The worst kind of boss is the one that micromanages you every minute. And I had one of those at HCL. In the earlier days, we didn’t have the electronic leash called cell phones so I would disappear for three days together. When I met him thereafter, he would fire a barrage of questions at me. “Where were you?” Then I would show him the list of clients I met in the past three days and his next question would be, “What’s the outcome?” I would then pull out the order forms. I was the kind of employee who would have an answer for all his questions and he was clearly amused by someone he didn’t have a third question for. I am sure he experienced a sense of loss of control and I can only imagine how he felt when I would disappear on him for a week.
But I continued to grow steadily during my stint in HCL. I handled product and sales management. I had worked in industry verticals. I was the country sales manager when I was handpicked by Shiv in 1994 for his team to create alternatives following the impending divorce with HP. I ended up working with him till he sold his stake in the HCL-Perot joint venture. Shiv is a wonderful coach and one of the many things I learnt from him is that as a leader you always back your team. I got a taste of it very early during my stint at HCL. One of the clients wanted a particular product. I went to my Technical Director with the request. He told me that he is not interested in the business because the product was not on the company’s product road map. I went ahead and quoted for the project. I found an alternative supplier and priced in a 20% gross margin when I made the offer to the client. I managed to secure the order. It was an order worth 1.5 crore and that was something that we could not throw away at that time. Mr Raman had not approved the pricing or specification and expectedly, he was very upset. Clearly, it became a discipline issue and he complained to Shiv. Shiv called me to his room and questioned, “You know Raman is upset with you. Why did you do this?” I told him,“You hired me as business manager and my job is to find new businesses. I didn’t have time to argue with him or come to you so I did what I thought was best. I had figured out an alternative source of supply and factored in a decent margin for us. We sell magnetic drives, which we don’t manufacture. I saw an opportunity to trade and I took it.” That’s all he needed to hear. Thirty seconds into the conversation he said, “Congratulations! I am really proud of you. I love the way you think.” And if that’s not enough, he even argued with his Technical Director, who was also a co-founder because he was willing to back me up.
I told Shiv that I wanted to be part of the HCL-Perot Systems. He offered me some equity in the joint venture and I told him that Vineet Nayar should be the CEO. Vineet had joined HCL as the vice-chairman from World Bank. His room used to be my smoking den. He didn’t smoke but he didn’t object to anyone smoking in his presence. He was an occasional cigar smoker at that time. Vineet liked to exercise every afternoon in the office and I would usually go in for a smoke and a chat with him. I went into his room as usual with a cigarette dangling in my hand and told him that I have decided to join HPS. It was going to be a solid joint venture with two powerful partners. I told him that I had suggested his name for the CEO position. He was on the cycle and he looked at me and said, “So you are now going to decide what I am going to do for a living?” And I retorted with a smile, “You do know in the olden days it was the barber who had the King’s ears.” After joking around he asked me why I suggested his name. I told him that if we didn’t appoint a CEO, they would. I didn’t feel my CV was strong enough at that point to lead the venture. I felt it was a great joint venture and we could scale it up the way we want to. I had worked on Shiv and I had worked on Vineet. The two met each other later that evening and he agreed to take on the role but wanted to meet Perot before he took the plunge. He liked the team at Perot and they liked him and that’s how I chose my own boss!
Vineet is family now. Thanks to his influence I have been exercising in office for the past ten years. I love how nothing ever fazes him and we have had some rough times together. I remember there was this time where the boardroom tussle between HCL and Perot Systems was coming to a head. It made front page in The Economic Times saying Perot Systems accuses HCL officials of intellectual property fraud. I was 39-40-years-old and I didn’t sleep that night. It was Diwali and I was at a Diwali party and Rakesh Soni called me saying, “CP you may want to come back to office. Perot Systems is taking over your email drive and you are going to be being used as a pawn in their battle with HCL.” We had also heard that they are going to slap a lawsuit on us. I rushed back to the office. I was rattled. I was 40, my career was just taking off and I didn’t want to be seen as someone who commits intellectual property fraud. We tried frantically to reach Vineet to ask him to come down to work. We couldn’t reach him so we decided to go to his house, where he was hosting a Diwali party. We call him and bring him up to speed on what has happened. He hears us out and doesn’t even bat an eyelid. He told us, Woh sab chhod. Chal daaru peete hain. And we did.
Next day, Shiv was at the other end of the spectrum. He was hopping mad. He asked me to speak to Amarchand Mangaldas, “I will talk to Kapil Sibal”, he said. All the legal experts we spoke with told us not to get hassled and that we were safe.” Shiv would keep calling us for hourly updates and Vineet would tell me, Usko bol exercise karke aa raha hoon. Thankfully things were sorted out amicably and Shiv finally sold his stake to Perot Systems in 2003.
My favourite story is that Shiv sold me along with his stake in HCL Perot Systems. I was very upset because that was my home. But he had his compulsions. He had signed a non-compete, non-poach agreement with them.
