefits. On the tangible side were central proximity, availability of land and multiple transportation options radiating from the Port of Little Rock to bring in raw materials and ship out finished product.
But equally compelling were the intangibles, a consideration that Little Rock won hands-down, Chokhani said.
“I went around the whole country and Little Rock, Arkansas, had the team which was so friendly and so welcoming to the business,” he said. “The way we structured the execution of this, the largest project ever at that time, we had one person — a single point of contact from the chamber of commerce and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission — who was working with me for everything that I need, from the county, city, state and federal agencies.
“My work permit came in five days. Five working days, which is unheard of. Everybody was a phone call away. Ten minutes, and the person was there. They were lining up saying, ‘OK, what else can we do?’ It was a 30-month project, and we wanted to do it in 15 months. And guess what? We finished everything in 18 months. I mean, that was how efficient this team was.”
The plant opened in 2009, staffed overwhelmingly by hand-picked labor imported from India. As time went on and more local workers began to filter into the plant, executive leadership quickly recognized success would rely on more than technical skills.
“We saw that there was a big challenge in how to blend the people from India and how they will blend with the local American workforce,” he said. “In India, we speak the Queen’s English, and over here, we speak the King’s English. Obviously, for the people over here, English is the mother tongue language. In India, English is a first language, but not the mother tongue.
“So, an engineer coming from India trying to train a person here how to operate this equipment meant we went through the misunderstandings like, ‘He said this!’ Well, no, he said this, but he did not mean this, he meant this, you know? That was quite a learning curve for the people that were hired here and the people who came from India.”
Time and experience have smoothed those potholes, and with everyone on the same page, Welspun quickly became an unqualified Arkansas success story. Bolstered by state-of-the-art technology, including manufacturing machines that cost $5 million to $10 million a pop, the plant became a major supplier to, among other clients, companies building the Keystone Pipeline.
“We have an 800-acre piece of property, and out of that, have a lot of room for us to expand,” Chokhani said. “If you look at the first project we finished, our commitment was $125 million, but we invested $160 million. My second expansion — we did it in one year — was another $35 million dollar expansion, creating more jobs.
“On the second-year anniversary, we announced another project, which is a $100 million dollar investment. And so, we have invested over $300 million dollars into the economy as a capital investment. We have about 1,000 associates all together, salaried and hourly, in those positions, and we have been running all days of the week for 365 days, around the year, in three groups.”
The expansions have included unique elements that further stress inclusion and celebrate diversity. Foremost among these is the Shri Radha Madhav Welspun Hindu Temple, which doubles as a community center. Welspun constructs such temples at all of its facility sites, but Little Rock’s was the first the company had built outside of India. Its multipurpose usage has given employees another way to understand each other’s cultural traditions.
“There is no restriction. We have so many devotees who come to worship over there or come for the meditation. It is open for all,” Chokhani said. “We are very proud of the facility, and we do celebrations like Diwali, the Festival of Light. We did that pre-COVID. Our people can come and have lunch and celebrate that New Year festival. Similarly, we do Christmas; we have a Christmas party for our salaried people. We celebrate with our hourly people by giving them gift cards and those kinds of things.”
As with many manufacturers, COVID-19 has had a cooling effect on Welspun’s operations and headcount has been pared back to 600. But whatever the political or economic future holds, he knows the company is ready to pivot as needed, having cracked the code on the often-thornier elements of social and cultural differences and their effect on teamwork.
“One thing that I have built over here is a respect of talent,” he said. “It’s not the nationality, not the religion, not the color, not the race, not the gender, but respect for talent. I don’t care where you have come from on Earth. This is the job; this is the skillset I need to get this job done and you possess that, so I really don’t care who you are. That’s the culture.
“There should not be any barriers when it comes to operating your business. Respect the talent is what the thought is, not anything else.”