Tata Communications' Amur Lakshminarayanan on connecting businesses worldwide

Amur Lakshminarayanan, MD and CEO of Tata Communications
Amur Lakshminarayanan, MD and CEO of Tata Communications


The MD and CEO of Tata Communications on putting sustainability and AI at the core of the company, connecting businesses worldwide, and being a slave to his calendar

It was late 2019, and Amur Lakshminarayanan had just moved from Japan to Mumbai as the managing director and chief executive officer of Tata Communications, having joined the division a few months earlier. In the middle of finding his feet in a new role, Lakshminarayanan was staying at a hotel while his residence was being done up and the family’s belongings were being shipped. He had a whole bunch of travel lined up, and the family decided to move in, whether the house was ready or not—it had a dining table, a sofa and one bed.  

Within a week of moving, the covid-19 lockdown was announced, leaving Lakshminarayanan and his wife Sharmila to adapt—in a new home, in a new but not unknown city, without furniture or help. “My wife jokingly says, in all my career, even when my children were growing up in the UK, she never saw so much of me," Lakshminarayanan, 63, says with a smile. But working from home was less of a challenge than managing a company that required boots on the ground. “People don’t realise," he says, “that communications is a critical national infrastructure. Our engineers still had to go out to the streets and do their job."

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For Lakshminarayanan, used to moving frequently and living in different countries, this unexpected start to his new role driven by the pandemic was just another problem that needed to be worked out. “You are just able to move on quickly," he says about the impact that constant travelling and moving have had on him.

Flexibility is a desirable trait in any leader, and essential for his role at Tata Communications, a digital enterprise solutions provider with a portfolio that includes cloud, cybersecurity, mobility and IoT (internet of things), besides media and entertainment. It operates a subsea fibre (internet) network that carries around 30% of the world’s internet routes while its IoT network in India claims to be the world’s largest network of its kind.

The company, which started life as the public sector Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL) in 1986 before being acquired by the Tata Group in 2002, connects businesses worldwide to 80% of the world’s cloud giants and four out of five mobile subscribers worldwide. “We can run a complete ring around the world," says Lakshminarayanan, “and our network carries a third of all the world’s internet."  

In 2022-23, the company delivered over 20,000 live events with remote production services, channelling multiple camera feeds. This includes about 120,000 hours of live broadcast across 3,000 television channels reaching over two billion sports fans, for disciplines such as Formula 1 racing, Formula E, and World Rally Championships among others. 

“We are trying to shift, which is why internally the mantra is that anybody who says we are a telco (tele-communications company) gets a slap on the wrist. We are not a telco anymore, we are trying to become a com-tech (communications technology) company," he says.  

If that distinction (how a modern version of VSNL is not a telecom company) is difficult to understand, Lakshminarayanan is quick to acknowledge it. He uses the ride-hailing app Uber to draw an analogy. “You can’t imagine an Uber app working without a map application, right? So the map is fundamental to how Uber works. So we are not the Uber, but we are that map for the enterprise." 

Last year, Tata Communications acquired US-based video production and distribution company The Switch Enterprises LLC for end-to-end video production and transmission of high-quality, high-speed, and more immersive live video-experiences. The need for that came from the changing face of modern-day broadcast of live sporting events, for which they cater to clients such as MotoGP, Star India, Vista Worldwide, SailGP among others. What used to take a Boeing-full of equipment, a data centre, trucks with big satellites for producing at the facility and then broadcasting, has shifted to remote production. So feeds from hundreds of cameras go to a remote production—in the case of F1 to London—and from there get distributed to different countries. Over 500 million viewers watch it, in real time, in a matter of milliseconds. 

“You can’t have a black screen moment, a blip… It needs to be fail-proof. We are there three days in advance, planning the whole thing, making sure every last mile connectivity works," he says.  “All enterprises are going to operate in this hyper-connected world. Everything is going to be real time, frictionless collaboration between an ecosystem of companies," says Lakshminarayanan.  

