Debasish Mohapatra: Navigating global corporate leadership in Kazakhstan’s oil and gas sector

Written by: Ranjani Rajendra

Name: Debasish Mohapatra | Designation: Head of internal corporate audit | Company: Karachaganak Petroleum Operating | Place: Kazakhstan

In a career spanning nearly four decades Debasish Mohapatra has seen his fair share of ups and downs. Yet, this head of internal corporate audit at one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, chose to take it all in his stride, keep calm, and soldier on. His perseverance got noticed by seniors and led to bigger and better opportunities, including his current post in Kazakhstan by his parent company Shell India Markets. As head of internal corporate audit, Debasish has over the last five years undertaken several roles: first heading the project quality division of North Caspian Operating Company (NCOC) before moving on to Karachaganak Petroleum Operating (KPO), both non-operated joint ventures of Shell. 

Hailing from Odisha, Debasish went on to do his mechanical engineering from NIT, Rourkela before obtaining a PG diploma in business management from IIM, Calcutta. He began his professional career with Hindustan Petroleum Corporation (HPCL) where he worked his way up the corporate ladder for over 19 years and went on to land his next role with Shell Global Solutions in Kuala Lumpur as their regional business development manager for the Asia Pacific region. In his 16 years at Shell since, he has essayed various roles and worked to establish projects for their markets across Asia, Middle East, and Russia. “Currently, I am heading the corporate internal audits division for KPO, where Shell has a 30% stake and is a multinational fabric with other global oil and gas majors as partners,” he says. 

Reflecting upon his journey with Shell, he says he was motivated by the company’s strong safety culture. “With my past roles in HPCL, I had all the ammunition in my belt  to drive  quality/CI programs at a global scale in a multicultural environment. Though Kazakhstan is a very different location with its harsh weather conditions, language barriers, professionally I was comfortable to take up the challenge as project quality manager for NCOC in Atyrau when the opportunity arose in 2018.”

Talking about his role in Kazakhstan, Debasish says that while he started off as a quality manager in all of Shell’s oil and gas projects, he was also responsible to develop the competence of local manpower and local contractors. “The challenges along the way were many. Apart from the harsh climate, the social environment was harsh as well given the language barrier, emerging suppliers, contractors, and limited availability of Indian products for an expat. However, it can be a rewarding experience if one finds a way to balance work and life regardless of the challenges,” he says. 

One of the biggest challenges though is having to stay away from his family, as his current assignment requires him to live and work in Uralsk, a small city with a population of close to 100,000. “Expats are discouraged from bringing their families due to lack of medical facilities and international schooling. Larger companies usually have accommodation camps with facilities that include canteen, gym and bar. Typically after a day’s work I either relax or catch up with my family over phone calls. There isn’t much to do socially beyond that. During the summer, autumn and spring time it’s nice to take long walks by the river side. During the winters however, it’s mostly staying indoors either reading or watching something on the television.” He adds that in larger cities such as Atyrau, where he was earlier posted, life was different with family accommodation, a reasonable Indian community and social activities to indulge in. “Besides, the locals are rather friendly. I had several local friends and would often be invited to their homes for various occasions. Kazakhs, like most Asians, value hospitality and respect guests. Even if meal options would be dominated with meat preparations (usually beef and horse meat) they would include fish and chicken for their Indian guests along with fruits and a variety of breads,” he adds. 

As he talks about his long career, he believes it has been his passion to deliver and stay focussed regardless of challenges that helped him sail into the position he currently is in. “During my tenure there were several re-organisations and downturns which put my role in danger. Despite that I continued to put in my best efforts; that must have got the attention of the top management and eventually helped me land this role in Kazakhstan,” he says, adding, “Even today my team in Kazakhstan speaks about my leadership and drive for quality. I’ve also had my Kazakh teammates appreciate me for teaching them valuable lessons in the past four years.” 

With an increased focus on hiring local talent, diversity in the team is less than desirable. “Currently I’m the only expat in a leadership position in my team. Earlier there was a significant expat presence in companies such as TCO, NCOC, and KPO. These days however, there is an increased focus on bringing in local talent. Yet, there is a lot of opportunity in specific high skilled leadership roles,” says the business professional, who is sometimes invited to deliver guest lectures at Indian B-schools and makes it a point to share job openings on his LinkedIn for his followers apart from mentoring aspirants and helping them prep for interviews. 

His ties with his country remain strong, and he enjoys the fact that Bollywood enjoys quite some popularity in Kazakhstan. “People here love Indian movies and many claim to have grown up watching them. At one event I attended in Samarkand, I was almost mobbed by people wanting to take pictures with me since I was wearing a sherwani,” he laughs, adding that he keeps his culture alive through food. “I learnt a lot of cooking during the pandemic and began to share Indian recipes on my Facebook page where I have a lot of Kazakhs in my friend list.” 


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