After a high-profile boardroom battle at the Tata Group, that lasted for over two months, Natarajan Chandrasekaran has been named the new chairman of Tata Sons. Fondly called ‘Chandra’ by people at the Bombay House, the Tata Group’s headquarters, Chandrasekaran is a true insider.
The 53-year-old joined TCS in 1987, rose through the ranks to become CEO in 2009, and and is credited for its spectacular turnaround. Today TCS is the most successful Indian IT company, valued at $67 billion – that’s 60% of the group’s market value and 70% of Tata Son’s revenue.
It is an incredible achievement, to start off at the very bottom and manage to reach the pinnacle of corporate success. But it’s something that the Chandrasekaran family is used to.
Natarajan Chandrasekaran was born in an agricultural family in the village of Mohanur in Tamil Nadu. One of six children, Chandrasekaran’s father was a lawyer but when his grandfather died, his father had to look after the family farm that grew bananas, rice and sugarcane. A man who believed in the power of hard work, Chandrasekaran’s father took the time to teach his son lessons in frugality, honesty and perseverance that held him in good stead throughout his life.
As a kid, Chandrasekaran and his brothers would walk 3 km everyday to their Tamil-medium government school. For his senior secondary exams, he switched to an English-medium. After passing the 10th grade, he moved to Trichy (in Tamil Nadu) to study further. He later recalled, in an interview, how the experience of staying away from home and family was a big change for him.
After earning a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree in Applied Sciences from the Coimbatore Institute of Technology, Chandrasekaran returned home and stayed for six months to to see whether he would happy taking up agriculture as a profession. After four or five months had passed, however, he realised that he was not cut out for agriculture and considered becoming a chartered accountant. Unfortunately, by then, he had missed the CA admissions for the academic year.
Chandrasekaran then decided to apply for a Master’s in Computer Applications from the Regional Engineering College of Trichy in 1986. Little did he suspect that this decision would go on to change his life. In the final year of his Master’s programme, he took up a project with TCS, and never looked back—starting off as a software programmer and rising to the helm of the company where he learnt the ropes of the IT business.
He never attended any management school nor does he read much management literature. He learnt about team building and customer management through his work that took him to different places for different projects. In 1999, he started the firm’s e-business unit. Under him, it grew it to an over-500 million dollar segment in just four-and-a-half years.
It was here that Chandrasekaran was groomed under the watchful eyes of his mentor, S. Ramadorai (the then-CEO of TCS). Thanks to his mentor’s guidance and his own business acumen, Chandrasekaran’s rise in TCS was fast.
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In September 2007, he was co-opted on the TCS board and named the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the company. His first move was to set up integrated, customer-centric units to enhance customer focus, drive operational agility and address new growth opportunities. In October 2009, he eventually succeeded S. Ramadorai as CEO and MD of TCS at the age of 46, becoming one of the youngest CEOs of the Tata group.
Steering the conglomerate through what was a tough time for the world economy and the IT industry, Chandrasekaran proved his mettle when, under his watch, TCS’s revenue tripled from $6.3 billion to over $16.5 billion. Other than becoming India’s largest private sector employer, his reign also saw TCS taking important steps towards new technologies like artificial intelligence, the internet-of-things and blockchain.
Despite his many contributions to the company, Chandrasekaran wears his achievements lightly. An affable, unassuming and approachable leader, he has a phenomenal capacity for remembering people. According to those who work under him, corridor conversations with Chandrasekaran can revolve around not only the executives themselves but also their families.
The personal touch has allowed the CEO to remain connected with employees. His mentor, S Ramadorai once said that “the ability to build world-class teams and value systems” was Chandrasekaran’s biggest strength. He delegates a lot and keeps up the pace and enthusiasm level up when a project is on. Interestingly, Chandrasekaran is a cricket fan and often uses cricketing terms and metaphors while setting targets!
The corporate legend also has a soft side. Chandrasekaran once flew back from the US to attend to his dog Ray, a Beagle, who had cancer. Ray died in 2014 aged seven, after struggling with the disease for many months. To de-stress, he likes reading books and listening to South Indian classical music, especially old Tamil film songs that remind him of his village home.
Chandrasekaran also enjoys participating in marathons and has run around eight half-marathons. He now runs on Mumbai’s beaches at 5 a.m. every day, some days going as far as 16 kilometres. In many of his interviews, he has mentioned how running (which he started to stave off diabetes) has made him calmer, more observant and taught him to persevere.
A small-town boy who chose programming over ploughing, the newly-anointed Chairman of Tata Sons is the very definition of tenacity. Having been handed the baton at Tata Sons at perhaps the most difficult time in the history of the over $100 billion Tata Group, Natarajan Chandrasekaran has his job cut out for him. How he fares is yet to be seen, but he has time, determination and experience on his side. As a seasoned marathon runner, he will know that that’s a huge advantage.
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