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Home > Business > Special

Chip of a new block

Arijit De | February 11, 2003 15:04 IST

S Ramodorai, chief executive of Tata Consultancy Services, is not the most high profile of corporate chiefs. Even so, it was no surprise when he accepted an invitation for lunch with Business Standard.

No doubt, TCS's much-awaited initial public offering, planned sometime this year, had a role to play.

What was surprising was his choice of venue. It wasn't at the Taj, the venerable old flagship of the Tata group's hotel company, but the Kandahar, a rival property of The Oberoi.

Ramodorai, however, wasn't trying to be different -- it was just that the Kandahar was conveniently close to his Air- India office and he was, as always, on a tight schedule. What's more, I was told, he is a strict vegetarian.

That intelligence dampened my spirits a bit since I am an equally strict non-vegetarian. Still, there was always the sublime view of the Arabian Sea from the Kandahar to make up for it. Also, as Bombay House sources assured me, I was meeting the man who ran the most unconventional company in the  Rs 45,000-crore (Rs 450 billion) Tata group.

The tight schedule was well in evidence when Ramodorai arrived half-an-hour late. He was, he explained, held up at the EGM of Nicholas Piramal of which he is a non-executive director, and added that he had to leave in an hour for a TCS strategy meeting. I made a mental note that he was one of the few Tata group professionals to have been rewarded with board appointments in non-Tata companies.

We took a corner seat and didn't scan the menu for too long since Ramadorai said he usually has a light meal during the day and settled for plain roti, kadhi and aloo jeera that we agreed to share. I added a chicken tikka makhanwala and naan. And true to his Tamil Brahmin roots, he added rice and dahi to his fare.

Originally a Nagpur boy, Ramodorai spent most of his early years in Delhi, where his father worked in the Indian Audits and Accounts Service, taking a Bachelor's degree from Delhi University in physics.

Then it was on to the Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore, for another degree in communication technology. It was a conscious decision to choose the combination of dual degrees from the two institutes in six years instead of just one in five years from an IIT.

University of California, Los Angeles, was his next stop for a master's in computer science, after which he joined NCR, then the third largest computer company in the US.

The reason he returned to India was personal rather than professional. "There was a major recession in the US in 1970s, much like what we saw last year. And my parents wanted me to return to India, quite unlike nowadays when most people would like to see their children remain in the US," he said.

Ramodorai was able to fulfill his parents' wishes about two years later. In 1971 came an offer from the then Voltas chairman A H Tobaccowala, who was also in charge of Tata Inc, the group's New York outfit. By January of the next year, Ramadorai was back in Mumbai with TCS. And within a year of his joining, Fakir Chand Kohli took charge.

For an organisation that started out as an expert on applications for computer hardware in the 1970s, life has turned full circle. It is now not only Asia's largest software and IT services company, but has operations in 55 countries and eight overseas development centres.

Its profit margins are among the highest in the global list of IT services giants, and it was the biggest contributor to the Tata group's bottomline last year.

In retrospect, Ramadorai is glad that he did not make the shift to the Tatas-Burroughs joint venture (now Tata Infotech) that was hived off from TCS in the late 1970s. "I was one of the few people who stayed back despite being a key member of that team," he said. By 1996, he was rewarded for his prescience, succeeding Kohli.

Since Ramodorai was among the TCS "inner circle" before his elevation to the top job, I asked him how Kohli became so synonymous with the company though there were many other professionals of comparable if not greater capability.

The answer was oblique: "Very clearly, F C Kohli was the face of the organisation. He was the representative on the Tata Sons board, getting all the support from the group to build the company."

All the same, he said, TCS was always a people-driven organisation. "There was a hierarchical structure during Mr Kohli's time, and a small structure at that. So decision making was always central." Today by contrast, TCS has a more distributed organisation than before with empowerment almost at every level."

His colleagues say TCS has changed considerably under Ramadorai. It's more nimble-footed, moving up the value chain and undertaking a major brand-building initiative to become a significant player in the IT consulting business. This move, they say, has gone a long way in pushing up TCS's tentative valuation to over Rs 50,000 crore (Rs 500 billion).

"The fundamentals of TCS are the same. But now we have more of a team approach. I try and make the core team as visible as possible. The age profile has come down, the hierarchical structure is much broader and decision-making is spread all over the organisation," he said.

How did he compare his work style with Kohli? "Earlier a lot of us had great access to Kohli, but there were also others who wouldn't go anywhere near his office. That wouldn't happen now." Even operationally TCS's focus is on building an organisation with domain expertise.

The discussion was getting too technical so I asked Ramodorai why there is such a great cultural difference between TCS and the rest of the Tata group. He ducked the bouncer with an aplomb that would have made Tendulkar proud but acknowledged the objective of the question with a chuckle.

"You have to see it in the proper context. The group has more of a manufacturing mindset, while TCS is into services. Also, the age profile of people in TCS at below 30 years is a lot lower than in other Tata companies. You also have to see the dynamics of the sector we are in. We cannot afford to but be different."

Despite the time and Ramodorai's light diet, we said yes to dessert. He ordered gulab jamun, I settled for a more Bengali rasamalai. I asked him how he was enjoying his stint as an independent director on the boards of two other dynamic companies, Hindustan Lever and Nicholas Piramal.

He clearly sees it as a recognition of his professional achievements. "Certainly the Tatas see it that way. My job is to advise these companies on the role of technology in improving their business environment and improve on their capabilities," he said.

"I also learn about a lot of things that I can apply to my own company -- customer relationship management, how they invest in people, learning more about marketing, retailing. But one has to balance this. I cannot get onto too many boards, and I have had to turn down offers," he added.

Ramadorai is set to play an even more important role within the group, as chairman Ratan Tata gives shape to his plan of integrating the group's infotech companies.

Apart from being the CEO of TCS, he is on the board of Tata Infotech, the vice chairman of Tata Elxsi and the chairman of CMC and Tata Technologies.

"Internally, the mandate is simple. To integrate the core capabilities of each company, and then make a strong pitch both in India and abroad. So what you will see is one big IT company with over 30,000 employees. There are many ways in which the smaller companies can strengthen TCS," he explained.

The process will be kicked off once the TCS IPO is through and from then on the creation of the Tata group's IT behemoth will depend on the time it takes for all regulatory clearances to be in place.

As the enormity of the exercise began to sink in, I realised it was time for us to leave. Tight schedule or not, I had managed to take up 90 minutes of the chief executive's time.

Through none of it, though, had he ever displayed the expected self-importance of a man who was clearly going to become one of the Tata group's leading satraps.

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