After Perot bought out Shiv’s stake there was a fundamental difference on how the company would be run. They wanted to control everything from Dallas and I felt that the Indian entity should be independently managed here. I went to Dallas to Perot Jr’s home for dinner and he told me that Perot’s new CEO Peter Alterbef was seeing India as a supply centre and not a business centre. I told him if we are becoming a cost centre, then I am not your guy. I will stay with the company for a year because I have promised the employees that I would make sure the transition would go off smoothly and they would not get affected. HCL Perot was my baby. I built that company from scratch but it was time to move on.
Sanjay Kalra and I were going to start a company. Sanjay had already quit the company in late 2003 and I was waiting to complete the transition process. We already had a term sheet from General Atlantic. Vineet was going to run a trust and was going to join UBS as their advisor and chairman. We were all set for the next phase in our career when ABN Amro’s managing director Frank Hancock came up with an interesting proposal of a possible merger of MBT and the Indian arm of Perot Systems. I told him that it would be the most expensive way for MBT to get a CEO. He was a little puzzled. I then told him about how a head hunter was already in touch with me for a possible CEO position at MBT.
That sparked off a new idea in Frank’s mind. He asked us if we had the same freedom of building a business at MBT with a little equity thrown in, would we join them? It didn’t seem like a bad idea. He then went to Anand and Kesub Mahindra and told them about how Vineet, Sanjay and me would be a great team to lead MBT. Of course, they did their own due diligence. I remember my first meeting with Anand. We were meeting at Indigo in Mumbai and I was surprised to see him drive up in a Scorpio all by himself. By then cell phones had invaded our lives, I had stopped driving thinking I would use my commute time for calls and I also didn’t want the hassle of parking the car but here was one of the biggest businessman in India doing it all by himself! You can’t find a more egalitarian boss than Anand. He treats everyone with the same love and respect and if he has ever intearacted with him, he will never forget your name. There aren’t too many people like him.
From Anand I also learnt to take bold risks that many wouldn’t dream of taking. Naysayers wouldn’t bother him. In fact, the more the number of naysayers the more confident he is of going ahead. He always used to tell me that whenever you are doing something different or innovative, you will find your share of sceptics. Never let them stop you.
A lot of people thought we were crazy to take over Satyam. L&T and we were in such a close race in our bid for the company that it could have gone either way. We didn’t really know what we were walking into. It was a lesson on how one can turn a crisis into a great opportunity. I was chosen by the board to lead the company. We decided to focus on customers and employees before fixing anything else and that was the right strategy. We got that right intuitively. In the first year after we took over Satyam, I travelled for 300 days meeting clients and speaking to employees. I realised I had to win the trust of employees so I started blogging extensively because I wanted to keep them updated on the progress we were making. We celebrated the small achievements and even had our own in-house news channels that broadcast these victories. I had to take some of the toughest decisions of my life. Letting go of people was not easy but we did it in the most humane way we could. It wasn’t fair to let go of them all at once so we gave them time to find jobs while they were on the bench on a reduced salary. I can never forget ,September 29 2010, the day we completed the restatement of financials, we had turned a corner. All the ambiguity was gone and we could embark on our growth strategy. We haven’t looked back since. But things weren’t always smooth. I remember right after we took over Satyam, I was on the road constantly. The day would end at 2 am most days. I was losing my cool and would be rattled whenever I heard someone make a snide remark about Satyam. Vineet in his indomitable style tells me Tu Chaudhary oont pe baitha hai lekin peeche se kutte bhokenge. Trust him to diffuse any situation with his sense of humour.
There have been no demarcations between home and work for me. My family has been hugely supportive and my wife Anita is probably more responsible for the wonderful humans beings that Sanya and Ashish have become. She managed home while I travelled extensively. Only the uncomfortable situations that we sometimes have to deal with as parents, she would delegate to me if she could. Like the time my son was studying in 12th grade at DPS, RK Puram and was pulled up for missing school. He and his friends had bunked school to go and watch a movie. My wife received a call from school asking her to meet the principal. Like all mothers, she was hassled. She called me and asked me to meet the principal. The only thing I could think of on the way to school was, “What took this guy so long to do this? The first time I bunked school and went for a movie was in 7th grade. What took him five years more?”.
I went to meet the principal, Mrs Chona. She demanded that I write an apology letter on behalf of my son. Now I felt that was stretching things a little too far. The rebellious streak in me kicked in. I told her, “You should be the one writing an apology letter addressed to me.” She was taken aback. I said, “I had entrusted you with my child. Clearly, you didn’t have enough boundaries to keep him safe. So I think you must be the one to apologise.” She broke into a smile. She said, “Mr Gurnani, you think I am making a big issue out of a small thing.” I smiled back at her and told her “Ma’am, if boys don’t bunk school at this age when will they?” We agreed to let it go.
Unlike the heart attacks I gave my parents, my children have let me off easy. Of late, they are the ones who keep me grounded nowadays as they are not afraid to call me out when they think I am wrong. In fact, I don’t think I am ever right these days. When I look back I have a lot to be grateful for in my life. My only regret is that I didn’t get to spend more time with my parents. I still go back to Nimbahera and Neemuch whenever I can. Nobody knows me there now but for every nook and corner, I have a memory. If there is anything that I miss even today, it is the warmth and sense of belonging that comes from being in a small town. I may have come a long way but I guess beneath it all there still lives a small-town boy inside me.
This is the second of a two-part series. You can read part one here.