May 30, 2020
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Lead Beacons Atop The Temple

If there have been ten outstanding CEOs who lent a special shine to corporate India, here is my take. Each an institution in their right. I expect more icons to emerge in the future.

Lead Beacons Atop The Temple
It’s Out There
Jury members (from right) Sanjaya Baru, Omkar Goswami, R. Jagannathan; with Outlook Editor-­in-Chief Rajesh Ramachandran and colleagues Arindam Mukherjee, Lola Nayar and Arushi Bedi
Photograph by Jitender Gupta
Lead Beacons Atop The Temple

Well, it is virtually impossible to write about each of the 50 CEOs in the list in the course of a relatively short article, for it would do grave injustice to these outstanding people who have played such key roles in creating, growing and strengthening the senews of corporate India. Inst­ead, I have chosen to discuss the contribu­tions of 10, of whom two are a father-son duo.

India's 50 Greatest CEO's Ever - Jury Session 
Video by Sanjay Rawat; Edited by Suraj Wadhwa

One was an outstanding CEO of public sector enterprises. Another created global awareness of, and respect for, the software and IT revolution out of India. Three are bankers: one who grew a housing finance company to heights undreamed of by his uncle, the founder; another who completely re-jigged the institution that he ran from being a staid term lending institution to a dynamic all-India private sector bank; and the third who created the most profitable and undoubtedly the most cleverly managed bank in the country. The sixth created an ever-expanding airline that grabbed eyeballs, passengers, revenues and is still going strong. The seventh started as a manufacturer of telephones and created the largest mobile telecom enterprise in India. The eighth completely reconstituted the idea of newspapers and, in the process, crea­ted a cross-selling brand and revenue collecting engine that was beyond the realms of thought of his father and grandfather. The ninth, the fat­her, created a textile giant with the beginnings of backward integration; and the tenth, his son, expanded that to everything that matters in the hydrocarbon chain, doing so with speed, execution excellence and immense profitability.

V. Krishnamurthy (VK), a soft-spoken lad from Thanjavur, joined as a trainee engineer with the Madras Electricity Board in 1945. Great capability, hard work and an innate insti­nct of when to he heard, where and by whom, soon led him to be a young research officer at the then all-powerful Planning Commission and thence to Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited where, by the early 1970s, he became the CEO. After a stint as the youngest technocrat industry secretary under both George Fernandes and Indira Gandhi, VK took over as the vice-chairman and then chairman of Maruti, where he created the auto ancillary chain that India is now so famous for. A close confidante of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, in 1985, VK was app­ointed as the chairman of the Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL), a position he held up to 1990. Another short stint in the Planning Commission followed as a member, after which VK was implicated in a financial scam leading to CBI raids and other indignities. While nothing was proved and VK remai­ned ever so close to Sonia Gandhi, he was never the same again. I am forever grateful to this technocrat, for, who­ as the SAIL chairman would award a large, two-year-long product and sales optimisation project across all the SAIL plants to three young and unknown faculty members of the Ind­ian Statistical Institute, as he did in 1987? To me, he has always been a technocrat par exce­llence and an outstanding public-sector CEO who knew how to rally his troops while keeping the ministries in their comfort zones.

One of NR’s aphorisms ran thus: The best pillow for sleeping is a clean conscience. Murthy is one of a kind.

Nagavara Ramarao Narayana Murthy, the son of a lower middle-class school teacher, born five days after India’s independence, borrowed Rs 10,000 from his wife Sudha and, along with six other colleagues from Patni Computers, star­ted a company called Infosys in 1981. In October 2014, when he finally left after his second stint as the chairman of the company, Infosys’ revenues were in excess of Rs 50,000 crore with a consolidated net profit margin of over 21 per cent. In the process, Murthy created a spectacular company that was the toast of India: with the best corporate governance and disclosure standards of the country; outstanding campuses and dev­elopment centres across India and the rest of the world; stock options that made millionaires out of Infoscions big and small; superb results; great dividends; and much more. Though of late in the limelight protesting about some of the recent practices of Infosys, one thing can’t be wished away: the man cares for Infosys like none other. Nor can his many aphorisms of which let me share three: ‘Profits are opinions; cash in bank is a fact’; ‘How can you have a great company with dirty toilets?’; and ‘The best pillow for sleeping is a clean conscience’.

