The news that James John Britto, a student from Chennai, is the all-India topper in the gruelling Chartered Accountancy exam for 2015, triggered a wave of nostalgia in Prof Vijay Govindarajan, who in 1972, was awarded the President’s Gold Medal for standing first in the CA exam. He was perhaps the first from Tamil Nadu, to receive a gold medal.

Sixty-six-year-old Prof Govindrajan, known popularly as VG, is the Coxe Distinguished Professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, a Marvin Bower Fellow at Harvard Business School, a best-selling author, and also an expert on strategy and innovation.

The journey

But it’s been a long road to distinction in the US from Chidambaram, where VG grew up and studied, in Annamalai University. He recalls his euphoric moment: “I got gold in all the subjects. The only gold medal I missed that year was the one awarded to the best female student of the year!”

VG trained as an article clerk in a small CA firm in Tamil Nadu and was the topper in the CA inter exam, which is a halfway mark to be a full-fledged chartered accountant.

The two-year management trainee programme at DCM (erstwhile Delhi Cloth Mills) in the early 1970s was a coveted and prestigious one. As it did every year, DCM asked the CA institute to send the toppers’ names for the interviews. Due to a mistake on the institute’s part, a list of CA Inter toppers was sent to DCM.

And so, VG was called for the interview. Till then, he hadn’t stepped out of Chennai. “I was academically brilliant, but I was like a frog in the well. I had no exposure to anything,” he recalls. Nevertheless, he jumped at the chance to travel to Delhi.

Interviewed by the brothers who headed DCM then, Bharat Ram and Charath Ram, he was offered a job immediately on seeing his scores. “I then asked for three months leave and they said, ‘Impossible! Why do you want it?’ I said to write my CA finals. They then had an apoplectic fit and blasted the HR manager, asking how an Inter candidate made it to the interview,” recalls VG with a chuckle.

But the chief accountant of DCM said there was a provision in the CA articleship guidelines, where one-and-a-half years could be served in the industry instead of in a CA firm. So, the job was offered to VG.

But he still stuck to his guns that he wanted three months leave to write his finals. DCM refused, so VG headed back to Chennai, regretful of passing up a wonderful job opportunity. “I got off the train and headed home in West Mambalam, where my dad was waiting with a telegram from DCM. It read: ‘Three months leave granted, come and join’.”

Eye opening experience

The stint at DCM as a management trainee was an eye-opener for VG. “Though I was supposed to be an accounts whiz, I found the smart guys from IIMs knew more about accounting than I did. I then resolved to do my MBA,” he says. Working with the likes of Shiv Nadar, also a trainee then and who was to later found HCL, was a stimulating experience.

But crack the CA finals he did. The Delhi HQ of the CA Institute was the only place where the CA results were pasted on the board before it appeared in the papers the next day. VG headed there on D-day. “There was a huge crowd of candidates and I couldn’t see the board. I recall my roll number was 12 and I asked some of the guys in front to see if I had qualified. Suddenly, it was like the parting of the sea for Moses, when all of them let me up to the board as they wanted to see the guy who topped the CA exam that year,” recalls VG with a broad grin. He doesn’t remember his marks, but recalls the pass percentage being even less than six per cent that year. “It was a really tough exam,” he says.

On Britto topping the CA finals this year, VG says, “It was such a pleasant surprise to see a Chennai lad bagging the Gold Medal this year. These youngsters are what give me hope about India. This is going to be India’s century. These youngsters will make the dream come true.”

After he qualified as a CA with flying colours, VG didn’t stick with DCM. He got his admission to the Harvard Business School for his MBA, and left to study in the US. He passed his MBA with distinction and completed his doctorate as well from HBS, for which he received an award for best thesis proposal.

After a short teaching stint at IIM-A, VG returned to the US to achieve fame and distinction as an academic, author and innovation consultant.