What 15 litres of water and a bucket tell us about Narayana Murthy’s ‘terror’



By Captain G.R. GOPINATH

It is not easy to let go, for any of us.

As a parent, even after your daughter is well past her teens, you worry and impose your world view on them. We exercise our tyrannical powers to make them conform and if they show the least mark of independence we use our emotions or wealth to exploit the situation, subtly and even blatantly.

If it is a son and if he is eager to take over the business, whether it’s a big empire or a small one, we are reluctant to pass on the baton and we hold on till we breathe our last.

It’s not uncommon. Be it kingdoms, politics, business, religious orders or individual families, power and the arc lights have an irresistible allure.

N.R. Narayana Murthy is a legend in his own lifetime, an icon of titanic proportions whose leadership qualities are hard to emulate for the best amongst us. He led through personal example with an austere life style.

Son of a poor school teacher, he set up Infosys with a meagre seed money of Rs 10,000 along with other partners and built a great IT company, and is a beacon of hope for millions like him from middle and lower middle class families.

I once asked Sudha Murthy, his wife, what was it about Murthy that she found extraordinary.

No man is a hero to his valet or wife, it is said. I was curious.

She said he is a great visionary.

Vision is the art of seeing the invisible as Jonathan Swift said.

A curious paradox—vision is obviously what you can see. The future, the shape of things to come, is invisible. The entrepreneur can visualise it clearly in his mind’s eye. He sees what others can not.

Narayana Murthy saw a great future for Indian IT, when IT didn’t exist in India, when it took years to get a licence to import a computer, when the Licence Raj reigned.

He created and scripted the future of India’s IT industry by steadfastly holding on to his dream without losing hope or enthusiasm.

There were times when they ran completely out of cash and nearly went under. By sheer dint of courage and perseverance they held on, ekeing out a living on meagre resources and running their errands on scooters.

Narayana Murthy was not only a leader but he groomed a galaxy of leaders who were his founder-partners. Most businesses fail because of differences of opinion and often because of ego and personality clashes amongst partners.

My financial advisor once told me:

“Remember it’s easier to divorce your wife than your partner in business.”

It’s to the extraordinary credit of Murthy that he chose prudently and his seven partners followed him unquestioningly and believed in his dream and leadership implicitly. Nandan Nilekani, Kris Gopalakrishnan, Shibulal, Dinesh, Raghavan, and Mohandas Pai, though not part of the original band of seven, were all good leaders in their own right.

Over the years, Murthy became not only the symbol of Infosys and its face but the face of Indian IT as well.

Infosys became a darling of the stock market and its bellwether because of its stellar performance on delivering shareholder value which outperformed the stock indices consistently over the years.

Not just in India but in the US and the West where Infosys was registered with the NASDAQ – the first Indian company to do so. But his fame endures not for financial performance.

It was enhanced many fold by the high ethical standards he set at Infosys which became the benchmark for corporate governance. He showed the rest of us that being good is good business.

He demonstrated to the millions of skeptics and aspiring youth that you can build a successful business in India by being ethical and honest.

As the late C.K. Prahlad said:

“If you want to be rich be a crook , but if you want to be really wealthy beyond dreams follow corporate governance.”

Though Murthy appeared gentle and unassuming to the point of self-effacement, and was an embodiment of humility, within Infosys he was known to be an autocrat and ruled with an iron fist.

“He was a terror,” Mohandas Pai mentioned to me once.

He cited an example once when Murthy called him late at night and asked him to bring down the consumption of water in the impressive Infosys training campus he had built at Mysore, which could house and train 10,000 people at a time.

Pai tried to argue him out of it. But Murthy had all the data.

He said ,”Mohan, the water consumption per head is in excess of 50 litres per day per head and you should bring it down to 20 litres. In fact I use only 15 litres. I use a bucket. ”

Such eye for detail to save every penny for the company when the net profit had crossed a billion US dollars is rare. He had his quirks like Gandhi. But, Pai said, everyone acquiesced because Murthy’s integrity and commitment was beyond reproach and he was a much-loved father figure.

He demanded the same rigour from from others and he did not spare himself either.

One day we all have to hand over the reins and make way. A new generation will take over. They cannot replace and replicate the original founders. It is not possible. Nor is it desirable.

As Napoleon famously said:

“I’m the creature of my times. No one can replace me. I can not replace myself.”

Vishal Sikka cannot become Narayana Murthy. To the board and the shareholders he had acquitted himself creditably. Murthy and a few of his erstwhile colleagues argued he fell short in the ethical standards they envisioned.

Murthy relinquished his post of Executive Chairman three years ago. Sikka was chosen by him. And the board of very eminent people was also handpicked and appointed by Murthy. There rests the matter.

Murthy must let go and like other shareholders bring to bear his influence or express his dissent in the board meetings and annual general meetings (AGMs). And if he has no confidence in the board, he must work with other shareholders and try to replace the board through democratic means.

Whether you are a minority shareholder, which he is holding just 3 to 4 per cent like the other founders or a majority share holder, you can not run it like many family-controlled listed companies. That’s what set Murthy apart from others. That’s why he is revered across India.

Murthy invited himself back from retirement to lead Infosys once again around six years ago when there was relatively lacklustre performance in comparison to TCS.

The CEO then was Shibulal who graciously accepted and welcomed it even though when you looked closely he had delivered good numbers under the existing challenges, especially a run away appreciation of dollars against the rupee and a recession in the West. But he was one of the original founders and they all looked up to Murthy with affection as a mentor.

Sikka is a professional of the new generation with a differing world view. Murthy did an outstanding job on his return but handed over the mantle amidst murmurs and unsavoury comments which were sadly uncharitable to him.

Murthy invited it on himself. The foundation that Murthy himself had laid in Infosys and the robust leadership he had created was strong enough to weather the storm.

This is not an attempt to analyse who was at fault. Sikka, the Board which was perceived as lax in enforcing corporate governance by the old guard, or Murthy himself ? This is about letting go and abdicating gracefully.

It’s about reposing confidence and trusting the new generation and allowing them to make their own mistakes and learn from it. It is about encouraging them to discover their dreams and blaze a new trail and learn how to build enduring institutions with changing times. It’s about realising that we can’t be there for ever and your time is past.

We will all do well to remember what Emerson said:

“Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fulness and completion? Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence then this worship of the past?”

(Captain G.R. Gopinath is the founder of India’s first low cost airline, Air Deccan)

Photograph: courtesy Chethan ShivakumarThe Times of India