One of the youngest MDs of the Tata Group on why the Indian IT story is not over yet and what it takes to push the envelope in personal and professional life write Shyamal Majumdar and Shivani Shinde.
Natarajan Chandrasekaran is drawing circles on the table mat — his fingers moving deftly from US to Europe, then several emerging nations where the Indian IT flag is still flying high. The nails suddenly dig deep into two or three places to drive home the message that the IT story is at an inflection point
The circles are in response to our query whether the fog over the global economic climate has begun hurting the IT services growth story. “The opportunity that we have ahead of us is much more than what we have seen in the past. Big global corporations are looking at their strategies, changing their cost structure, looking at newer geographies and their technology spend is based on achieving these things. And, they are looking at these spends in a systematic and much more certain manner than before,” Chandra, as he is popularly known, says as he shifts the cutlery restlessly.
We are at Souk, Taj’s rooftop restaurant. The breathtaking view of Mumbai harbour speckled with boats of all shapes and sizes made the wait (a long one, because our guest was caught up in an unscheduled meeting) bearable. The managing director and CEO of Tata Consultancy Services reassures us that he will make up for the lost time because he has postponed all afternoon meetings till our lunch is over.
Running against time is an art that one of the youngest MDs of the Tata Group has practiced almost to perfection. Running marathons is evidence of that, but not the only one. What started as mild jogging to beat a family history of diabetes has developed into a passion for taking part in marathons around the globe. “If it’s 5 am, I have to run unless, of course, I am on a flight,” he says, adding that he has to travel for at least 15 days a month.
Running marathons, he says, has taught him one vital thing: that there are no short-cuts in life. What matters is one’s willingness to improve constantly, and he is, to coin a term, running the talk. Since 2009, when he took over the top job from his guru, S Ramadorai, several of his marquee domestic competitors have caught a severe cold owing to the chill in the global economic climate, but TCS has seen its revenues zoom from $6 billion to over $10 billion. The market value of the firm has more than doubled in the past three years and TCS is now playing almost a daily game of hide and seek with Reliance Industries for the position of the country’s most valuable firm.
Chandra opts for the mezze buffet, which he explains is a delicious selection of West Asian starters, comprising the traditional hummus, moutabel, tabbouleh, falafel, lamb kibbeh, rocca salad, garithes salates, chicken with hummus, muhammara and labneh bi zayt. Most of it is Greek to us, but we fall for his persuasion. He is a regular at Souk, and quickly exposes our ignorance when we ask what makes a hardcore vegetarian like him choose a restaurant that is known more for its non-vegetarian Mediterranean cuisine. He proceeds to give us a long list of his favourite Lebanese and West Asian vegetarian dishes. The only place he was apprehensive of visiting was China after he had seen one of his friends – a regular visitor to that country – turning from being vegetarian into an eater of everything that moves. But his worries were over once one of his ex-colleagues introduced him to some of the finest vegetarian eateries in China.
The same success has, however, eluded him in that country as far as business is concerned. Though TCS has centres in six cities in China, the bulk of the company’s business come from Asian operations of foreign multinationals rather than domestic Chinese companies. Chief among the reasons are government regulations that make it difficult to transfer employees from city to city for different projects and the low price points at which some of the local companies operate. Chandra admits China has been slow, but says TCS still has a lot of ambition to grow in that country. “We have 3,000 people in China, which is way too small for a country of that size, but it’s in our interest to grow to may be 20,000 as fast as we can,” he says.
Life in other countries, however, has been far smoother and Chandra gives us glimpses of how he has made the elephant dance. We tell him an old joke in TCS from when he was the chief operating officer: that the full form of the company actually was “Till Chandra Sees”. He is amused, but dismissive, since the first thing he has done after taking over as the CEO is restructuring the company into 23 business units — each having their own profit and loss, CEO, HR department and business goals. Only eight senior executives report to him directly. “You just can’t micro-manage a company that has 238,000 staffers and operates in 90 countries. The power and agility of such a big company can be harnessed only when you have empowered people who can work under broad strategic directions,” Chandra says, polishing off the falafel. We stick to the delicious lamb kibbeh.
He seems determined to prove that our joke is misplaced. That leads to a long explanation about the company’s various HR initiatives, including the wellness programmes, which includes one called “Fit for Life”. Not surprisingly, the programme is about running, though Chandra says it’s actually about team building. Those who join the programme need to form groups, each of whom has to commit to achieving a target of a certain number of kilometres. For the first year, TCS has put a target of running for 1.5 million km, but it’s proving to be a too easy a target as 80,000 km have already been achieved within a month of its launch. A proud Chandra shows several text messages from colleagues saying how Fit for Life has changed their lives.
The main course is over, and Chandra endorses the steward’s recommendation of mint tea. Chandra says he has already laid the foundation for the next phase of growth. His early bets have been on small and medium enterprises, platform offerings and products. To make sure this effort ends up as more than just tech jargon, he will start reporting the growth momentum of these businesses from the first quarter of 2013-14. “We are just one per cent of the industry; we have a lot of headroom to grow. I have to get the non-linear part [a model of growing the business without adding headcount] to grow faster,” he says.
Typically, TCS has been able to take any new business to $1 billion revenue within a time span of three to four years, but that time window, says Chandra, is getting shorter, and the pace of scaling up is the next challenge.
Chandra says he adores Rahul Dravid (TCS is the sponsor of Rajasthan Royals, the team Dravid captains) not only for the cricketer’s solid defence, which has earned him the nickname The Wall, but more for his passion to add value to the team. “Remember he had willingly taken up the wicket keeper’s position for a long time in the Indian one-day team so that he could contribute more. That’s what pushing the envelope is all about,” Chandra says.
TCS, he says, has always rewarded people who are willing to push the envelope. Chandra was the first person with a masters in computer applications (MCA) to be hired by TCS, even though the MCA was considered a poor cousin to a formal engineering degree those days. “I never had to apply for a job. The person who finally hired me said ‘you are the test case. If you do well in the college project, we will hire you and more MCAs’,” says Chandra, who has continued that tradition after moving into the corner office.
His father wanted him to help with the farming business after he had completed his BSc in Applied Sciences from the Coimbatore Institute of Technology, but Chandra realised within four months that he didn’t want to do this for the rest of his life even though it was highly lucrative. He would have been a chartered accountant, had it not been for the government’s decision to introduce the MCA degree course in 1983.
As we walk out of Souk, Chandra says he is looking forward to a long-pending family break where he will trek the Stok-Kangri, one of the highest mountains in the Stok Range of the Himalayas in the Ladakh region. He says he used to do small treks earlier with his wife Lalitha and son Pranav. “But it’s time for something bigger now,” he says.
Pushing the envelope is certainly not restricted to the TCS MD’s professional life.