Bangalore: Infosys Technologies Ltd, India’s second largest software services exporter, will be announcing a leadership recast at 6pm on Saturday. It is already known that chairman N.R. Narayana Murthy will be transitioning to the ceremonial post of chairman emeritus on completing 65 years of age on 20 August. But the recast will be keenly watched, not just for who will be the new chairman, but also whether current chief executive officer (CEO) S. Gopalakrishnan will be replaced.
If the tea leaves are any indicator, it looks like Gopalakrishnan will become the next chairman, though Infosys independent director K.V. Kamath is also being touted as a possibility. Infosys and Kamath have demurred in the past on commenting about the succession issue.
Infosys has a habit of surprising conventional thinking and might yet pick a dark horse. But if it sticks to tradition, the man who could be in the spotlight is co-founder S.D. Shibulal, or Shibu, as everybody calls him.
Shibulal shares several traits with Gopalakrishnan, apart from hailing from Kerala and being the same age, 55.
Possible successor: Infosys chief operating officer S.D. Shibulal. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
In spite of being a co-founder, currently the chief operating officer and a regular at the company’s interactions with the media, he tends to maintain a relatively low profile, much like Gopalakrishnan.
Both love gadgets, not necessarily as accessories to flaunt, but more for delving into their innards to understand and in some cases even tweak their working. While Gopalakrishnan made his chops initially by designing, developing and implementing information systems for clients, Shibulal cut his teeth with project management, both critical but back-end activities.
Where Shibulal differs from Gopalakrishnan is that he took up the job of managing client relationships in the crucial North American market early on in the Infosys growth story. But several insiders whom this correspondent has spoken with over the years say his stint was a mixed bag, due to several reasons, including information technology outsourcing and more so offshoring itself being in its infancy at the time.
In 1991, Shibulal took a break of about five years from Infosys —the company line is that this was a sabbatical—to work at Sun Microsystems. At Sun, he was responsible for design and implementation of the company’s first e-commerce application.
After rejoining Infosys in 1997, Shibulal promptly started its Internet consultancy practice. In the past, Shibulal has spoken of “the importance of process management” he learnt at Sun, a learning that stood him in good stead as Infosys began to grow exponentially. While he has taken turns as head of global delivery and sales, it is the scaling up of resources to strengthen the company’s much-vaunted “global delivery model” that Shibulal gets a lot of credit for.
While the Infosys founders have always reiterated that none of their family members will work in the company to avoid any possible conflict of interest, some critics believe the six founders themselves are “family”. If Shibulal does become CEO, it will be one final member of the family club taking his turn at the top.
This was something that departing board member T.V. Mohandas Pai alluded to in an interview with The Indian Express newspaper, when he said Infosys prized seniority over merit.
Murthy had, in a recent interaction with Mint, reiterated that Infosys was a meritocracy. The top job would go to the deserving and only beyond that would seniority be given weightage. Shibulal himself, when asked about the founders versus professionals leadership issue, said in another interview to Mint, with a smile and just a hint of pique: “People must remember, we are also professionals!”
If Shibulal does take over, it will demolish the notion that Infosys is an upper-caste, Brahmin-dominated company, especially at the top echelons, as Shibulal is a member of the Ezhava community.
The Infosys chairman and his family have another bond with Shibulal, as Sudha Murthy told this correspondent a few years back.
“When I was working, it was Kumari (Shibulal’s wife) who sometimes babysat my children (Akshata and Rohan) and helped with the cooking. It would have been difficult without her. Whether it was Sudha (Gopalakrishnan), Rohini (Nilekani) or others, we helped each other and are one big family.”
Shibulal, together with wife Kumari, daughter Shruti and son Shreyas, holds around 2.14% of Infosys worth $788 million (nearly Rs3,500 crore) according to the stock’s closing price on Friday. Shruti, who earlier worked on Wall Street with an investment bank, is now a restaurant entrepreneur, having opened the Spanish-themed Caperberry and the Mediterranean-styled Fava in Bangalore. Shreyas has just entered college.
Beyond Infosys, Shibulal has set up an organization that aims to improve access to education, a passion he shares with Gopalakrishnan.
Shibulal and his family run the Samhita Academy that works to provide education to all sections of society and which he plans to expand nationwide.
In a recent interview with Mint, Shibulal set out his vision for Infosys: a “globally respected corporation” that Fortune 1000 companies will see as a strategic partner in change and business growth, adding value in a very fundamental way, beyond just providing technology-led business solutions.
Sridhar K. Chari contributed to this story.