H.T. Parekh is universally recognised as a great man. His cleverest decision was to persu­ade his high-flying corporate nephew to quit Chase Manhattan Bank and help grow a fledgling fin­ance company in India that had started giving loans to India’s middle class to purchase homes. By any yardstick, his nephew, Deepak Parekh, has excelled. With loans of over Rs 3,30,000 crore, HDFC has financed 57 lakh homes; and with over 18 lakh on deposit acc­ounts, it’s the largest mobiliser of public dep­o­sits outside the banking system. Deepak led this growth. In 2015-16, HDFC loaned over Rs 291,500 crore, to earn a Rs 31,000 crore gross income and post-tax profits exceeding Rs 7,000 crore. A darling of the stock market, HDFC’s raison d’etre is that every dream must find a home. That these dreams are continuing to do so has much to do with the leadership, vision and teams created by Deepak Parekh.

Illustrations by Sajith Kumar

A story goes as follows. When ICICI was still an all-India term lending financial institution, the chief, Narayan Vaghul, asked a younger manager what he would do to restructure the organisation and set it on a path of rapid growth. The man came up with an audacious plan to create a bank. Things didn’t happen then, and the man left in 1988 to join the Asian Development Bank and then an Indonesian company. When the opportunity of a bank licence came up in 1996, this young man called Kundapur Vaman (KV) Kamath was recalled by Vaghul to be the managing director and CEO. The rest is hist­ory. Between 1996 and 2011, KV transformed a sleepy term-lending institution to a dynamic private-sector bank with branches all over India, a new logo, hitherto unseen speed of execution—and created a virtual universal bank led by him and a core team including some of the most powerful and ‘dying to prove’ women leaders of India. The rule was simple: if you had a plan, it had better be fully executable in 90 days. Or else it was no plan at all. I have one more thing to say about KV. He and Deepak Parekh have been the two best board chairmen that I have had the privilege to serve as an independent director.

K.V. Kamath and Deepak Parekh have been two best board heads to whom I’ve served as an independent director.

The best decisions that Deepak Parekh took when HDFC got the license to start a bank in 1994 was to grab Aditya Puri, who was then the CEO of Citibank in Malaysia. It was a mass­ive slog: hire people, work out of a small off­ice, create an IT infrastructure for banking and start to painstakingly build the branches. Twenty-­two years later, the results are for all to see. The most highly valued bank in India; a virtua­lly ubiquitous branch network throughout the country; consolidated operating profits of Rs 22,472 crore in 2015-16 and post-tax profit of Rs 12,817 crore; the lowest ratio of non-performing loans compared to other banks in the country; and conscious, ind­eed profitable, decision to focus on all forms of circulating capital and avoid getting into the messy business of giving term loans. HDFC Bank is the darling of the bourse. And Aditya Puri with his team has made it so, by focusing on performance day after day. For such a hard driving man, Puri has three outstanding work practices: he never works late, and finis­hes all his tasks by 5.30 pm to ret­urn home to the family; he never works on weekends and, when­ever possible, hooks off to his Lonavala farm house; and he doesn’t carry a mobile.

The next in my list is an ultra-low key person, loathe to be in the public eye. His father used to run a travel agency which fell upon hard times and prompted the son, Rahul Bhatia, to leave Canada, return to India and help in the business. Rahul established InterGlobe Enterprises in 1989 dealing in air transport management, and then developed number of travel and hospitality related businesses as well. The airline bug was in him; his hero was Herb Kelleher who reinvented air travel in the US with Southwest Airlines; and he wanted to do the same in India. He persuaded Rakesh Gangwal of United Airlines to join in the new venture. Apparently, Gangwal told Rahul and his father, ‘Look, you guys decide how much money you want to lose. I will work with you. I don’t want any part of this business. I will give you all my knowledge or whatever experience I have. But once you have lost that money, shake hands and remain friends’. Soon, Ind­iGo Airlines was formed. It placed a firm order for 100 Airbus A320-200 aircraft in 2005; took delivery of its first Airbus in July next year; and started operations the following month. The rest is history.

