In the Cummins boardroom in Darlington, Mike Hughes meets one of the company’s most influential figures, Srikanth Padmanabhan, President of the Engine Business.


It’s quite telling that - even more than 30 year ago - it was the principles under which Cummins Inc. was run that persuaded young graduate Srikanth Padmanabhan to join them and not head for engineering rival Ford.

He was bright and skilled and had two offers on the table from companies that had spotted how important this young man could be for their future plans. But Ford wanted him to work as a contractor for three years and then they should have a role for him… and Cummins just wanted him on board as soon as possible, so offered to sponsor him for his Green Card.

“Unbeknownst to me, diversity was a core value of this company, so they had already made a decision to say that they will sponsor no matter where you are in the world; as long as you're good, they would make sure that you can work,” Srikanth tells me.

Enjoy a full subscriber experience with The Echo

“I moved into operations and pretty soon realised there were quite a few people smarter than me, but my communication and leadership skills were reasonably okay.”

I’m pretty sure they were more than that. His understanding of communication and leadership has defined his 32 years at Cummins and has helped give this vast global giant the heart and soul that has made so many thousands of people walk up to their doors just like he did.

They saw something different - an approach, a manner, a respect and – most of all – a career path that felt like it would be supported and encouraged from Day One.

The skills Srikanth brought to the company were appreciated early on by one of his first bosses, Jim Lyons, who would eventually rise to become Vice President. Jim saw that this new guy was a problem-solver.

The Northern Echo: Srikanth PadmanabhanSrikanth Padmanabhan

“Jim told me there were three kinds of jobs. There is one where it’s a start-up. There's one where you don't mess it up, because it is doing really well and your job is to just protect it. And then there is the third, where it is completely messed up, and you need to turn it around. I said I would take option three.

“That's how I ended up being a foreman on one of the lines that was just completely messed up.”

He turned the line around, and with his first Cummins success under his belt, Srikanth was then in demand, moving from Columbus, Indiana, to Cookeville, Tennessee, to become a plant manager. Then, a move to Mexico followed by Stamford, where he ran the Lincolnshire alternator business.

“What happened then, right at the time when we were really doing well, is somebody tapped me on the shoulder again,” he says.

“I moved back to the US to run the emissions business, and then eventually, I came full circle and became the president of the engine business.”

It’s quite a journey that brings him here to one of the most vital Cummins sites. Globally, the group is a $28 billion production giant and the engine business is about $11 billion of that, making 1.5 million engines around the world in 2021, making it the largest independent engine manufacturer on the planet, employing around 70,000 people.

The Northern Echo: Srikanth PadmanabhanSrikanth Padmanabhan

The Darlington factory opened in 1965, originally building the Small Vee family of V6 and V8 diesel engines. In 1985, production switched to Cummins’ Mid-Range engines following an upgrade costing £13.5 million. The Mid-Range engines are the B and C Series products, the forerunners of the ultra-clean low emission products manufactured today. Spanning a range of 75 to 430 hp, they power a wide range of truck, bus, construction, agriculture, material handling, military, marine and power generation applications around the world.

He tells me: “We've invested so much here, both on the technical operation side of things as well as on the shop floor. In the last four years, these folks have done a terrific job in telling us this is an important part of our network of factories=.

“We have brought in a lot of new business as well, which was not the case even five, six or seven years ago, and outside in the community, the mayor and others are working towards making this region more competitive, which is a good feeling.

“In our business, just as in this region, growth is always good. Shrinkage is not good.”

But among all those hugely impressive stats, decades of R&D, miles of hoses, oceans of red paint and tumultuous global markets, Srikanth needs to be among people. For him, the human touch is about potential for them and for the company he helps to drive. Building a team of people you know can succeed, who understand what is at stake, and who want to be part of it, is a powerful combination.

He’s known as “Rainman” because he can retain so much information about his many colleagues, but it runs deeper than that.

The Northern Echo: Srikanth PadmanabhanSrikanth Padmanabhan

“Human connection is hugely important and I derive energy from it. It’s important for me to touch and feel how the business is working, which is one of the reasons why I encourage people to come to the office, even at least once a week in this Zoom world.“We had a key leaders retreat recently for the engine business, and more than the content that we shared, what people were happy with was just simple connection; we ended up talking about stuff about your daughter or your son or whatever else matters to each of us.

“It is not always outcomes that matter; it is the impact that you have on others which is as important as what you're trying to accomplish.

“My life's purpose at this time is about guiding teams to exceed what we thought was possible. This is something that Cummins has spent a lot of time in the last ten years talking about - what are those behaviours of leadership that matter? How are you going to be self-aware of those behaviours? And what are you doing about it?

“For me, the most important thing we have, is our leadership, work and our values. The values have always been in our DNA, whether it is integrity, diversity, corporate responsibility or caring.

“One thing we worry about is the burnout that could happen in the last three years because of supply chain constraints, because of health-related concerns, because of people having to take care of their own family and others that have been going through lots of tough stuff.

“This idea of work-life integration is important, but we've been asking more and more of our people, which we worry about. Sometimes the pressures we have don’t seem to stop.

The Northern Echo: Srikanth PadmanabhanSrikanth Padmanabhan

“Sometimes, you need to just say, ‘from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, I am not going to check my email.’ So, if I have to send something out of hours, I try to queue it, so that if I write it up on Sunday, it goes on Monday morning.

What a man to have on your top team – this isn’t a press release sort of day, it’s a one-person glimpse into how Cummins operates and the importance placed on the human side of a tech-led business.

Srikanth’s return to Darlington has refreshed his vision for the business, and he is happy with what he has found: “We have been on a tear here in Darlington, in terms of the growth that we've seen here. What we are doing this year will be record volumes and we're starting to get some work from other areas and so Darlington is becoming a good place to be in terms of manufacturing and jobs.

“The key now is, how do we transition during this drive to net zero ? Climate change is the existential crises of our times, and decarbonisation is our method to go after it. We call our strategy Destination Zero.

“This transition is not a light switch event; it is going to take decades before all this is sorted out, because it's not just the transportation and mobility sector, but it's the industrial sector as well, which means you need net zero steel production, you need to do fertiliser, which is the engine of food production, you need to do petrochemicals, all the plastics that you have, you need to get down to net zero as well.

“Doing that is going to take some time, applying zero emissions technology where it matters. But in between, there's going to be a whole range of products to improve the efficiency of existing engines using low carbon fuels like natural gas, renewable natural gas, or biofuels, zero carbon fuels like hydrogen, and then hybrids. You have to have more options because none of us know exactly how it's going to pan out.”

That concern about the future comes from the heart. His 21-year-old daughter Megna will live in an environment he helps create, and that is a lot of pressure for any dad.

Read next:

Vaulkhard Group buys Town Wall and Bridge Tavern pubs in Newcastle

Government minister to visit North East for talks on growing tech economy

New Nissan academy launched - with guaranteed apprenticeship for students

He tells me: “The thing that petrifies me is that if she comes to me in 20 years time, and says ‘what did you do to help the world decarbonise?’ What if we didn't do enough? That's the worry that I have not just for her, but for the next generation if they grow up to say ‘You guys didn't do what you were supposed to do’.

“That, to me, is the obligation we have, and it is all about leadership - the stewardship of assets and lives. Your job is to make it better than how you found it.”

Visits from the boss can be dreaded, but with such commitment in his DNA, you get the feeling this one puts a smile on people’s faces. That sort of relationship builds confidence in leadership, engagement across the business and a feeling that they are all in the same battle together.

Those stats, that R&D, those miles of hoses, oceans of red paint….. and Srikanth, is a good place to be.