On Delhi’s Mathura Road, at any time of the day or night, it feels like the bustle will never end. It’s crowded and noisy, yet one small turn from this key artery takes you to a quiet, leafy colony that exudes understated power and old money. I was visiting Vineet Nayyar’s home after eight years and as I pulled in, it looked like nothing had changed. Flanked by 12ft-high compound walls and filigreed wrought iron gates, Nayyar’s house still sported the low wooden door and the same whitewash. When I was last here (as an employee of HCL Technologies, where he was the vice-chairman), I remember being startled by the practically framed and casually hung M.F. Husains and Sanjay Bhattacharyas on the walls. Everything seemed invaluable, yet nothing seemed expensive.
This time around, I meet him in a new wing, up one floor, past a glass door and into an office.
A 40-year career spanning public and private enterprises notwithstanding, Nayyar is now in the news for leading Tech Mahindra’s acquisition of the beleaguered Satyam Computers. Over coffee, the vice-chairman of Mahindra Satyam and Tech Mahindra began by explaining what his concerns about acquiring Satyam were and what made him go down that rabbit hole. “We looked at the numbers. We knew their reputation and we did believe that it was a good company with a very good foundation. Its delivery capability was quite awesome and that played out quite well. Like everyone else we also had our questions: Will the company survive? Will the clients stay with it? And immediately in the wake of 7 January (when Ramalinga Raju wrote the now infamous letter about the tiger of financial embezzlement he was riding), there was a fairly massive attrition of clients. But what was pleasantly surprising was the number of clients who stayed on despite the size and scale of the scandal,” he says.
Mr Fix-it: Nayyar says public policy has been the biggest turn-on in his career. Jayachandran / Mint
The new board was formally inducted on 1 June. As soon as the accounts of Satyam are recast, Nayyar will start the process of merging the company with Tech Mahindra.
I have heard him praise Raju for building the company he did, I begin, but he interrupts me. He doesn’t like the word praise, he says—praise is not right. Then he sits back and explains. “What interests me about Raju is that the man had vision. He built this company from six computers to the size it is now. It isn’t easy, and I can say that having been through that myself. What drove him to do what he did is what interests me. A lot of people suspect it was greed. I think it was pride,” he says, before adding the disclaimer that this was only armchair psychology and his assumptions were not based on any facts. “It’s very easy to paint people in black and white and especially when one is your age, one does. But when one is my age, one realizes that there are all kinds of human beings that make the world. I almost think he’s like a Greek hero who plotted his downfall step by step. Nobody knows what drove him but everybody is curious.”
The age issue is something that comes up often, I realize. But at 70, it is, perhaps, well justified. Nayyar started his career with the Indian Administrative Service. He speaks fondly and fiercely about his experience in the government. “I still believe that my most fascinating period was with the government. Public policy is perhaps the greatest turn-on. Your capacity to make an impact is tremendous. And whatever bullshit people talk about the government, nobody stops you from doing what you should,” he says.
His most memorable assignment was in Haryana (while with the government), getting borewells dug and a road network built between the villages and the mandis (agricultural markets), “much before you were born”.
After holding a series of positions, including that of director, department of economic affairs, with the Union government, he was deputed on an assignment to the World Bank. “I was posted in (South) Korea, trying to untangle their financial system after a scam worse than our Harshad Mehta’s,” he says. He came back to India to be the founding-chairman of Gas Authority of India Ltd (GAIL). “And here I was, heading a company that was laying Asia’s largest gas pipeline and I did not even know what a pipeline looked like before that. We completed that project in 11 months,” he says. When he completed his tenure at GAIL, he joined HCL Technologies as its vice-chairman in 1994. Four years ago, he moved to Tech Mahindra. So I ask him the inevitable age-related question: What keeps him going? Why hasn’t he retired to a mountain home? He laughs and admits he has thought about it often. “Work is fun. If it’s fun, it’s interesting. And what is life? It’s a cross section of different experiences. And if you are fortunate enough to be exposed to those experiences, it’s nice, isn’t it?” he asks; rhetorically, I presume.
Then, he turns serious and talks about his retirement plans. His wife, Reva, a former bureaucrat herself, runs their charitable foundation that is involved in funding educational initiatives for underprivileged children. Right now, he is only signing cheques, but he would like to spend more time working at the foundation. On 17 January, his five-year tenure with Tech Mahindra comes to an end. “Let’s see what happens,” he says vaguely.
When the history of Indian business is written, the rise, fall and subsequent rescue of Satyam are bound to form an interesting paragraph. Did this play any part at all in his decision to bid for the company? He thinks it through. “No,” he says firmly, “but in hindsight it has.”
It would be easy to imagine that in another year, by when Nayyar expects Satyam to shake off the smell of the scandal and stand on its own, he would calmly walk away from the adrenalin-fuelled life of striking deals and running companies to a life of quiet contentment. But somehow, that seems unlikely.