Samir Jain came from publishing. His grandfather, a son-in-law of Ramkrishna Dalmia, had taken control of Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd, which passed on to his father and then to him and his brother. What Jain has done to the once-staid old lady of Bori Bunder is amazing. Over the years, he has created an incredible, inter-­locking revenue and profit-maximising brand, spanning over multiple national newspapers and supplements all bound by a cross-selling national rate card, plus TV channels, web portals and radio stations. A hard-as-nails media mogul of the Rupert Murdoch kind, Jain has created a behemoth across India that grabs the maximum ad revenue by a long shot and, in the process, has driven most other newspapers to a posit­ion of poor second or a losing third. Today, The Times of India, the queen of Jain’s stable, is world’s the largest newspaper. It has been often claimed that Bennett Coleman has ‘planted’ stories, and that The Econo­mic Times gives companies more news space depen­ding on how much advertisement revenues they produce. Nothing has been proved so far. What is pro­ven is that Samir Jain has made the group an unassailable giant.

The next on the list came from a politically well-connected fam­ily—the father being a three-time MP from Punjab. The son, how­ever, chose a different path. Starting at the age of 18 by making crankshafts of the bicycle units in Ludhiana, Sunil Bharti Mittal went on to imp­orting portable diesel-fuelled power generators from Suzuki for a country then perennially short of electric supply. He then went into manufacturing push button telephones—anyone with some memory will recollect Beetel phones that briefly became very popular in India. Then came the fundamental change. In 1992, Mittal successfully bid for a mobile phone network licence in India; launched servi­ces in Delhi in 1995 through Bharti Cellular Limited and the brand name of AirTel. Soon it became the first telecom company to cross the two-­million mobile subscriber mark. Today, Bharti Airtel, Mittal’s flagship company, is the world’s third-largest and India’s largest telecom service provider (before the Vodafone-Idea merger) with operations in Asia and Africa, a customer base of over 350 million, and consolidated revenues of almost $15 billion. To be sure, Mittal’s real test comes now with a supremely cash-rich Reliance Jio waging war on all mobile service providers. It remains to be seen how he comes out of it. Equally, none can deny that Mittal has changed the way India communicates.

That brings me to the father and son duo. The most amazing feature of Dhirubhai Ambani was his jet black eyes. They would lock on to you as he spoke and as you did; nothing escaped them; and he sized you up in minutes, if not seconds. Yes, Dhirubhai sometimes sailed very close to the wind. Yet, who can deny that he created a polyester revolution in India through ‘Only Vimal’; that he built, sustained and grew an equity culture of the kind that India had never seen before; and that he had a vision of stitching up every element of the vertical network from refining oil to producing polyester and polypropylene yarn to manufacturing textiles. A vision that needed his favourite son, Mukesh, to execute: the mega-manufacturing project at Patalganga; followed by the plants at Hazira which made Reliance the largest polyester manufacturer in the world; and then the world’s largest greenfield multi-feed refinery at Jamnagar. There have been blips. Reliance Retail, while running everywhere, is nowhere as profitable as the entire refining, petrochemicals and polyester chain. And despite its marketing and sales blitz powered by seemingly unlimited cash, it remains to be seen how Reliance Jio will perform. Even so, there can’t be a trace of doubt that if one were to speak of incredible vision, chutzpah, daring and execution, few can match Dhirubhai and Mukesh Ambani.

These are my ten. Amazing corporate leaders in different spheres. May we have more.

(Omkar Goswami is an economist, chairman of CERG Advisory and an independent director of some major listed companies.)

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