Gurnani, 57, better known as CP within his peer group, attributes many of his leadership and personality traits to the learnings from his grandfather and parents.
In an interview, he speaks about his childhood, his love for IT despite starting out as a chemical engineer, achievements and disappointments in his 32-year career, his leadership style, and future targets.
How did you enter IT?
I was born in Neemuch in Madhya Pradesh. Even till the 10th standard, I had no idea what a computer was. Around that time, I visited a cousin of mine in Mumbai who introduced me to this magazine called Electronics For You (better known as EFY). He also told me how computers worked, and I found it fascinating.
But I started out as a chemical engineer in 1975. I soon realized that I was not cut out to be one. My first job was at JK Synthetics in Kota, but soon I shifted to design engineering. From design engineering, I was picked up as a management trainee by a company called Lloyd Insulations. They put me in project management, and I did well there but I did not see myself as the guy who would only do that. Around that time, I got an offer from Fenner India Ltd, and the company also gave you a car—a Fiat. Being a middle-class guy, it was a big dream. So I joined Fenner.
But pretty soon, I told my boss that I did not see a future in this kind of job. I told him that I am a person who likes people and that technology excites me, and I think I can create something meaningful. I was around 27 and my boss was convinced that I was on the right track. This was around 1986, and at that time, computers had become a reality. I was not trained in computers but I thought this was the industry I should be in. Eventually, I joined HCL, which I believe was an accident, but one that worked well for me.
One could say that the acquisition of Satyam Computer Services was also an accident. Are you satisfied with the outcome?
Satisfied is a very relative term. While on paper it was one of the most successful acquisitions anybody could have done, we also successfully managed it from a people and process angle—whether it be extinguishing the raging fires that we had in the courtrooms or facing arbitrators. When I look back, I think I was being too cautious. I could have accelerated a lot harder in terms of business. Maybe I was distracted by other things. For instance, for one year practically, I did not even go home. All the time I was listening to my employees. When I look back, I think I overdid that part—I needed to spend a little more time on technology and investments for the future. But then, whenever you look back, there are always things you could have done better.
Despite your due diligence, Satyam did throw up a lot more surprises than you anticipated.
That’s true. When I look back seven years, a lot of decisions that I took longer to take, I think I could have been a lot more decisive or a lot swifter. For example, we had to let go 10,000 people. I agonized about that so much that I did not sleep for a few nights and I am not a guy who loses his sleep easily. I ended up going to XLRI professors to see what their advice was. Though everybody advised me to do a surgical separation, I disagreed and decided to give them (Satyam employees) a few months and work on their outplacement. I am very proud of that decision. I also went slow on BFSI (banking, financial services and insurance) investments. I just assumed that BFSI CEOs would be risk-averse since I was still a company that was being investigated (referring to the fallout of the Satyam scam). Also, when we delisted from the US stock exchange, I thought clients would be very sensitive to it. But in reality, they did not care about it. When I look back now, I think I could have done that differently.
Was this one of the reasons you could not meet your aspirational target of $5 billion?
I would not say that. First, we all knew it was a bit of a stretch. Moreover, there were contradictions as well. You can grow 10-15% annually, but the rest of the growth has to come from M&A (mergers and acquisitions). But we gave no such target to the M&A team. It was a carefully thought-out decision. And I have no regrets. I think the team did very well and we paced ourselves very well. Overall we achieved $4.1 billion, but I am happy.
Tell us a bit about the people who inspired you?
My grandfather and father migrated from Sindh with literally nothing. My grandfather ended up setting up a groundnut oil factory at a small place call Nibhaira in Rajasthan. He was probably the most practical guy I have ever known. It was his humility, common sense and hard work that inspired me. My father, who used to work for the Central Bureau of Narcotics, was humble and so honest that he would rather walk than use his official jeep for personal work. My mother was good in execution—I learnt commerce from her. My mom used to insist that my dress, my shoes, my lessons—all be kept ready the previous day. It was like getting ready for the future. I still do it today—I polish my shoes and iron my shirt.
So how would you describe your leadership style today?
As you know, I did not do an MBA. My MBA is what people, my children and peers, have taught me; it is through the school of hard knocks. Number one is what my father used to say—the world does not owe you anything; you need to find your own place. Number two is my mother who used to learn things and use that knowledge as her way of dealing with situations. I still do that. Number three is my grandfather’s common sense approach—judging people and making sure the fit is right.
If I am ever in a situation, I close my eyes and think what my father would do in that situation, and that’s what has kept me going. Also, if there was a fork in the road, I would take the narrow path, but if it means feeding on somebody else’s oranges, then I would not do it. Speaking about leadership, if you put everything together—I consider my style as parenting. Second is collaborative and open. Third is, I am like a soccer coach who is equally involved with the team.
What is the next milestone for your company?
I have a favourite saying that you can never chase the puck (in ice hockey, a player cannot run as fast as the puck). The only way to catch that puck is by anticipating where it is likely to be. So that is why you position yourself accordingly. Consider my decision to buy Pininfarina SpA (an Italian car design firm and coachbuilder that Tech Mahindra acquired in December 2015)—it’s because I believe that design and engineering are equal in new business. Obviously, I am anticipating a puck.
Take our decision to get into the payments banking space. It is not just a bricks-and-mortar bank. I would rather call it brick and quick. Another important step we took was to set up Saral Rozgar (mobile job marketplace), which already has six million customers. Similarly, we set up a customer business called MoboMoney (digital wallet). The point I am trying to make is that we will look at these technology spin-offs where technology will play an equal or more important role in serving consumers.
My objective is to be a relevant global player, but if I don’t take advantage of the growing economy of India, growing youth of India, and if I don’t actually present solutions here, I don’t think the world is going to wait for me.