The slim, light-eyed Lakshminarayanan, dressed in a striped shirt with cuff-links, is seated in his office cabin in Bandra-Kurla Complex, Mumbai. The room has a minimalistic décor, grey walls, white furniture and white blinds on windows overlooking the Mithi river, a contrast in black due to years of abuse from the city’s pollutants. The minimalism in the work space could be a by-product of the five years Lakshminarayanan spent in Japan, one of his favourite places from all the travel across the globe. 

He grew up in Tiruchirapalli or Trichy in Tamil Nadu, among the last batch of students who went through the pre-university, PUC, system. His father was a practising civil lawyer, part of an extended family that included two brothers, a sister, uncles and their families. The house was a revolving door of people—relatives, his father’s clients.  Lakshminarayanan says he started focusing on academics only when he went into second year PUC, which led him to the Birla Institute of Technology (BITS), Pilani. Five years “just went in a jiffy" giving him a different exposure to life and besides formal education, taught him a lot of soft skills. While he studied mechanical engineering, the most sought after discipline of the time, computers, were beginning to become prominent. In 1983, when Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) selected four candidates from campus interviews, Lakshminarayanan was one of them. 

He stayed with the group for the next 40-plus years, his last role as representative director, president and CEO of TCS Japan. He was heading a joint venture between Japanese Mitsubishi Corporation and TCS, with the latter getting a controlling stake, since 2014, when N. Chandrasekaran, chairman, Tata Sons, called with an offer to move to Tata Communications in Mumbai.

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In a way, life has come full circle because he started his career in Mumbai, sharing a place near King’s Circle with two others that was probably a quarter of the size of his current office. Then there were a series of projects in the US, Hong Kong, Australia, the UK, besides Mumbai and Chennai, which made it difficult to stay in touch with his roots. But the constant shuffle also kept him interested in work, besides dealing with eclectic clients like a gun manufacturer in India and commuting to work on a boat in Sydney. 

“The early years, it would be one year, one project, a new client. You almost start afresh with a new thing that you learn. So it feels like a new job every year," he says. “One thing that TCS taught me is how to continuously learn and mutate."    

When he joined Tata Communications, a company with a weak balance sheet that had been partly government controlled, he needed to understand what he was getting into. Lakshminarayanan’s initial research, which included conversations with a banker, showed that a minute of downtime or any blip in connectivity cost banks $6,000 (around 5 lakh now) every time. But through the year, they paid approximately $15,000 only for the connectivity link.   

“It was the irony," he says. “One of the things running through my mind coming afresh to the company was the data, the economics of it. Everybody used to say the data growth is huge. Why were we, as a company carrying the data, not making money? It was just odd. Again, somewhat provokingly, I used to say, we are the pipe and we don’t care whether we carry potable water or sewage water."

The company’s new strategy, led by Lakshminarayanan, was unveiled four years ago when the pandemic broke, putting sustainability and Artificial Intelligence (AI) at the core. Last year, Tata Communications crept through a 10% growth. Lakshminarayanan says, “We put that final tick on, saying, that’s done. What’s next?"  

According to company statements, Tata Communications has recorded 11 successive quarters of net profit, and Ebitda (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation), margins have gone up to 24-25% from 14-15% per cent. Return on capital employed (RoCE), which was 8.3% in 2019, is now at 28%. The stock has gone up by nearly 200%, at 1,947, since Lakshminarayanan took charge. 

While in the recent past, 70% of Tata Communications’ revenue came from core connectivity solutions and the balance from digital platforms, now about 40% comes from digital solutions and 60% from core connectivity, marking its change from a telco to a digital ecosystem enabler. 

The answer to Lakshminarayanan’s “what’s next" comes from the firm’s increasing relevance in global markets, to take US revenues to $1 billion in the next three years while doubling data revenue by 2027. His own personal “next" includes further exploration of philosophy (studying Vedanta, the Bhagavad Gita), which he started during the pandemic, and maybe playing more golf when he retires, which is not for another two years at least. 

He admits to being a slave to his calendar, so much so that his wife used to call his assistant to block his dates for the children’s school events.

He says he doesn’t have a leadership motto. “I feel you just play the cards you’re dealt with. That’s a constant philosophy I had and make the most of what you have in opportunities, developing people around you." 

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle. He tweets @iArunJ.

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