As with most interesting people, Ashok Soota’s past is more fascinating than his present.
Not that the present—Soota is executive chairman of MindTree Ltd, a one-of-its-kind software services firm—is insignificant; it’s just that the past—building Wipro, being part of an exclusive group of three or four people who helped define the Indian IT industry—is so much more overwhelming.
The man himself is anything but that.
Engineering success: Soota scripted turnarounds for DCM Shriram group, turned Wipro’s nascent IT division into a global powerhouse and set up MindTree. Jayachandran/Mint
At 67, Soota is soft-spoken, and self-effacing almost to a fault. He is also remarkably fit, which he attributes to yoga and his love of trekking.
We decide to meet for lunch at Fiorano, one of Bangalore’s trendiest restaurants, in Koramangala, where he lives. Soota, who picks the location, likes Italian food.
When I reach the restaurant, he is already there. Soota seems to be a regular patron, given the way he is recognized and immediately attended to. He does most of the ordering—risotto, ravioli and pasta. As we get the order out of the way, I can’t help but think of Soota’s past.
In 1984, when Azim Premji, chairman of Wipro Ltd, wooed Soota to join the infotech arm of what was then mostly a vegetable oils company, the IT arm’s turnover was Rs7 crore. When Soota left as president of Wipro Infotech to set up his own company in 1998, the division’s revenue was $500 million (around Rs2,220 crore now).
But we are getting a bit ahead of the story.
Soota was born in what is now the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan and spent a part of his childhood there. “My parents came from Dera Ismail Khan and Dera Ghazi Khan and were part of the small Hindu community there,” he says.
Soota was the fourth child among six—his three sisters now live in the UK. The family lived in Murree; his father was a doctor in the British Indian army. Soota, then five years old, remembers the traumatic move during Partition. The family had to leave under armed escort, “and within hours of our departure, the family home was burned down. But we learnt to move on in our lives”. They stayed briefly in Delhi, and then Lucknow.
The peripatetic army life of his father meant that Soota had “studied in 12 schools by the age of 12”. “Some years (I) studied in multiple schools within a single academic year,” he recalls.
Naturally, the constant change had its influence on him. “It made me adapt to change fairly quickly. It helped me (to) easily network across cultures,” he says.
He gravitated towards engineering because “that is what the top students did then and (the University of) Roorkee used to be the prime institute”. He chose civil engineering, but the drawings bored him, and after the first year he switched to electrical engineering because of the “mathematics involved”. Immediately after graduation, he worked for a few years with Burmah Shell, a blue chip employer at the time, in Kolkata, selling engine oils and lubricants. “It was not challenging as one was selling in an environment of shortage,” he recalls.
So Soota moved to the DCM Shriram group in 1965, then one of the best Indian companies to work for—and one that, along with Hindustan Unilever Ltd (then Hindustan Lever Ltd), served as the finishing school for smart managers. The group, he says, had a structured programme, almost like a management education, for its new employees.
Still, Soota did eventually enrol for an MBA from the Asian Institute of Management, Manila, in 1973. He availed of time from the DCM Shriram group, the understanding being that he could join them again if he wanted to.
Among its other businesses, the DCM Shriram group—then headed by the redoubtable Charat Ram—used to sell electrical appliances such as fans under the Usha brand name. Soota worked with the group for 19 years, in several businesses.
In 1978, Ram chose Soota to turn around the loss-making refrigeration and air-conditioning business. Which he did, within a short time. “But once that happened, I got bored, as I tend to if I don’t have challenges.”
Even as he contemplated a sabbatical to do a PhD, a common friend—Anand Koka—recommended his name to Premji, who was looking for somebody to run his nascent IT business. Premji wooed Soota for eight months. “Wipro was not even a consumer company but a cooking oil firm, with the IT business being just Rs6-7 crore,” recalls Soota.
Along with a few other executives, he made Wipro into an IT powerhouse.
He was at the top of the game in Wipro when he quit in 1999. Some analysts have said all successful executives in Wipro—Ashok Narasimhan, Arun Thiagarajan, Vivek Paul and Soota himself—had to go when they began overshadowing the chairman.
Soota is quick to defend Premji: “That’s unfair to him. For the time I ran Wipro (the IT division), several people actually thought I owned the company. He stayed in the background and gave a lot of freedom. But when it became too large, (inevitably) he had to step in.”
When he started MindTree with nine others—most of them former Wipro employees who chose to leave the company with him—analysts said IT services had become a scale game and he was too late an entrant. Soota says: “The scepticism might have been warranted. If you look at the large number of companies floated around the dot-com boom (1999-2000), strangely by most mainstream entrepreneurs, few have survived in their original form except MindTree.”
Now almost a decade old, MindTree employs 8,000 people and earned around $290 million in revenue in 2008-09. It is targeting a billion dollars in revenue by 2014.
“People have underestimated us in the past and we have proved them wrong. I am confident we will do it again,” he says.
Few would bet against him and MindTree, given their track record.