Thursday, January 17, 2008

Indian maverick in Nuclear fuel.

When Holtec International Inc. chief executive officer Krishna "Kris" Singh founded his company in 1986 to develop technology to increase the amount of spent fuel rods that could be stored in nuclear power plants, he figured customers would flock to him. He couldn't have been more wrong.

"I am not a natural salesman," Singh, 60, told PhillyInc. "In the early years of Holtec's business, I struggled with it."

Eventually, he overcame his weaknesses as a salesman and convinced the nation's nuclear power industry that Holtec could help it address the problem of storing radioactive spent fuel rods. Sales at the closely held Marlton-based company then took off, as did the profits, which Singh declined to disclose.

The company, which Singh says has an order backlog of $3 billion, has about 300 employees. Holtec says its technology is used in reactors in the United States, Canada, China, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland, South Korea, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and Taiwan.

Last month, Holtec grabbed headlines when it won a $269 million contract to design, license, establish and commission a fuel-storage facility at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine, the 1986 site of the worst accident in the history of nuclear power. The company plans to employ 60 to 80 people in Ukraine, and is looking to buy an office building in the country's capital of Kiev.

Notably, Singh said he has kept $1 from his salary each year, and has his company donate the rest to his charitable foundation. Singh's foundation has donated $20 million to his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania's School of Applied Sciences and Engineering, to create the Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology. It was the largest gift in the history of the engineering school, where he got his doctorate.

Question: How did Holtec get started?

Answer: I wanted to take the necessary risk and develop new things. Nuclear power plants were sitting on the cusp. They didn't have enough storage to keep storing fuel inside the plant. There was no alternative technology to deal with the fuel.

Q: Nuclear power is in vogue again. Have people on Wall Street asked you about going public?

A: We get approached more frequently than I can remember. . . . It's a constant process. We have not seriously entertained going public. Wall Street is a short-term-focused enterprise. The stockholders, they want their returns. They want their returns yesterday.

Q: Did you have any mentors who helped you along?

A: His name is Dr. Burton Paul. [He was Singh's doctoral adviser.] He gave me encouragement every step of the way. . . . I always went back to him. He's always been a source of inspiration. He's a first-rate intellectual.

Q: When you first arrived in America, there weren't nearly as many people from India here as there are today. What was it like for you?

A: I used to get a newspaper once a week from the Indian Embassy. It had a circulation of 10,000. That lasted for about two or three years. As the population grew, they got out of the business of keeping us informed. . . . If I wanted to have an Indian meal, I had to go to New York City.

Q: What prompted you to make the donation to Penn?

A: Today, it's a new century, and I firmly believe that America's future lies in staying ahead in the technology race. The university will play a leading role in that.

Q: How big of a challenge is the Chernobyl contract?

A: It's going to take us altogether five years to finish. . . . It's a substantial undertaking for us. As one of my engineers described here, "It's the mother of all projects." It's going to consume an enormous amount of our resources. Our reputation rides on it.

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