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The chief mentor speaks

N.R. Narayana Murthy settles into a sofa that’s seen better days. The room is sparsely done-up and practically shorn of the regular trappings of a living room that doubles up as a conference hall. The bedroom next door, where he calls it a night, looks a poor cousin of a budget hotel — clean but basic.

The Infosys guest house in Delhi redefines barebones and in all probability most corporate honchos would balk at the thought of spending a couple of nights here. But not Narayana Murthy, founder chairman of Infosys Technologies and now its chief mentor, who eschews glamorous luxury hotels for the stripped-down comfort of the company-run guest house.

At Infosys the chief mentor surrounds himself with young people

Despite a combined family wealth of an estimated Rs 4,000 crore (going by the stakes that he, his wife and two children have in Infosys), Murthy’s love for the simple life is the stuff of legend. “Leaders must live by example. If the people of Infosys are staying in this guest house and adding value to the company, then I too should stay here. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

And after a pause, he adds firmly: “One shouldn’t do anything to demonstrate one’s so-called status. I never do anything for status in life. Never.”

So, even back home in Bangalore he continues to live in a modest apartment (that predates Infosys), in a modest, middle-class locality. Now he’s seriously considering buying the Tata Nano, impressed by the fact that it runs 23km per litre.

The man who was ranked amongst the 10 most-admired global business leaders in 2005 by The Economist and who has been honoured with the Padma Vibhushan, is back making news. For one, he recently went the Bill Gates way and pledged to give away his wealth to charities involved in basic healthcare, education and nutrition. For another, he’s just out with his first book.

In between jetting around the globe and playing mentor to Infosys, Murthy had been harangued and bullied by his son, Rohan, for over three years demanding that he put his speeches into a book.

After much persuasion, Murthy obliged and A Better India A Better World (Allen Lane/Penguin India) was born. The book got off to a flying start, being released by prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh. “If Rohan hadn’t pushed me, it might not have got done,” says Murthy.

In these troubled times, the book is an ambitious blueprint for a vibrant India, and the second think-piece from the Infosys Technologies stables. Few months ago, the company’s co- chairman, Nandan Nilekani, unveiled his take on the power of ideas in Imagining India Ideas for the New Century.

The PM said as he unveiled Murthy’s book: “This is a remarkable book by an exceptional Indian. This book is for a diverse set of people, for everyone who wants to know where our country is headed, what the pitfalls ahead are and how to correct them.”

A compendium of 38 speeches, these have been heard reverentially by students in India and abroad. Students have heard Murthy out at prestigious institutes including the Stern School of Business, New York University, the IESE Business School, Barcelona and closer home the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade and the IITs.

Murthy with wife Sudha who has seen him through thick and thin
Pic: Jagan Negi

All the speeches have Murthy’s fine stamp. But he admits that many young Infoscions have helped him write them — offering him researched data and facts on the subjects. “But I define the themes and ensure that the words communicate exactly what I want to say,” he says.

His inspirational speeches to Indian students focus on the progress India has made, our challenges and the importance of values to nation building. The speeches to foreign students, on the other hand, focus on lessons that he has learnt from his life, his entrepreneurial journey, the importance of emerging markets, corporate governance and issues like global warming.

If his speeches largely target young people, it’s because he’s a firm believer in the role of the youth in nation building. “At Infosys I surround myself with smart and trusted youngsters. In most strategic decisions, I insist on their participation.”

He dons the mantle of chief mentor at Infosys in Bangalore for a mere eight to 10 days a month — but that doesn’t mean that his days aren’t packed. A typical day sees him keep an 8.30am to 6.30pm routine. His days are filled with meetings with visitors, customers and prospective customers. “I want to add value to Infosys and am completely involved in making it much more market-worthy,” he says.

From figuring out how Infosys can recruit better quality people to how they can sell better to their customers, Murthy is hands-on all the way. “And importantly I’m involved in updating the physical infrastructure at Infosys,” he says. That includes the cutting-edge Infosys facilities in Bangalore and Mysore from where it provides consulting and IT services to clients globally.

For the rest of the time Murthy lives out of a suitcase. He travels abroad 20 days a month — and yes, quite often to deliver his lectures. At other times he dons one hat after another as he serves on myriad boards including those of Cornell University, Wharton School, NDTV, Unilever, HSBC and the Ford Foundation.

How does he summon the energy to effortlessly do more than seems possible? He attributes this to the excellent environment at Infosys where adding value is not tiresome. He says in a matter-of-fact tone: “Fortunately, I’m in good health and have the complete support of my family.”

Back-end support comes from his engineer wife, Sudha, to whom he gives all the credit for his success. “She’s been very supportive of whatever I wanted to do. And even though she was more qualified than I am in computer science, she allowed me to pursue my dream of founding Infosys,” he says.

Today as chairperson of the Infosys Foundation, Sudha spends most of her time in rural India advancing the Infosys Foundation agenda. The couple is loath to talk about the charities they participate in. He says: “Beyond a certain level of wealth, the power of money lies in giving it away and making a difference to society.”

He’s proud of his children — his daughter Akshata who is working with an US firm after completing an MBA from Stanford University and his son, who is a doctoral student at Harvard. He reckons that his children have better values and higher aspirations than he had at their age.

“They have more money and they have more choices. But they chose to do well in their studies and they are patriotic even though they live in the US,” he says with one of his rare smiles. Occasionally he travels to the US to be with them.

Back home the couple catches up with movies (sometimes), but both love their books and music CDs.

So what’s he reading now? “I’m fond of reading books on mathematics and physics,” he says (somehow that’s not surprising). But above all, he loves to catch up on his sleep.

Murthy has often told the story of how he borrowed a princely sum of Rs 10,000 (a lot of money at the time) from Sudha to start Infosys — when he had a vision but zero capital.

Through his childhood and youth, Murthy was always strapped for cash. He was born into a lower middle class family and his father was a school teacher in Mysore who couldn’t afford to send him to IIT even when he got admission. “So I joined the engineering college in Mysore,” he says.

But he did go to IIT Kanpur for a Masters degree and subsequently took a job as chief systems programmer at IIM, Ahmedabad. In the early ’70s he even worked in a computer company in Paris but returned to India in ’74.

He launched Softronics, a company that developed software for the Indian market but realised early that India was not ready to buy software. “I had to look at developed markets,” he recalls. So he joined Patni Computer Systems (PCS) in Mumbai in 1978 as its general manager.

It was a turning point of sorts as at PCS Murthy met six young men who later joined him to start Infosys in 1981. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

Today, nearly 30 years later, the Infosys core team is still together. “We have always maintained that we can disagree with each other as long as we don’t get disagreeable,” he says.

Murthy continues to think positive, even in times of a slowdown. The IT industry, the poster child of India’s development, is also witnessing a slowing down in growth. But he says: “Downturns are great opportunities to increase our efficiency and reduce our flab.”

Meanwhile, Infosys is also facing up to its giant competitors — the IBMs and Accentures of the world. “We respect them but also have paranoia about them and want to use innovation to become better than them,” he says.

And to that effect the Infosys portfolio in 2009 is vastly different from what it was in 1999. He says: “We have introduced several new services and will add more in the future.”

Looking ahead, another book (on Infosys or otherwise) is not on the cards. But he says: “I will continue to add value to Infosys.” And most definitely give more speeches around the world.

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