Y.C. Deveshwar’s management style, in the words of his colleagues

As Y.C. Deveshwar moves on to a non-executive role at ITC Ltd, his colleagues, including new CEO Sanjiv Puri, reminisce about his management style


Y.C. Deveshwar. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Y.C. Deveshwar. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

As Y.C. Deveshwar moves on to a non-executive role at ITC Ltd, his colleagues reminisce about the chairman’s management style.

***

Many years ago, when I was the managing director of Surya Nepal Pvt. Ltd, a unit of ITC Ltd, I was told that I would be assuming the leadership of ITC Infotech Ltd as my next assignment. Having worked until then in the consumer goods businesses, this proposed shift to the IT subsidiary took me by surprise.

In hindsight, I realize it was yet another example of Mr Deveshwar’s far-sighted vision to identify and groom leaders from within the company at different levels by providing them exposure to various businesses. He foresaw that ITC’s businesses, particularly in consumer goods space, would increasingly be powered in the future by IT as much as by our ability to create winning products.

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My exposure and that of my colleagues to different businesses was part of a larger objective to make leaders in ITC future-ready. Over the years, I have been fortunate to draw critical insights from his ability to strategically think through fresh ideas, incubate them and then back them with our institutional strengths, while energizing the organization to rapidly scale up with agility.

Above all, his belief in putting the country before the corporation, and the institution before the individual, has been a constant source of inspiration.

—Sanjiv Puri, chief executive officer

***

I recall the time when we discussed the possibility of investing in an in-house pulp manufacturing facility. Given the large capital outlay and long gestation period, the pros and cons of the decision required careful evaluation.

Mr Deveshwar not only allayed our apprehensions but also gave us a completely new direction which would change the future course of the paper business. He guided the team to draw out an ambitious plan to build a world-class integrated paper business, not only strengthened by an in-house pulp facility but also through a robust back-end of large-scale afforestation that would support local communities.

Mr Deveshwar led ITC’s diversification by ensuring that topmost priority was accorded to building strong systems and controls, establishing a robust governance framework along with investments in cutting-edge IT solutions. These interventions not only helped us effectively manage the enhanced scale, diversity and complexity of operations but also ensured speed of execution and responsiveness to win in a dynamic business environment.

I will always recall how he insisted that we institutionalize these processes, so that it would help in creating enduring value for generations to come.

—Rajiv Tandon, executive director and chief financial officer

***

Y.C. Deveshwar had only recently taken charge as the chairman of the hotels business and was expected to visit our erstwhile Chola Sheraton property in Chennai, to inspect a mock-up, or a sample, room. Pooling all our cumulative expertise, the team, along with the designer, conceptualized a mock-up room, which was billed to be the best that we had till then achieved.

Every department head was called in to check and give feedback on the final product. After many changes and alterations we had arrived at what we perceived to be the best room in the country. Now, we waited with bated breath to demonstrate our accomplishment to the chairman, who we believed would be floored by our efforts.

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Soon, the day was upon us to show with pride this flawless mock-up room. We had a whole day planned with the chairman and had assigned 10 minutes for the mock-up room presentation. He entered the room with the entire team in tow. The excitement, understandably, was palpable. But none of us was one bit prepared for what followed.

Instead of the 10 minutes that we had budgeted for, we spent the entire day receiving feedback from Mr Deveshwar on the room. There were more than 65 points that he raised—aspects that a non-hotelier had spotted, which all of us accomplished hoteliers had overlooked.

—Nakul Anand, executive director

***

It was the end of 2010, and I was the head of the foods business at that time. For almost two years, we were working to launch noodles. We were up against a behemoth, which had almost 100% market share for decades. So, we kept on refining our product to make it superior and differentiated based on consumer insights we had gathered over time. We were pretty convinced about the product we had developed, but the team was still reluctant to go ahead with the launch.

Mr Deveshwar travelled to Bangalore, where we were developing the product, and started a conversation over noodles to understand what we had done for product differentiation, while tasting the product himself. After he had it, he asked, “Can you launch it in 15 days?” Whether or not it works he said we had his full support. “Do it fast.”

He would typically allow people leeway at the planning and experimentation stages, but once the strategy was finalized and the time came for execution, he would demand a great deal of perfection and speed. “Why are you afraid of failure?” he asked. “If your strategy is right, and it seems to be so, numbers would come.”

We launched noodles within a month, and that wouldn’t have happened unless he nudged us to do so. He gave us time to perfect our product in line with ITC’s philosophy of not launching anything unless it is superior to competition, but in the end, he realized the team needed a final push from him.

—Chitranjan Dar, group head, projects and research development

***

Back in 2000, I was leading ITC Ltd’s erstwhile international business division, which dealt with farm commodities. We conceived an idea to re-engineer Indian agricultural value chains. I approached the corporate management committee headed by Y.C. Deveshwar, and, with a lot of hesitation, asked for Rs50 lakh to start an experiment which eventually evolved to become ITC e-Choupal.

When you were making a proposal for capital expenditure, you were expected to give strong justification for the numbers. And the committee would still ask if more could be done for less. My proposal wasn’t a full-fledged business plan and could, at best, answer a lot of questions. Also, I didn’t have answers for a lot of obvious questions. Would computers work in villages? What kind of people should run the Internet centres? My plan was to do the experiment at six different locations.

Mr Deveshwar agreed to fund the experiment, but to my surprise, he committed Rs10 crore for it. He said going forward we would face many more questions and obstacles than what we had envisaged. He said if he gave me only the Rs50 lakh, we would spend that amount to set up six centres, and perhaps find in the end that it was vastly inadequate and the results uninspiring. So we would probably give up the experiment, saying it didn’t work.

Now with funding in hand, I thought of bigger outcomes. We could spend only Rs2.5 crore till June 2001. At ITC, we often talk about distributed leadership, and this was an example of how Mr Deveshwar would make people owners of initiatives and stand up to challenges.

—S. Sivakumar, group head, agriculture and information technology businesses

***

When Y.C. Deveshwar took charge as the chairman in 1996, our paper and paperboards division was faced with daunting challenges. Starved of adequate capital for growth, this resource-intensive business was staring at an uncertain future. As part of the diversification strategy that Mr Deveshwar spearheaded, the paper and paperboards business, which was run by a separate subsidiary, was folded into ITC Ltd and given a new lease of life.

Quite understandably, we would at that time approach the issue of capacity expansion and technological upgrade very conservatively. In one such meeting to discuss the upgrade of one of our existing production lines, Mr Deveshwar asked us to completely rethink our strategy. We hadn’t seen it coming. He asked us to focus on how entering into value-added paperboards could completely transform the packaging industry in India.

What evolved was a plan to build a completely new state-of-the-art board machine to make virgin boards instead of just tweaking an existing production line. Today we are reaping the benefits of that decision and have emerged the leader in the Indian paperboards industry.

—Sanjay Singh, divisional CEO, paperboards and specialty papers division

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