A Few of My Favourite CEOs

by puneinvestor

A Social Contract for the 21st Century: Mahindra

A few names come to mind instantly when I think of CEOs in India who are at the top of their game (okay, technically they’re not all CEOs but they’re all the top boss).

These gentlemen are clear-headed and straight-forward. If you want to follow the Indian economy from the bottom up, you can’t go wrong by following them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that their companies are crème de la crème in terms of governance and wealth creation — among the best run companies in the country.

Anand Mahindra

Dynastic succession has garnered plenty of negative reactions in the popular discourse of late. However, if there is one outstanding exception to the rule that the third generation fritters away a family’s wealth, it is Mr. Anand Mahindra. He has fully earned his place at the helm of the Mahindra group, and in the process has become a role model for all aspiring entrepreneurs. This is the way to do business in India.

Educated at MIT and Harvard, Mr. Mahindra is a hyper-networked businessman who has kept his eyes on the ball. He is aggressive yet controlled in his decisions. Return on capital is important to him but so is investing for the long term. He was opportunistic with Satyam and visionary with Reva. The second rung in his organization includes the likes of Pawan Goenka who is himself among the best managers in the country. Here’s to the Federator.

Anant Talaulicar

This low profile, no-nonsense company man teaches us how to put our heads down and just work. You will rarely see him give media interviews or wax eloquent on what the RBI should be doing. But listen in on a Cummins India earnings call and you will get a schooling on the engine business and its ecosystem. His business interfaces with a large swathe of the economy, especially because the grid power supply in India is so poor that a large number of engines are used in backup power applications. Talaulicar, of course, knows his customer landscape like the back of his hand and will be able to tell you exactly how each section of the economy is doing in real time.

Mr. Talaulicar joined the Cummins organization in 1986 as an intern and has worked his way up — old school. He joined Cummins’ Indian operations more than a decade ago, helping it become one of those rare foreign-owned businesses that is completely Indian. Under Talaulicar’s leadership, the company has become an important source of original R&D work and engines for exports.

Cummins India is an exemplary corporate citizen headquartered in Pune. Led by Talaulicar, the company makes Pune and the world a better place (this is probably not the best time and place to draw me on the complex issue of environmental concerns about the internal combustion engine).

Ajay Piramal

This man is the best capital allocator of size in India. Not afraid of being contrarian, Mr. Piramal has been reengineering his healthcare company into a bona fide conglomerate, confusing a host of DCF-wielding healthcare stock analysts in the process.

Overcoming the death of the Piramal textile business and tragedy in the family, Mr. Piramal started on the road less traveled, as he calls it, with the relatively small Rs. 6-crore purchase of Nicholas Laboratories in 1988. He went on to build a large pharmaceutical business in India, and did it with the highest levels of gumption and discipline.

His tenets on entrepreneurship relate not to sales strategy and negotiation tactics but to integrity, humility and passion. Many in India think that such qualities are a hindrance while doing business in a country which ranks 134th on the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business rankings. The conventional belief is that one must compromise oneself or, to use that elegant Indian colloquialism, ‘adjust’. Mr. Piramal calls this approach the slippery slope and advises against getting on it.

There seems to be a whole host of opportunities in a growing India for someone with his abilities. I wish him many more years of productive work so that he may realise even more of his potential.

Uday Kotak

With 70% of India’s banking assets in the hands of sleepy or corrupt state-owned banks and a tightly regulated bank license regime limiting competition, this man, at his skill level, must feel like Usain Bolt running against high-schoolers (I exaggerate only a bit — there are a couple of other well-run big banks in the country). Even so, Kotak — E&Y World Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2014 — is not the kind to look back and gloat. He just keeps on running.

Mr. Kotak has everything you’d want in a CEO: charisma, energy, clarity of thought, impeccable communication skills and more. He has the right qualities for a banker too: conservative, humble and willing to forego short-term growth for long-term stability.

From Kotak Mahindra Bank’s origins in a basic bill-discounting business of the ’80s, the company has birthed one of the most trusted brands in the country. Kotak wants to build his bank into an institution like JP Morgan, an entity of immense stature that has thrived well beyond its founder. Udayji seems to have covered plenty of ground towards his goal.

 

There are many more really good managers than I can cover in a short article. I wish there were a few more women and first-generation businessmen near the very top of my list. I’m sure that’ll happen sooner than later.

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Image © World Economic Forum

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