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Business News/ Mint-lounge / N Chandrasekaran | A 10-billion-dollar smile
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N Chandrasekaran | A 10-billion-dollar smile

N Chandrasekaran | A 10-billion-dollar smile


Natarajan Chandrasekaran’s smile lights up the huge LCD screen, visible clearly even though we were sitting around 1,500km apart. I was in his branch office in New Delhi while he was in his Mumbai office—we were on video chat. On his desk were family photographs of his trekking getaways in the Himalayas and some mementos he has collected over the years—the few adornments he allows in his simple yet elegant office—besides his electronic gadgets and personal computer.

TCS’ revenue today is 10% that of the entire IT industry (including domestic hardware) in India—$100 billion, according to software lobby body National Association of Software and Service Companies, or Nasscom. It had an employee strength of 238,000 as on 31 March—also around 10% of the IT industry’s direct employment figures in the country, according to Nasscom.

Chandrasekaran, TCS chief executive and managing director, also took over as Nasscom chairman for 2012-13 from 1 May. He was its vice-chairman in 2011-12.

“Over the last 40 years, we have created a solid platform," says Chandrasekaran. “The company has depth and we have learnt to take risks while remaining agile. We also have developed a culture of building long-term relationships and have created many job opportunities over the years (TCS will surpass the 250,000-employee mark in the next few quarters)."

Easy-going: Despite his love for impersonal math and numbers, Chandrasekaran is considered by his colleagues to be affable and approachable (Jayachandran/Mint)

Globally, technology company Hewlett-Packard, or HP, has an annual revenue of around $125 billion while IBM is an approximately $107 billion company. In India, however, the revenue of these companies is not strictly comparable with Indian IT firms since companies like TCS, Infosys and Wipro cater primarily to the US and UK markets. However, for the purpose of comparison with a company like TCS, IBM Global Technology Services (the outsourcing division of IBM) is a $40 billion unit, while Accenture Plc.’s revenue is a little over $27 billion.

In the country, according to the Dataquest magazine’s DQ Top 20 domestic IT players ranking (released in September 2011), HP India had a revenue of 19,022 crore while Cisco India posted a revenue of 7,015 crore.

The impression one gets on meeting Chandrasekaran is that IT services is what he was always meant to do. He has been with TCS for almost 25 years. He never applied for any other job, starting at TCS as a software programme in 1987.

But that’s not the case. He could easily have been a farmer had he succumbed to his father’s wishes in the early 1980s.

“I was one of six children. My father was a lawyer but when my grandfather died, my father had to look after the family properties that included farmland. I went to a Tamil-medium school till class X. Being a typical Tam Bram (short for Tamil Brahmin), I excelled in math. After my 10th standard, I moved to Trichy (in Tamil Nadu) to study further and had to stay in a hotel (it was not a hostel, he clarifies) near the school. I used to go back home every six weeks. So far, I had led a protected life. This experience came as a big change in my life," recalls Chandrasekaran.

After a bachelor of science (BSc) in applied sciences from the Coimbatore Institute of Technology, Chandrasekaran went home and stayed back six months, “to see whether I could take up agriculture as a profession. After four-five months, I realized that agriculture was not my cup of tea," he reminisces. “I then thought of becoming a chartered accountant. By then, I had missed an academic year."

In the final year of his master’s programme, he took up a project with TCS, and never looked back—starting as a software programmer and rising to the helm of the company where he learnt the ropes of the IT business. In October 2009, he succeeded S. Ramadorai as CEO and MD of TCS at age 46, becoming one of the youngest CEOs of the Tata group. It was Ramadorai, now vice-chairman of TCS, who groomed Chandrasekaran for a leadership position.

His rise in TCS was fast. In 1999, he started the firm’s e-business unit and grew it to an over $500 million segment in four-and-a-half years. In September 2007, he was co-opted on the TCS board and named the chief operating officer (COO) of the company. As the COO, he drove the company’s acquisition strategy—the acquisition of Citigroup Global Services for $505 million in October 2008 is credited to him.

The transition was well-planned. Chandrasekaran was one of the best-kept secrets in the TCS citadel; he was identified for the CEO’s role around 2004-05, insist analysts. But his public role became apparent only somewhere around 2007.

Has his role changed drastically—from a manager to a leader? “I do not have any classical definition. But a leader must have the ability to dream, to take risks and be accountable. Besides, a leader should be able to build trustworthy teams and inspire them. A manager, on the other hand, must be exemplary in execution, articulating and simplifying things," he says.

How does he manage his time, juggle so many roles (he is on various other bodies like the Confederation of Indian Industry), and yet remain calm?

“Firstly, I am enjoying my current role. I also use many gadgets to streamline my activities (Chandra is an Apple Inc fan and uses the latest iPhone and iPad to schedule his appointments). The technocrats at TCS help me optimize the use of gadgets, so I’m in a privileged position. I also get to learn much from my clients," says Chandrasekaran, who lives in Mumbai with wife Lalitha and son Pranav, who is in class X. Lalitha left her job as an investment banker 15 years ago after marriage.

To de-stress, he reads fiction and books on politics and business. 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 has helped me become a better listener. It also calms me and gives me time to reflect on issues," he says. He takes running seriously, and began training 10 months ahead of the 2010 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. So does he get enough time with family? “You always want to spend more time with the family. We take a couple of breaks in a year," he says.

Will Pranav become an IT professional too? “He’s still trying to figure his life out," says Chandrasekaran, breaking into a smile.

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Leslie D'Monte
Leslie D'Monte has been a journalist for almost three decades. He specialises in technology and science writing, having worked with leading media groups--both as a reporter and an editor. He is passionate about digital transformation and deep-tech topics including artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, crypto, metaverses, quantum computing, genetics, fintech, electric vehicles, solar power and autonomous vehicles. Leslie is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Knight Science Journalism Fellow (2010-11). In his other avatar, he curates tech events and moderates panels.
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Updated: 11 May 2012, 11:23 PM IST
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