Sanjeev Awasthi first conceived the idea of a league of chairmen when he realized that heads of companies are essentially very lonely people. They lead companies to fame and success but have few friends. “This should be fun,” he thought to himself. As the newly appointed chairman and CEO of Intersource Services Inc., a company that had rapidly climbed to the top of the BPO sector in just three years, he knew he could trust his intuition and insight.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Membership to the league was strictly by invitation, and to ensure complete exclusivity, he restricted the number to six. He knew his decision was the right one when each of the five chairmen he personally invited agreed to join immediately. They were the heads of the largest companies in the city—corporate czars who controlled the fate of millions of shareholders and employees.
“Let’s meet at the Jockey Club next Friday,” Awasthi’s letter said. “I have personally arranged for wine from the Château Lafite Rothschild, and pink salmon from the Alaskan sounds. And what better topic of conversation in our first meeting than the luxury of good food!”
“I have just returned from Vienna, and will bring along some exquisite winter truffle. It makes a heavenly risotto,” replied Gordon Bakshi, chairman of Healthy Foods. There were similar responses from other members, which made the elaborate dinner an evening to remember.
“That was a wonderful meal,” sighed Anil Kasargod, chairman of Universal Bank of India, as he smoked his Cohiba. “What we’ve been saying about food can be turned into a book, I think! We should meet more often, friends.”
The league of chairmen met happily every month. The topic of conversation changed every time. They discussed movies at the second meeting, and with great nostalgia unanimously voted Sholay as the best Indian movie ever made. At the third meeting, it was cars over brunch at the Windsor Manor, where Manjunath Ghorpade and Shankar Swaminathan, both chairmen of IT companies, and Nandu Patel, chairman of Alliedworld Equity Funds, had a great time discussing the relative merits of the Porsche and the Lamborghini. Jazz, books, artists, love, women and sex—the league of chairmen had a lot to talk about, and gradually their camaraderie turned into friendship.
But the most productive meeting of the league, remembers Awasthi, was on the lawns of the stately West End Hotel in December. “I think all successful chairmen and CEOs have cheated at some time or the other,” Awasthi winked and smiled after they had all consumed a few rounds of alcohol, “I am willing to wager Rs10 lakh for the most interesting story of cheating we have seen or enacted in our lives. Let’s tell a story each, and may the best story win the entire kitty of Rs60 lakh today.”
“My story began eight years ago,” began Swaminathan. “I created a network of over 50 companies, each with investments in the other, a maze whose solution is known only to me. Through this fascinating network, I was able to seamlessly move large funds into exotic destinations. No auditor has even tried to unravel the maze, and I challenge any of you to try. In fact, the entire scheme is so clever, it feeds off itself pretty well now.”
“That’s really standard fare compared to what I’ve managed,” said Bakshi, sipping his fourth rum and Coke. “Twenty years ago, I sold a German collaborator a joint venture in a biscuit factory which was a complete dud. They invested $2 million in capital. The factory never made a single biscuit. Within a day of the investment, there was a sudden Naxalite attack and the unit went up in flames. The Germans received a letter from the Naxals asking them to keep away from the area or face dire consequences. I received a letter too. The entire drama was well enacted, and no one’s even guessed.”
“That’s interesting, but if you hear my story you’ll surely vote for me.” This was Ghorpade, the handsome poster boy of the IT industry, speaking. “It began when I was a sales manager and it’s lasted now for 20 years. Five serial affairs with five of the most beautiful women in my office. Each lasted a few years—pure adultery of course, which could have got us into prison. So many exciting dinners, movies, evenings and beds, I can’t even remember all of them. I must confess two of them dissolved very fast, but the other three were torrid, crazy little things. One of them is still around, our chief auditor, and of course, now she turns a blind eye to everything else. Why I think I should win today’s prize is because no one in my office has ever had a clue, I’ve hidden my tracks so well. That’s the essence of really good cheating, you know.”
“That’s a good story, Manjunath, but let me tell you a really good one.” This was Kasargod. “This happened when I was in the race to become chairman of our bank. I convinced four businessmen whom we had bankrolled for many years to jointly buy a Falcon aircraft for a minister’s favourite nephew, who runs his own business in Canada. The challenge was to ensure there was absolutely no trail, either through these four guys or the aircraft company, and of course, there is none. I won’t reveal how I managed this, that’s my little trade secret. The minister was delighted and the race was mine to win.”
“Interesting,” said Patel, his voice smooth as silk. “I must understand how you did that, Manju, it’ll help us all. But here’s my story for the day. I once created a private equity fund which invested in only six chemical companies which were reportedly on the verge of major inventions. Had over 800 high net-worth guys queuing up to invest. Greedy, foolish, wealthy guys. But my list of companies was very carefully constructed, I knew each of them was on the verge of collapse. As soon as we had a $100 million in, I sold out on the fund through my friend, based in New Jersey. The companies faithfully collapsed within a few months, and that’s when I made my first billion.”
“Excellent story, Nandu. Yet it may not be good enough to outdo my own,” said Awasthi after a pause, the last of the men around the table to speak. The others, thinking they’d heard the worst of corporate chicanery, sat up in their chairs.
“My story is very simple. I was appointed chairman and CEO of Intersource Services 12 months ago. This was without any credentials whatsoever. Everything on my resume was false, including my name, Sanjeev Awasthi, and every element of his background is one comprehensive fraud. In real life, friends, I work with the Serious Frauds Office of the government.”
Awasthi reached into his suit jacket, pulled out a small Olympus recorder and placed it on the table in front of him. “My real job here is the investigation of high-level corporate fraud. We’ve had our eyes on you, gentlemen. I am sorry to have cheated all six of you over the past year, but how else could I net so many birds with one stone? My recorder here has saved every little detail of your greatest accomplishments narrated in your own voices. Now, if you will, please accompany me to the police van outside. You are under arrest, and no doubt you will agree I win the prize tonight.”
(All characters in this story are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental)-
Harish Bhat is COO, watches, Titan Industries Ltd. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org