Natarajan Chandrasekaran is not a sprinter. But the chairman-designate of Tata Sons, the holding company of India’s leading conglomerate — the Tatas, is a passionate long-distance runner who has completed several marathons around the world including the ones in Amsterdam, Boston, Chicago, Berlin, New York, Stockholm and Tokyo. The skill and that endurance to clock several extra miles is what should help him manage the $103 billion conglomerate which has a presence in a host of industry segments — from salt to automobiles, steel, power, hotels and chemicals — and to set the house in order in the wake of a bruising battle involving Ratan Tata and former chairman, Cyrus Mistry.
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“Having run many marathons with him, I have the highest regard for Chandra’s spirit of endurance, grit, determination and focus. He is, as they say, the complete package,” said Anil D Ambani, chairman, Reliance ADA group. Chandra, as he is fondly referred to, brings to the table an unparalleled track record of value creation and visionary leadership at TCS, the Kohinoor in the Tata crown, he said. An avid runner who rarely misses his daily jog, Chandrasekaran had a key role in TCS emerging as the title sponsor of the prestigious New York City marathon since 2014.
A technopreneur, known for his ability to bet big on new technology, Chandrasekaran, as MD and CEO, has been driving TCS’ strong positioning in the emerging digital economy with a bouquet of innovative digital products and platforms for enterprises, some of which have since scaled into sizeable new businesses. With over 3,71,000 consultants, TCS has become the largest private sector employers in India with the highest retention rate in a globally competitive industry. TCS remains the most valuable company in India and ended 2015-16 with a market capitalisation of over $70 billion.
But it’s not going to be a cakewalk for Chandrasekaran. Cyrus Mistry, who was ousted as Tata Sons chairman in October last year, recognised that it was a tough job after over four years. Spanning over 100 independent operating companies, the Tata group operates in more than 100 countries across six continents. These companies collectively employ over 6,60,000 people. Each Tata company or enterprise operates independently under the guidance and supervision of its own board of directors and shareholders. There are 29 publicly-listed Tata enterprises with a combined market capitalisation of about $116.41 billion (as on March 31, 2016). “Chandra is a man of grit, determination and vision. No one knows (the Tata group) than him to lead the Kohinoor of India’s business,” said industrialist Harsh Goenka.
Chandrasekaran, who will take over as Tata Sons executive chairman on February 21, will have his hands full. The Tata group’s legal battle with Mistry is underway at the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT). He has already selected Rajesh Gopinathan as the new MD and CEO of TCS. “Unlike Mistry, he’s an insider. He knows the group’s ethos and values. He knows the people in the Tata group. This is a big plus. He has proved his mettle as the CEO of TCS. Hope he will have the trust of all Tata directors and employees,” said a corporate source.
Trust deficit was the main reason for Mistry’s exit. “Ensuring a positive relationship with investors and shareholders specially the principal shareholders is one of the primary duties of any leader, which Mistry was unable to fulfil. This led to a growing and untenable trust deficit between Tata Sons and the Tata Trusts,” Tata Sons said in its affidavit, responding to the petition filed by investment firms associated with Mistry’s family against his removal at the NCLT.
According to a corporate observer, it remains to be seen whether Chandrasekaran will take over as the chairman of various group companies like Tata Steel, Tata Motors and Tata Chemicals. Traditionally, Tata Sons chairman also headed major group companies. Tata Sons director Ishaat Hussain has already taken over as TCS chairman.
A Tata lifer who had joined the software company in 1987, Chandrasekaran was the CEO and MD since 2009. He was groomed by his predecessor at TCS, S Ramadorai, to take over as MD and CEO in the mid-2000s. Interestingly, he has been a non-official director on the Central Board of the Reserve Bank of India since March 5, 2016.
Chandrasekaran was born in an agricultural family in Tamil Nadu. His father, Srinivasan Natarajan, was a lawyer by profession but also managed the family farm. He received a Master’s Degree in Computer Applications from the Regional Engineering College, Trichy, in 1986. Before taking over as the CEO and MD of TCS, he served as the COO at the firm and became executive director of TCS in September 2007.