We met with Ajay Singh, Special Advisor at Japex, Japan after he visited the business school to talk to our current MBA class.
Ajay’s journey began 25 years ago in India where he graduated with a BEngg in mechanical engineering. He started his working career with Thermax, a leading Indian engineering company, selling and marketing industrial plant and equipment. During his time working at Thermax the idea of studying an MBA came to light as he wanted to access a different kind of career and progress to general management roles. After glowing recommendations about the quality of The University of Manchester, Ajay made his decision to move over to the UK and study at Alliance Manchester Business School.
After graduating, Ajay opted to take up the latter of two career opportunities that opened up for him, joining the Tata Administrative Service and Shell's new country entry operation in India. "It was a difficult choice, but it seemed to me that as a start-up in India at the time, Shell might provide a wider range of responsibilities and offer the opportunity to pursue a global career." Over the next few years, he went on to help create Shell's liquefied natural gas (LNG) business in India before moving to Shell's global headquarters in London and the Hague, and working on various business ventures around the world. "Over twenty years, I worked with a wide range of countries from Iraq and Russia to Nigeria."
What is the most interesting aspect of management in the oil and gas industry?
"It is among those few industries where you have no choice as to where your assets are located, you will go and do business wherever nature puts the resources. Maintaining a reliable supply of products and providing stable shareholders returns in the face of colossal risks is something the industry does well. There are not many businesses that routinely invest tens of billions of dollars in individual projects in tough places, over gestation periods of several years, during which time, market circumstances and geopolitics often change dramatically putting these sums at risk. For all the criticism it sometimes attracts, the oil and gas industry has a decent track record of managing the extreme challenges inherent in its business model. Central to this is the quality of leadership and management culture that some of the major oil and gas companies have fostered over the decades."
Ajay is currently working at Japan Petroleum Exploration Company (JAPEX) in Tokyo as the advisor to the chairman and president, a company owned substantially by the government of Japan. This was a radical move for Ajay but is equally as radical for JAPEX, since it was unheard of for a non-Japenese person to join the management of a Japenese energy company.
Has it been challenging to adjust to a Japanese work environment?
"The first year was tough for both sides. I have been fortunate to have been able to shape the role as necessary, within the constraints of the organisation's circumstances. My job has two broad parts, to assist the chairman and president of the company in delivering major projects and deals, this involves participating in decision making, making sure all aspects are properly covered when looking at new investment decisions or major transactions. Following the turbulence in the oil & gas industry over the past few years, there is an increasing focus on strategic decisions, such as financial restructuring and portfolio management. In Japan, especially in the energy industry, owing to its traditional role and orientation, the perception of risk and opportunity varies greatly from elsewhere. Strategic actions sometimes need to be instigated and can take considerably more effort and time than they might in a Western organisation. Part two of my role is to help enhance the company's international business competencies. At times, this entails driving the creation of new capabilities and work practices, for example, organisational changes to make sure legal and commercial input is taken into account as part of all project decisions going forward. I assist in improving overall management performance, part of the effort at changing management culture and strengthening governance. I am part of the company’s effort at strategic transformation.”
What are the key issues affecting your industry?
Working in the oil and gas industry naturally presents some challenges within Ajay's organisation. “For the oil and gas industry, the cost competitiveness of new investment decisions is a key area Oil demand growth is slowing and prices are volatile. At the same time, the pace of the transition to renewable energies is difficult to predict. There is a focus on how to manage the financial health of the business, and a strategy in place to invest more in non-hydrocarbon projects. With some of these new technologies, you can’t be sure investment decisions will pay off; therefore it is vital to make sure that the transition from hydrocarbon to non-hydrocarbon resources happens effectively. This adds another key challenge to the organisation. This transition adds another layer of complexity to the traditional challenge of managing the cyclical nature of the oil and gas business”
How did the MBA help with your career?
During the MBA programme, there are opportunities to work with companies and assist with real-life projects on an internship in the summer months. Ajay took advantage of this whilst studying his MBA and he discusses the doors it opened for him upon completing the programme.
“I achieved a place on a summer internship programme with Shell. Only two students were selected to work with the company and help with a range of projects for some of their clients, and this opportunity was a direct result of studying at Alliance Manchester Business School. This summer internship gave me instant recognition within the Shell system and ultimately led to a referral from Shell UK to Shell India when I was applying for jobs after graduating."
What sector specific or transferable skills did you gain on the MBA and are you still using them today?
"I found the structured introduction to marketing theory and marketing in practice extremely beneficial, as this was something I had never been exposed to before. I also did a module on industrial marketing which directly helped my first job at Shell. I still use academic elements of the course in my day-to-day job: strategic management, which taught me the ability to think strategically, and a finance module which included financial analysis, financial management, value chain cost analysis, reading balance sheets and cash flow accounts.
The overall mental training and discipline that comes from studying the MBA definitely echo in my job twenty-five years later. Above all, it is the ability to see the big picture and think strategically. You don’t realise when studying how you will directly use the skills, but I do see on reflection how the MBA transfers daily to my job. The MBA trains you to think in a different way and you recognise certain things in a business situation that you otherwise might not.
What is your favourite memory of Manchester?
The Manchester MBA programme has a truly international student body that you interact and work in groups with on various projects, which has really aided my global career. The collaboration with other cultures and emphasis on teamwork helped with what came next in the world of work. We had over thirty nationalities on the course, for me it was the first time I had been exposed to such diversity. Influencing people being key to success in any organisation, this collaboration with other cultures and emphasis on teamwork during the MBA helped with what came next in the world of work."
Alliance Manchester Business School sits on the doorstep of a vibrant city. We asked Ajay other than studying the MBA what were his favourite memories of living in Manchester? Ajay mentioned how he enjoyed the social scene of the MBA, going to the pubs with his classmates to unwind after a full day of studying. Surrounding Manchester there are also many picturesque towns that are easily accessible from the city centre. Ajay enjoyed travelling in the summer months to National Parks like the Peak District and Lake District, to escape the bustling city life for the green countryside.
What advice would you give anyone considering an MBA?
Ajay believes the MBA is a great qualification for those with the ambition to grow to management type roles, “Be clear in your mind as to why you want to study the MBA. If you are thinking about studying as a way of accessing a new career then I would definitely encourage going for it. Studying the MBA is a massive commitment, in terms of the time it takes, the break from your career and also financially. I do believe that clarity is crucial and having everything in place, both financially and mentally, before studying is so important. For me, having my family on board with the idea of studying an MBA also provided motivation and encouragement in the decision process. Overall, studying the MBA and choosing to work in the business sector were my best life decisions.”