It’s a long way from Hyderabad, India, to Philadelphia, Pa. — 8,127 miles to be exact — but you wouldn’t’ know that by talking to Pramod Thota, business director, FMC Global Specialty Solutions. He understands the world is getting smaller every day. After all, his own life is a perfect example of the global nature of the pest control marketplace.
While it may seem like only yesterday that the urbane, 38-year-old business executive could be found exploring his grandparent’s modest family farm on the outskirts of India’s fifth largest city, a lot has happened in the intervening years to give Thota an opportunity to lead one of the industry’s most influential companies, a global chemical supplier that has launched a number of iconic brands and played a key role in the success of NPMA Legislative Day.
THE EARLY YEARS. Despite his rather humble beginnings, it’s not too surprising that Pramod Thota ended up in the specialty chemicals industry given the fact his father, Dr. Madan Mohan Thota, worked as a professor of agronomy at the State Agricultural University (State of Telangana), and his mother, Laxmikala, was employed as the State Government’s Joint Director of Agriculture overseeing soil testing, seeds and pesticide regulation. “I grew up around agriculture and pesticides,” Thota remembers. “They were part of my life from the time I was very young.” Despite his love for India and his affection for his grandparents’ agrarian lifestyle, upon graduating with a civil engineering degree from Jawaharial Nehru Technological University in 1999, Thota — who has always exhibited an independent streak — was eager to set out on his own and make his mark on the world.
“I wanted an opportunity to experience a different culture and get a world-class education,” he said, and that meant traveling to the United States where Thota began a 16-year odyssey that took him from the foothills of the Appalachians, where he earned a Master’s Degree in civil engineering from Virginia Tech, to the prestigious halls of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, where he earned his MBA before eventually embarking on a career at Booz & Company (now part of PwC), one of the world’s leading strategy consulting firms.
One look at his impressive resume and it is clear Thota has been on the fast-track to success since leaving his homeland, but Thota’s personal life during that same period also has been marked by rapid changes. He started dating his wife, Deepika, as an undergraduate student. Upon departing for the United States they maintained a long-distance relationship while Thota continued his studies at Virginia Tech and Duke, eventually getting married in 2003 before welcoming three spirited girls to their family, Divya, 6, and twin daughters, Deeya and Deetya, 2.
“Growing up, I was with boys a lot more than girls, so it’s a fascinating experience for me to raise three daughters,” he says. “When I look at my girls, they seem a lot more aware than I was as a young boy.”
While Pramod and Deepika miss their families back home in India, they’re thankful for the opportunity to live in the United States and for Pramod to work at a company that develops products designed to protect the health and property of millions of people around the globe. “As a couple, it’s always been a case of determining what experiences we wanted to have in our lives,” Pramod reflects. “For us it was very simple. First, we wanted to get a world-class education and that’s what the U.S. offers. Schools in the U.S. are top notch, so that was an easy decision for us.
Applying that education in a country that values meritocracy was another motivation for us,” he adds. “The career opportunities in the U.S. are amazing. The sky’s the limit. It’s about working hard and access to opportunities. That’s why we came to the United States originally, and that’s why we continue to live and work here.”
It proved to be a prescient decision for Mark Douglas, the man who recruited Thota to FMC. “We are very pleased to have someone of Pramod Thota’s caliber leading our Global Specialty Solutions business. He has an excellent background in global business development, working with major chemical and energy companies to build successful growth strategies. Pramod is an outstanding leader for FMC and the professional pest control industry.”
PCT magazine recently traveled to the “City of Brotherly Love” to spend time with Thota and learn more about FMC’s Global Specialty Solutions business and his plans for the pest management industry in North America. Excerpts from that 90-minute interview follow.
PCT: What was it like growing up on your grandparents’ farm in India?
Thota: I spent a lot of my summers growing up at my grandparents’ farm in India and I remember it being a special time in my life. Our parents would travel back and forth from Hyderabad, so we would see them every few days. Living on a farm is a very simple existence and for many people in India it represented the only life they would ever know. Consequently, it engenders a very close-knit culture. As a young kid spending time with my grandparents, I don’t recall working very hard on the farm. I think I spent most of my time distracting other people from doing their work!
PCT: Since your father was an academic, what role did education play in your upbringing?
Thota: The one thing we were taught from an early age was the importance of getting a good education. And not just obtaining a degree, but to use our education to travel the world and experience other cultures. Academics were important from the perspective of opening up a broader world to us. It was important to both of my parents that we use our education not only to improve our own family, but to benefit the companies we work for and society.
