He nearly became a farmer tending to fields in his village in Tamil Nadu. But it was in the country's fertile IT sector that TCS chief N. Chandrasekaran found his true calling.
If destiny had willed otherwise, the man at the helm of India's largest IT company would have been an unknown farmer tilling his land in one corner of Tamil Nadu. This is what Tata Consultancy Services CEO and Managing Director N. Chandrasekaran had set about to do in 1983. “My father, a lawyer, had to manage the family land as he lost his father soon after graduation.” When Chandra — as he is known in TCS and the IT industry — graduated in applied sciences, his father requested his help on the land as his two other sons had taken up other careers.
“I tried my hand, but soon found it wasn't for me,” he recalls. With his father's consent, the youngster pursued higher education, did a Master's in computer applications from REC, Tiruchi, and was picked up by TCS while doing a student project. Here too, life took another interesting twist. He got admission to some American universities but the F1 visa application of the man who has since made countless trips to the US got rejected! “In those days you sometimes got the student visa, and sometimes didn't,” he laughs.
TCS has been his first and only job; joining in 1987, he worked first as a “designer, an architect of systems, then on programme management followed by client and, finally, general management.”
Chandra, who took over as CEO in October 2009 and completes 25 years in TCS next month, mulls over what he thinks have been his special achievements at the helm. “It's a hard question to answer. I've enjoyed every day and not had a dull moment. I've never had a break, never looked elsewhere and didn't engage with anybody who approached me. If you enjoy your work and are passionate about it, you don't need to look elsewhere. I was growing, getting a lot of opportunities… always doing more today than yesterday.”
While TCS has “processes, intellectual property, a huge customer base, a global footprint, a brand and track record,” its biggest strength is its 2.2. lakh employees. Giving them “the space to achieve whatever they want to achieve” is a challenge which was met, says Chandra, by breaking down TCS into 23 small units and sub-units. This gave more people leadership roles and TCS “the advantage of a big company with the agility of a small one. You have to allow people to operate, take risks. We did that and it has worked phenomenally, and we see the results in the marketplace. We've delivered financially very well.”
Chandra brings in here his experience of running marathons. “Until 44 I hadn't even run 10 metres, so to think I could run a marathon of 42 km was inconceivable.” But doing that gave him a sense of achievement, which had a rub-off effect on all he did. At 43, warned of impending diabetes due to family history, he took up running and, after training, ran marathons. Despite 15-25 days of travel every month, he runs every morning at 5 a.m. He soon found that talking about his running was a great way to connect with TCS employees, many of whom he has motivated to run too.
But Chandra's high point was finishing the New York Marathon in 2009. Earlier he had run in Mumbai and Europe, but the New York Marathon “blew me away. There were 45,000 runners of various ages and fitness levels, but we all had one thing in common: a passion for running. The energy I felt from my co-runners and the millions of people with bands and cheering squads that lined the streets and avenues was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Never before had I felt so tired and yet so energised as I did when I crossed the finishing mark in Central Park,” he says.
I ask him to comment on the market perception that under his leadership TCS has emerged from being a “stodgy organisation” to a lean, fitter corporate that has done well in challenging times, beating other iconic Indian IT majors. Does it have to do with his being a comparatively younger CEO at 46?
Chandra smiles: “It is difficult to respond to this question. You do what you have to do. You cannot always worry about the competition. It is always important to benchmark yourself, but as long as you realise what the opportunity is and set the rules for yourself, you can push yourself.” But creating a holistic impact, “while delivering on financial performance, and that too with a fantastic value system, is important. We've been relentless on that.” TCS's “fantastic heritage” — this is its 43rd year — helps too.
And so does agility. Chandra includes the acquisition of the Indian BPO unit of Citibank “at the height of the global financial crisis and volatility in 2008” as a career high. “We were convinced that this (now TCS eServe) was a great buy; it was a rare moment of spotting opportunity in adversity, having the team to quickly execute the plan and bring the entire exercise to a win-win conclusion for both parties.”
The $2.2-billion Diligenta deal this November was another high spot. Five years ago, TCS started investing in service platforms in industries such as life insurance. “We have now built our world-class platform for life and pensions market in the UK and this deal enabled us to scale it up,” he adds.
These include “scaling up and maintaining the growth engine in a company with 2.2 lakh. What does it mean in terms of equipment, training, having a satisfied workforce, getting clients and globally expanding…. these are the challenges. We are now growing in Latin America and our share in emerging markets — earlier 10 per cent — is now 18 per cent and will go up to 25 per cent.”
But this is not because of the Europe meltdown. “We think we will do very well in Europe and the US. Because, the companies there too will partner with us to achieve their game plan. We have to understand their needs and strategic goals,” he adds.