Harvard Business School and PPL

Author: Nadeem M Qureshi

Doom and gloom seems to be the order of the day. Soaring inflation and unemployment have taken a toll on the country’s poor. The media, both local and international, has nothing positive to say about Pakistan.

In these dark times one is desperate for a feel good story that shows Pakistan in a different light; shows us as a nation that can. As providence would have it there is a such a story. It concerns one of our largest oil and gas exploration companies – Pakistan Petroleum Limited or PPL.

Recently the Harvard Business School (HBS) has published a case study entitled “Leading Transformative Change at PPL”. This is how the HBS website describes it: “The case describes the transformation journey at Pakistan Petroleum Limited (PPL) orchestrated by a newly appointed MD/CEO, Wamiq Bokhari, who was recruited from outside the organisation. The case highlights the challenges faced by a leader in a highly bureaucratic organisation which had always had home-grown leaders. Bokhari began the transformation process within a few weeks of joining the company and reflected on the performance of the organisation one year into his three-year tenure.”

While the case was published by HBS in December 2018. The story actually begins in 2014. In September of that year a new board of professionals was appointed at PPL. The Chairman of the board was Waqar Malik, who had had a distinguished career in the private sector serving as CEO of ICI and then Chairman of Akzo Nobel Pakistan. The board was given the mandate, and perhaps more importantly, the freedom to appoint a new managing director based entirely on merit. This was especially unusual given that PPL is a public sector company.

The managers of our economy must understand that the country will not progress until we learn to attract and retain the immense talent in the Pakistani diaspora

The board advertised the post and then interviewed several people from inside and outside the company. It then appointed Wamiq Bokhari as the new MD. He was a petroleum engineer who had spent his career working at major international oil companies such as Arco (later acquired by British Petroleum) and ENI – the Italian oil and gas giant. His most recent job before he came to PPL was with the international arm of the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation where he was responsible for the company’s operations in Canada, Pakistan and all of the South East Asia region excluding China and the Philippines.

He was the first outsider to head PPL. And within a few weeks after taking the job he realized that the company had been living off the proceeds of its most important asset – the Sui Gas Field – for most of its history. Sui, discovered in 1952, was a prolific discovery. Revenue generated simply by selling gas from the field generated enormous profits for PPL for decades. But by the time Bokhari arrived Sui reserves were starting to run out. It became clear to him that if the company did not work at discovering new reserves urgently it would eventually fold as its old fields dried up.

Bokhari brought to the board his plans for transformation which were quickly approved. And so began the process of transforming PPL. As it turns out it was not only the board that was interested in what Bokhari was doing. His work caught the attention of two professors at Pakistan’s premier business school – LUMS.

Professor Anwar Khurshid and Assistant Professor Muhammad Adeel Zaffar invited Bokhari to LUMS to talk to them and their students about what he was doing. They were so interested and intrigued by what was happening that they got approval to develop a case study to use as teaching material for LUMS business school students. The case study is primarily authored by Dr Zaffar, who interviewed many members of PPL staff while developing it. And it is being taught at LUMS for several years. Last year – 2018 – it caught the attention of the Harvard Business School. The rest, as they say, is history.

These are the learning objectives of the case study as described on the HBS website: “This case will teach MBA or executive students in: 1. Initiating long-term systemic change (major reform): how a new CEO takes hold, what he does first. 2. Leadership skills for major comprehensive change efforts. 3. Elements of systemic change. 4. Tactics for coping with resistance to change, both within an organisation, and with unsupportive external stakeholders. 5. Sustaining and diffusing change: what makes change stick, how it can be institutionalised. 6. Change management: roles of people in three constituencies of change management.”

As a former student at HBS, I know that case studies do not finish after they are written. The professors who author them follow the progress of the company during the term of the change agent, in this case Bokhari, and after he leaves. They do this by looking at public information about the company such as annual reports and press releases to the stock exchange. They want to know whether or not the change agent succeeded in his objectives. Did results improve? Did change reflect in the financial performance? Did it result in new discoveries – the ultimate measure of success for an oil and gas company? And, did the changes stick – especially after the change agent left the company?

So every subsequent year, when the case study is taught, the authors provide a supplementary note or update to students on what has happened at the company since the original change agent initiated the transformation.

I think we, as a nation, and specifically LUMS, can take pride that a case developed by them of a Pakistani public sector company has been picked up and published by one of the best known business schools in the world.

Bokhari left in June 2018 at the end of the financial year. This is what PPL’s own annual report, published long after Bokhari left, had to say about his final year as MD: “In fact, during the year 2017-18, the Company has posted the second highest profit in its history.” This is especially amazing because these results were achieved when PPL’s main assets, discovered decades ago, are close to depletion.

Finally, it is important to note that Bokhari left a high profile international assignment, and took a pay cut to join PPL because he felt he had a patriotic duty to serve his country. Why then did he leave just as the transformation he engineered, by the company’s own admission, was starting to deliver spectacular results?

The answer is important because it goes beyond just this one man. The managers of our economy must understand, at the highest level – really the level of the Prime Minister, that the country will not progress until we learn to attract and retain the immense talent that is present in the Pakistani diaspora.

The writer is chairman of Mustaqbil Pakistan. He has studied at the MIT and the Harvard Business School

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