PCT: Were you a good student?
Thota: It depends on who you ask (laughter). Education in India is very competitive. If you’re measuring by grades, I was a reasonably good student, but was also distracted easily. Fortunately, I attended a school that provided a number of non-academic opportunities as well. I was involved in all sorts of extracurricular activities. I played on a variety of sports teams. My strongest sport was soccer, where I was a midfielder. In cricket, I was a wicket-keeper and opening batsmen.
PCT: What were your goals upon earning your undergraduate degree in engineering from Jawaharial Nehru Technological University?
Thota: I always knew I wanted to travel to new places after college. As an undergrad, I worked in Bangalore for a tech company and I would frequently interact with business people from Asia, Europe and the United States. It made me want to see what the rest of the world had to offer, which led to my decision to attend college in the United States. I wanted to see where my education would take me; it eventually took me to Blacksburg, a small rural town in Virginia that is home to Virginia Tech University. It’s an institution that is global in reach, but feels very local, like you’re part of a broader community. I still think it’s the most beautiful place on earth.
PCT: How would you describe your time at Virginia Tech?
Thota: My academic experience at Virginia Tech was largely focused on research, looking at ways to do things better from an environmental sustainability and remediation perspective. That experience taught me how to solve “real-world” problems, creating a framework for evaluating individual situations; learning how to drive change; and ultimately identifying ways to fix a particular situation so you can get to where you want to go.
PCT: What prompted you to enroll at Duke University to pursue your MBA after working for four years as a project manager for a groundwater and environmental services company?
Thota: After I completed my graduate studies in engineering at Virginia Tech, what was clear to me was that while chemical and energy companies do a lot of good things, they could benefit from a greater emphasis on environmental stewardship and sustainability. And by earning my MBA I could learn about how to run a business, which also appealed to me.
PCT: What did you learn during your time at Booz & Company?
Thota: When I was employed as a consultant my work centered on advising our clients about how to grow their businesses and fix any issues they were facing. One of the things I was focused on during that time was devising “capabilities-driven” strategies designed to drive our clients’ business growth. I would help them identify their core capabilities and leverage those capabilities to their best advantage. I’m bringing that same mindset to my current position. Taking such a strategic approach to any problem reduces the noise. There will be 100 drivers for every business owner to consider, but taking a strategic approach puts a laser focus on the three to five success factors you need to drive your business. Once you drive those core capabilities the other issues gradually fade away and you’re able to execute. And at the end of the day, that’s what business is all about … successful execution.
PCT: What attracted you to FMC?
Thota: In my prior role as a business consultant with Booz & Company, I got to see a lot of companies and corporate cultures up close. And what I saw with FMC is a very lean company, but also a company that was committed to growth. Management also was committed to safety and sustainability and that also appealed to me. I wanted to be with a company that was growing, but was growing in a sustainable and responsible way.
PCT: Why is the issue of sustainability so important to you?
Thota: I believe we all have a responsibility to do business in an ethical and sustainable way. For me personally it comes from looking at my work experiences as an engineer and environmental consultant and seeing the positive impact that well-run companies have on both the environment and society. That’s where my inspiration comes from; when you do good, good things happen. And I think we’re all interested in making this world a better place.
PCT: How are you hoping to make the world a better place through your team’s contributions at FMC?
Thota: We’re developing products that are designed to improve the lives of PMPs and their customers, while integrating sustainability principles into our innovation pipeline. At FMC, we have our own dedicated sustainability group that features representatives from senior management. We also publish an Annual Sustainability Report to track our progress. It’s an important aspect of our professional lives, from senior management down through all levels of the organization. It’s a corporate culture that permeates throughout the organization and it’s a natural fit with my background.
PCT: Can you provide a couple of tangible examples of how FMC’s sustainability initiatives are positively impacting the industry?
Thota: Here are a couple of very simple examples. If you can develop an insecticide that controls a particular pest with less active ingredient, that’s a win for the environment and the PMP, and we’re doing that sort of thing as a company. Second, our strategic alliance with Chr. Hansen, a biological crop protection company, use microorganisms to control insects, so we’re exploring how those technologies can be adapted to the pest management industry.
PCT: Since coming on board as business director last year, how do you think you have impacted the culture at FMC Global Specialty Solutions?
