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BW Businessworld

Of Two Great Leaders

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When he turns 65 on 20 August 2011, Nagavara Ramarao Narayana Murthy will follow one of his many mandates by stepping off the board as the non-executive chairman of Infosys. Earlier than that, Sudhir Mohan Trehan will relinquish his position of being the managing director of Crompton Greaves (CG), and hand over the baton to his successor. Having had the privilege of serving on both boards — Infosys since 2000 and CG from 2004 — I think of both as two of the most incredible and respect-worthy corporate leaders that I have had the honour to know.

As I reconcile to the fact that from the board meetings of October this year we can no longer pull the leg of the Infosys chairman of three decades, I return to various memories since 1998, when I first met him after he was appointed chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industry's (CII's) Corporate Governance Committee. The meeting was in Mumbai and I had gone to the building's entrance to receive him. It was peak office hour and Goswami was by the pavement, eagle-eyed for some swanky hired limo. Suddenly, a battered black and yellow taxi pulled up to the kerb. With a "Hi, Omkar. Have you been waiting for me?" out steps Murthy, pays the cab, and traipses up the stairs.

A year later, I had to meet him at Bangalore on a Sunday. Murthy invited me to the new campus that was being built at the Electronics City. On an incredibly hot day, with dust, mud, concrete, bricks and steel all over the place, a beatific yet hyper-energetic pajama-kurta clad Murthy with his jeans-T-shirt clad chela, Mohandas Pai, decided to take me everywhere as they inspected each nook and cranny. You could see the excitement in Murthy's eyes. It came from crafting world-class facilities to create the Infosys dreams.

I remember our being together for a CII conference in San Francisco in 1999. Always conscious of costs, Murthy had checked out of his hotel in the morning and arrived at the conference with his suitcase. After the session was over, he asked me if he could ‘crash' at my room for a couple of hours to catch up on lost sleep. So, while I was roaming around Union Square in the afternoon, Murthy took a nap. The evening was spent at a colleague's house, eating home food and then dropping Murthy at the airport for God-knows-where. In that era, with Infosys's top-line being around Rs 600 crore, he used to travel 300-plus days a year to connect with actual and potential customers. The French say, Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose — or the more things change, the more they remain the same. It must be so with Murthy and travelling. Even today as Infosys clocks over $6 billion of revenues, for reasons known best to himself, if he knows at all, Murthy must travel at least 300 days a year. Airlines love him like no other.

Murthy-ism's abound. Here are my favourites. "Profits are an opinion. Cash in the bank is fact." "A company with dirty toilets can't be great." "In God we trust. For everything else, bring data on the table." "A clear conscience is the softest pillow in the world." And "When in doubt, disclose". I know some industrialists can't stand the man — his aphorisms, his image and his values which he often wears on his sleeves. To them, the answer is this: "First create a $6-billion company that earns over $1.5 billion as net profits. Give away Rs 60,000 crore as stock options to create wealth for employees. Build some of the finest campuses in the world. Then criticise."      

The world knows much about Murthy. Not so Sudhir Trehan. A lifer at CG, Sudhir is one of the best managers that I have known. A man with an incredible eye for detail; where nothing escapes his attention; who lives by the honesty of facts; has numbers at his finger-tips; leads from the front; can admit mistakes; and is universally looked up to as a leader par excellence. When Sudhir took over as CG's managing director in 2000, the company was in crisis — with disparate businesses, a loss of Rs 147 crore, and the debt-equity ratio was 2.33:1. Today, CG has revenues in excess of $2 billion. Its top line has been growing at a compound annual rate of 25 per cent; and its debt-equity ratio is 0.14:1. Very few companies in the world can claim 10 consecutive years of sequential growth in sales, income, Ebitda, Ebit, PBT and PAT — over a rapidly expanding global base of operations. Sudhir has emphatically shown that it is possible. Without missing a beat or a stride.

Hats off to the two! May India be blessed by many such corporate leaders in the years ahead.

The author is chairman of CERG Advisory.


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 06-06-2011)