For somebody who can speak five languages, including French, German and Swahili, Vivek Lall comes across as a eluctant, almost reticent, conversationalist. But that’s hardly surprising given that the business Lall is in-defence-does not lend itself to flamboyance or cocktail-circuit bragging.
When it emerged early last month that Lall, who had headed aerospace and defence giant Boeing’s defence, space and security operation, was quitting to join Reliance Industries Ltd’s (RIL) yet-to-be announced home land security and aerospace venture, the rumour mills in Delhi’s defence circles started spinning overtime. After all, Lall’s resume at Boeing seemed nothing short of spectacular.
In the last four years that Lall had spearheaded Boeing’s defence business, the American multinational had won orders worth $8 billion in India, including those for C-17 heavy-lift aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF), P-8I multimission maritime aircraft for the Indian Navy and Harpoon missiles for both the IAF and navy.
But there is another twist to the story: soon after Lall’s parting with Boeing, the US aerospace giant lost out to competitors like Dassault Aviation, Eurofighter GmbH and Saab AB for a $11-billion contract to supply IAF 126 fighter jets.
Lall shrugs off questions on this by saying he decided to join RIL following an “invigorating chat” with RIL chairman Mukesh Ambani that left him “deeply inspired”. “The next line of my growth could have been a new assignment at Boeing. But I decided it was time to be part of the Indian industry, and Boeing understood my position. I see enormous scope for growth, and I expect to contribute a little to the burgeoning industry,” says Lall.
For now, Lall’s business card reads: President and CEO, New Venture. All Reliance will say about its new hire is that having a professional like Lall in its fold “would help drive the company’s efforts to partner with global leaders in homeland security to bring latest technologies and innovation to the country”.
While RIL’s plans in the space are yet to be disclosed, industry insiders say Lall, 42, is perhaps the best-and the most well-connected-professional in the country to head a defence business. For the record, India is the world’s biggest importer of arms and is looking to spend nearly $112 billion in the next five years to buy defence equipment ranging from arms to fighter jets.