Mumbai: When N. Chandrasekaran was named chief executive officer (CEO) and managing director (MD) of Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS) in September 2008, analysts and insiders said, and only half in jest, that the firm’s acronym actually stood for ‘Take Chandra Seriously’. He proved them so right that no one was surprised when India’s largest software services exporter re-appointed him as CEO and MD for a second five-year term, effective 6 October 2014.
Chandrasekaran has just seen success repeat itself—this time as the newly-appointed executive chairman of the Tata group.
However, this time, no one can claim to have seen it coming—at least not till the former chairman of the Tata group, Cyrus Mistry, fell from grace, giving rise to speculation that an insider would eventually get the job.
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Chandrasekaran, 53, is a true insider. He has been with TCS for almost three decades and has never applied for any other job.
One of six children, Chandrasekaran’s father was a lawyer but when his grandfather died, his father had to look after the family properties that included farmland. Chandrasekaran excelled in maths, Mint wrote in an earlier profile. After his 10th class, he moved to Trichy (in Tamil Nadu) to study further and had to stay in a hotel near the school. He used to go back home every six weeks. After completing a bachelor of science (BSc) in applied sciences from the Coimbatore Institute of Technology, Chandrasekaran went back home, where, for six months, he explored agriculture as a profession in keeping with his father’s wishes. After four-to-five months, he realized agriculture was not his cup of tea. He even thought of becoming a chartered accountant but had missed an academic year.
Chandrasekaran convinced his father that farming wasn’t for him and went on to complete his master’s in computer applications from Regional Engineering College, Trichy, in 1986. In the final year of his master’s programme, he took up a project with TCS, which he joined soon after.
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The impression one gets when one meets the affable, unassuming and approachable Chandrasekaran is that IT services is what he was always meant to do. He started out with Mumbai as his base and did stints in California, Stockholm and the UK. In 1993, he moved to the US, where he built a new team from scratch. It’s here that he learnt about team building and customer management.
Chandrasekaran cut his teeth as a programme director—a role that led to a number of firsts, particularly in the acquisition and execution of transformation projects in verticals such as banking and telecom and in markets as diverse as the US and Australia. Following this, he worked as S. Ramadorai’s executive assistant for two years—1997 to 1999. It was here that Chandraskeran was groomed under the watchful eyes of his mentor, S. Ramadorai. In 1999, he started the e-business unit of TCS and grew it to a business unit of over $500 million in four-and-a-half years. After this, he was made head of global delivery at Mumbai, which was then TCS’s largest delivery centre.
In 2002, Chandrasekaran got yet another boost when he was appointed head of global sales. He expanded the European operations, started the Latin America and China operations, and set up the TCS Global Network Delivery Model in Uruguay, Mexico, Hungary and China. In July 2005, he got another leg-up and became head of global sales and operations. By then, he had consolidated his position. Ramadorai had walked him through all key functions, including customer management, operations and expansions, readying him for the next level.
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On 6 September 2007, Chandrasekaran was nominated to the TCS board and named chief operating officer (COO) of the firm. It was in this role that he drove the company’s acquisition strategy. The acquisition of Citigroup Global Services for $505 million in October 2008 is credited to him.
In April 2008, TCS reorganized its global operations. The company, then, had nearly 140,000 employees but was not nimble enough to capture new growth opportunities. So, Chandrasekaran set up integrated, customer-centric units to enhance customer focus, drive operational agility and address new growth opportunities. The new model divided the operations of the firm into five groups—industry solutions, major markets, new growth markets, strategic initiatives and organizational infrastructure. Each of these had a director who began reporting to Chandrasekaran. The message was not lost on observers: Chandrasekaran was in charge.
Chandrasekaran, say analysts, was identified for the CEO’s role around 2004-05, but that became apparent only somewhere around 2007. When he eventually rose to the top at the age of 46, he was one of the youngest CEOs in the Tata group.
To de-stress, Chandrasekaran reads fiction and books on politics and business, Mint said in the earlier profile. And he takes part in marathons, too—2008 (Mumbai), 2009 (Mumbai, New York), 2010 (Chicago) and 2011 (Berlin, Boston). He has also run around eight half-marathons. Running, he said in an earlier interview, has helped him become a better listener. It also calms him and gives him time to reflect on issues. He takes running very seriously, and begins training months in advance of a marathon. Chandrasekaran is also fond of south Indian classical music and lyrically rich old Tamil film songs that remind him of his home in Mohanur village in Tamil Nadu.
Chandrasekaran was the third in an illustrious line of TCS CEOs after F.C. Kohli and Ramadorai. The Tata group gave all three a free hand to manage the affairs of the company. Chandrasekaran, on his part, also appears to have finally got his due.
Chandrasekaran does not have actual experience in manufacturing, automotive, telecom, retail or the countless other verticals at Tata, but TCS provides solutions to all these verticals and more, which does give him a bird’s eye view of these businesses. How he fares will, ironically, depend at least in part on the performance of TCS.
With 378,497 employees as on 31 December 2016, TCS is also a money spinner for the group, accounting for 17.5% of the total revenue of the $103 billion group in FY16. But revenue growth, across software firms, is slowing and there are concerns the new US administration may clamp down on H1-B visas and offshoring of jobs.
Chandrasekaran has his job cut out, but he is a marathon runner, and may have the stamina for it.