Going the distance

Marathon runner and CEO Natarajan Chandrasekaran believes agility will keep TCS, now India’s most valuable company, ahead of the pack.

Winning accolades seems to have become the norm for Natarajan Chandrasekaran, the chief executive offer of one of the world’s leading information technology companies, Tata Consultancy Service.

Earlier this month he was in Bangkok where TCS received the Asia Business Leader award, which came just a week after it achieved a major milestone. TCS is now India’s most valuable company by market capitalisation, ending Reliance Industries’ decade-long domination.

The 49-year old CEO, one of the youngest for a company that was also India’s first IT business to cross the US$10-billion mark in revenues in 2011, remains modest. Every time TCS wins an award, he says, it’s a signal to move ahead and also reflect on the past to find ways it can improve the way it works.

“Milestones are extremely important for they remind us of the journey we have travelled and also make us think of setting new goals and how to reach those goals,” he says.

“It is a reflective moment and brings the company together. It motivates people and it gives us a scale to take on bigger engagements and also gives us the ability to make bets and invest.”

TCS has won so many awards over the past few years that Mr Chandrasekaran would have a difficult time remembering them, but what he does know is that he wants to be the leader in every aspect, which is possible only through hard work and commitment to long-term goals.

The man who has a vision of keeping the crown as the largest IT outsource company in India wakes up at 4 each morning and needs less than eight hours of sleep.

“It is just a lifestyle,” he says simply. “For me waking up early means you have a lot of time to do things and you are fresh.”

The early rise also gives him the opportunity to pursue his zeal for running — not jogging or sprinting but long runs. “I love to run, I go for marathons and it’s my passion,” he says.

In like fashion, TCS under his stewardship is looking for marathon races to win, not just in India but across the world.

Now that the company has crossed the $10-billion mark, Mr Chandrasekaran aims to expand his goals for the business. Despite the ongoing gloom in the western hemisphere, he remains optimistic about growing the business both in developed and emerging markets.

Currently as much as 50% of the revenues of TCS come from the United States, while the rest is evenly split between Europe and emerging markets (that includes, Asean, other Asian nations, Latin America and other markets).

“In the global context of things, even 50% from the US, or about $5-6 billion, is not that big a deal, so we feel that there is room for growth in every market,” he says.

He acknowledges, though, that the emerging markets such as Asean and others are likely to grow at a faster pace than the average of the company, which has been around 20% annually over the past few years.

Can TCS, mindful of how it has grown in the past, keep growing at such a brisk pace in the future?  Mr Chandrasekaran insists the company has no specific financial goals, although since he assumed his position as CEO in 2009, revenues have nearly doubled.

“I have never given financial targets to anyone or any region,” he says, and stresses that it is the job of all the people to maintain TCS as the largest company in its field.

To help achieve this, he along with the other top management are always on the go, meeting existing and potential clients across the world. Not all such excursions end up in real deals but Mr Chandrasekaran doesn’t mind as he feels the conversations give the company great insight into what customers are thinking about and looking for.

Reading into what customers are looking for helps him and his management team gain access to the thought process of existing and potential customers, something they bring back to TCS and try to adapt.

“I go around the globe to meet clients and potential clients because this business is all about creating confidence, comfort and credibility. Once you have established credibility the customer gets comfort and then confidence,” he says, adding that as much as 50% of his time is spent travelling.

With more than 250,000 people working for the group across all continents, it’s not an easy task for a self-confessed “hands on” manager like Mr Chandrasekaran.

“Nobody is hands-off in this business. It’s a business where things are changing constantly and we need to be hands-on,” he says. That’s why the company’s various business units are in the hands of able “high potential” managers who have the authority of hiring or firing or saying yes or no to decisions.

Because its services are used in a diverse range of industries, TCS is in a unique position to track trends across the globe, says Mr Chandrasekaran, and one thing that is very visible these days is the fact that all companies are either going regional or global.

Citing the example of the financial industry, he said, most banks in Asean countries are now looking not at their home turf but at being pan-Asean financial services groups.

TCS itself has been broadening its focus and expanding its operations across the region. In the near future it wants want to expand to countries such as Vietnam and Myanmar.

“We were in Vietnam 15 years ago, I guess it was too early to be there then, but we are now looking at options there,” he said, noting that TCS’s head of Asean operations is based in Malaysia and the Asia-Pacific operation is run from Singapore.

Mr Chandrasekaran, who also likes to trek, has done exactly what he’s passionate about in his work life as well. Having started as a master’s graduate in TCS back in 1987, he has remained committed to the company ever since, despite being in an industry infamous for high attrition rates.

He trekked his way up through the ranks and in 2007 got his break when he was appointed chief operating officer at 44 years, eventually reaching the top position in 2009.

Away from the office and apart from running, Mr Chandrasekaran loves to trek and goes to northern India, Nepal or Bhutan, but not any farther because “I travel pretty extensively for work anyway, so I prefer not to travel if I don’t need to”.

So, apart from the doubling revenues over the past three years, what does he feel is his biggest achievement?

“If I can think of one thing that stands out, it is the organisation is far more agile,” he says adding that the company has managed to reorganise itself to be flexible to respond to any changing situation. The proof of this agility was its ability to sail through the tough times of the 2008 and 2010 financial crises.

“As a company we have now reorganised ourselves to be a group of multiple businesses where each group is empowered but where we bring the collective power of the organisation, and as team we are responding very well, picking up trends, technology, and building solutions,” he added.

His view is that being agile is necessary to survive in the ever-changing world of business. “Companies change, scale changes and markets change and you’ve got to take action and place bets at different points in time. What works one time may not work the other time.”

How come did he not change his company?

“Well, TCS has been a dream company and I’ve enjoyed my career every single day. It has been a performance-centric company and with a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck I managed to get to where I am today,” he said, before excusing himself to meet a potential client just before departing for India.

About the author

Writer: Umesh Pandey