Krishan Dhawan is waiting for me almost Bodhi-like, alone in the deep-carpeted Belvedere Club lounge. The Zen association comes from the brooding look that Oracle Corp.’s—the world’s most aggressive business software vendor, even if not the biggest yet—India point man has on his lined, professorial face that’s focused on the water (even if it is a swimming pool).
But Dhawan is very Bodhi-unlike when he wolfs down cheese- and corn-laden toasts. “It’s lunch,” says the managing director of Oracle India Pvt. Ltd. An ex-banker of a few decades across latitudes, it is hard to miss that the well-built Dhawan is used to skipping meals—you almost miss how tall he is (slightly more than 6ft).
Dhawan and I are meeting for the second time and we have a lot to chat about: How Indians are buying more tech (the country’s consumption of tech products and services is still small at less than $6 billion, or Rs24,000 crore, annually, but is the fastest growing in the world); is Larry Ellison, Oracle’s enfant terrible chairman, visiting India anytime soon; did Bank of America—Dhawan’s first and only employer of the first 23 years in his career—do the smart thing by exiting retail banking in India, selling to ABN Amro a decade ago; and will New Delhi be India’s contribution to the world’s megapolis map.
Career jump: From banking to technology. (JAYACHANDRAN/MINT)
Dhawan, who picked the swish and private Belvedere at The Oberoi in New Delhi, insists that I order as he completes his lunch and Darjeeling chai. I ask for a dry martini with olives, complete with seeds; I get one that is temperature-perfect, but the pitted fruit and dash of sweet vermouth distracts.
Dhawan, whose family came to New Delhi from Pakistan after partition, went to St Stephen’s College and the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), from where he was selected to join the Indian unit of Bank of America NA in 1978. That decision was against his father’s wishes that he join the civil services (Dhawan Sr had been co-opted into the government’s foreign service after he arrived in India; Krishan was born in Prague).
Banking was a revelation for the young Dhawan, “with every rule written on how not to do business”. His two-year posting in Kolkata was educational because it taught him to deal with the most stubborn workers’ union in the country (Kolkata in the 1980s was the citadel of powerful bank unions). A highlight of that tenure was the installation of a Bank of America automatic teller machine (ATM) that had to follow the prescribed working hours of banks, that is, “eight hours a day and the weekend off.” Dhawan managed to operate the ATM for longer hours, but some of those anachronistic norms from that time continued well into the late-1990s.
It’s about 7.15pm and the Belvedere is beginning to fill up. Dhawan is ready to order but we are interrupted by Akhil Gupta, the right-hand man of Sunil Mittal of Bharti Airtel Ltd. Airtel is one of Oracle’s key clients in India. Three summers ago, Bharti outsourced its entire technology and network management services to a set of tech vendors including Dhawan’s employer, and that is considered one of the key deals on the Indian tech landscape. Dhawan’s interactions at the phone firm have primarily been with Mittal and the company’s chief executive Manoj Kohli, and he is glad to be introduced to Gupta, among the more powerful executives in India. The Bharti group—its flagship Bharti Airtel is among the top five most valuable companies in India by market capitalization—eases into new businesses such as insurance and retail.
Settling back in our rich, wine leather chairs, Dhawan talks of his partiality for single malts and complex wines. He asks for a Dalmore, a single malt from the Scottish highlands, but the lady server says the bar doesn’t stock it and suggests Laphroaig. He settles for the peaty brew from the southern Islay island of Scotland that rubs bottlenecks with the likes of Ardbeg. Some ice and a splash of soda and we’re back to conversation.
The 1990s saw Dhawan move east: Hong Kong, where he eventually ended as BankAm’s senior vice-president for corporate and investment banking in Asia. His stint there coincided with the Asian currency crisis, which he helped the bank weather before he moved to the US. His friends joked that he brought the “Asian currency flu” with him—his move was timed with the Brazil and Argentina debt crisis, Dhawan chuckles, dipping into a bowl of pistachios.
By 2001, Dhawan wanted to return to India from Los Angeles. “The timing was right in a lot of ways—it was a good time from a financial point of view, India was beginning to get on the radar of the world,” he says. Upon return, he was grabbed by his former BankAm boss Vikram Talwar, who had launched a back-office business in Gurgaon, near New Delhi. Dhawan worked for a short while there as chief marketing officer before leaving as an independent consultant. Reasons for his departure from Talwar’s business— EXLService Holdings Inc., now listed on the Nasdaq—are not known, but it was not long after that he received a call from an Oracle headhunter.
For an executive who virtually lives on a plane, Dhawan’s got a few interesting asides. Often on weekends, he does a solitary ride on his Thunderbird, a Royal Enfield motorbike from his Gurgaon pad (he lives alone; his two children are studying in the US), often stopping by a dhaba on the highway for a chai. He practises yoga and follows the Art of Living philosophy, propagated by celebrity guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
Another interest is a group of his friends from IIM-A called ‘IIMPACT’—a project which aims to help girls between six and 14 complete school. The project, which has 96% of its students enrolling for further studies, covers more than 5,300 students in villages across Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The challenge for the project, he says, is to scale up to other areas and raise funding to be able to do so.
By now, it is close to 8.45pm; both of us have had adequate portions of alcohol and nuts. As we walk out, I discover Dhawan’s Czech roots are still intact: He drives away (or is driven) in a Skoda Octavia, and prefers it over the company-provided Mercedes.
Born: 21 February 1957 (Prague, Czech Republic)
Education: BA (Economics Honours), St Stephen’s College, New Delhi; PG Diploma in Management from IIM, Ahmedabad
Work Profile: Worked with Bank of America NA (last served as managing director, international corporate banking, Los Angeles); joined EXLService Inc. in 2001; became an independent consultant in 2003; joined Oracle India Pvt. Ltd in 2005
Currently Reading: ‘On Chesil Beach’ by Ian McEwan
Hobbies: Reading, travel, motorbiking