Thota: That’s probably a better question to ask my team. What I’m striving to do currently is two things. First, we exist in business because of our customers. Consequently, we always have to make sure that our customers are our #1 focus. All of our activities and product development efforts should be centered around our customers. Second, I think I’m very open. When it comes to my management style, what you see is what you get. There are no hidden agendas. We’re all working together for the same goal. I view my role as doing whatever I can to clear the hurdles for my team, then stepping back and letting them go to work.
PCT: How would you describe your leadership style?
Thota: I’m not a fan of giving names to different leadership styles. There’s too much jargon used in business. I’m very fortunate to have been given this opportunity by Mark Douglas (president of FMC AgriculturalSolutions that includes FMC Global Specialty Solutions), and I plan to make the most of it, contributing to the marketplace and FMC to the best of my abilities.
PCT: Now that you’re in a leadership position at FMC what are some of the key initiatives you have planned for the pest control industry?
Thota: We think there are some growth opportunities in the vector control, animal health and hygiene markets. Going back to the sustainability discussion, our company has products that can make life better. Take vector control, for instance. Malaria is a significant disease affecting millions of people around the world. We have products that can lessen the impact of this deadly disease. Our plans moving forward will be focused on those two goals — (1) how to grow our business and (2) how to have a positive impact on communities around the world.
PCT: What are your specific plans for FMC’s current product portfolio?
Thota: What we’re doing is taking our current portfolio and re-energizing it with the goal of making our customers’ lives easier. We have a great portfolio of products that are valued by PMPs, as well as some new technology from Cheminova that is currently in our R&D pipeline. As you know, Talstar is our flagship product. It does a good job day in and day out for PMPs. While the ability to improve the performance of Talstar may be limited, we’re going to continue to invest in formulation enhancements and product delivery improvements that will raise the profile of the brand and make it easier and more cost effective to use. We’ve also introduced several new products the last couple of years, the Transport franchise and EndZone franchise, as well as a number of “Dual-Spray Action” (DSA) aerosols. We’re also taking another look at our brand promises and market positioning. For example, the food-handling market will be a big strategic focus for us in 2016. We want to bring our existing portfolio and new products to bear in that segment. In addition, we’ll be investing extensively in new product development the next couple of years. PMPs will continue to see new products introduced to solve their most pressing pest control issues. The Cheminova purchase, which brought more than 60 active ingredients and over 2,300 product registrations to FMC, will help us deliver on that commitment to the pest control industry.
PCT: Are there any plans for new active ingredients to be introduced to the structural pets control industry by FMC?
Thota: There is obviously a trend towards more environmentally-friendly and sustainable chemistries, so I would expect us to continue to explore new active ingredients that fit that profile. Over the years, FMC has been agnostic about where a molecule initially has been discovered. I can say we are excited about our current product pipeline and the pest management industry will see more chemistry coming from us in the years ahead. It’s also important to note that new AIs are great and they will naturally come out of our R&D and molecule-discovery efforts, but enhanced delivery systems and formulation enhancements are also key components of FMC’s innovation pipeline.
PCT: What does the Cheminova acquisition mean for the future of FMC?
Thota: Cheminova brings a global balance to our portfolio. It also brings new technologies that have not been available in the pest control and turf and ornamental (T&O) markets previously. We’re currently prioritizing which new technologies we want to bring to market. PMPs should start seeing something as early as 2016. The new products are not only applicable to the pest control and T&O markets, but also to animal health, vector control and vegetation management. Our team is really energized because we’re going to get our hands on a whole new set of toys to play with and products to bring to market.
PCT: How long do you anticipate the integration will take?
Thota: An integration this size typically takes 24 to 36 months, but we’ve made great progress already so it could be sooner.
PCT: What are FMC’s plans for future industry and trade association involvement at the national level?
Thota: We are incredibly proud of our brand and we want to continue to be perceived as guardians of the industry. And we plan on continuing to do that through our various NPMA activities, including our support of NPMA Legislative Day and NPMA PestWorld. We want to continue to influence the industry in a positive way.
PCT: Is there anything we haven’t asked or addressed that you would like to share with our readers?
Thota: What I would say is that there is an increased sense of urgency for us to be close to our customers. We’ve done that very successfully over the years, but there is always room for improvement, and we’re going to be laser-focused on getting close to our customers so we can better serve their product needs.
FMC Global Specialty Solutions — 2014-Present
Director of Strategy and Development (M&A)
FMC Corporation — 2012-2014
Booz & Company — 2010-2012
Booz & Company — 2008-2010
Booz & Company — 2007
Groundwater and Environmental Services, Inc. — 2002-2006
Virginia Tech — 2000-2002
Wipro Technologies — 1999-2000