New Delhi: On his first day in office as chairman of ITC Ltd, Yogi Deveshwar was confronted with a retrospective tax demand of Rs.803 crore, three times the firm’s annual profit at the time. He made a mention of this on 22 July, the last time he addressed shareholders in his capacity as chairman and CEO of ITC.
It was a timely reminder by a canny business leader of how much has been achieved under his watch and how arduous the journey seemed when he started off in 1996.
Even as Deveshwar proceeded to outline plans for a massive upscaling of ITC’s non-cigarette businesses, he was also offering a subtle doff to the support he received from shareholders in his battle against “representatives of our overseas shareholder”, British American Tobacco Plc (BAT).
Long before a government coined “Make in India” as its economic slogan, Deveshwar leveraged the growing resentment against a large multinational staking claim to a firm which built the India business almost entirely without its help.
The result, as he declared at the meeting, was “an organization that would adopt the credo of putting India First—keeping country before corporation and the institution before the individual”.
The bombast of the words doesn’t deflect from how well Deveshwar played his cards through those tumultuous times, leaning heavily on his political and business contacts to protect the tottering company from being swallowed by BAT.
Indeed, the firm he leaves behind for his successor—most likely the newly appointed COO, Sanjiv Puri—differs in many significant ways from the one he inherited from his predecessor K.L. Chugh. The ITC of 1996 found its diversifications had gone seriously awry, whereas today the company is comfortably placed with most new business areas in their growth phase.
But what is of far more lasting significance, as far as Deveshwar’s legacy to his successor is concerned, is that this is a company at peace with itself as well as with its key stakeholders.