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HindustanTimes Wed,24 Sep 2014

Infy boss will have to lift image, morale

R Sukumar  New Delhi, June 02, 2013
First Published: 00:04 IST(2/6/2013) | Last Updated: 08:54 IST(2/6/2013)

It is a trope that recurs in popular fiction and cinema, even business - that of the hero who has hung up his guns/boots/mask/computer returning to save the day.

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Batman has done it. Steve Jobs has done it.

Can Nagavara Ramarao Narayana Murthy?

At 66, he has returned to the company he co-founded, as Infosys announced on Saturday in a move that took everyone by surprise.

He returns as executive chairman, but it is clear he will be calling the shots.

Some IT stock analysts have already welcomed the move, praising Murthy's vision and leadership, but the world, the IT business, and  Infosys have all changed since he stepped down as chairman barely two years ago - and radically so since he stepped down as CEO in 2001.

References to Jobs, who returned to Apple in 1996 and magically transformed the company, are already doing the rounds.

But the more apt comparisons may be with Yahoo founder Jerry Yang who returned as CEO in 2007 (and left a little later without achieving much) and Dell founder Michael Dell who returned in 2007 (he had stepped down in 2004) and is now fighting a bruising battle to take his still-embattled firm private.

A large part of Murthy's image is Infosys and some part of Infosys', Murthy.

Unlike his one-time protege Nandan Nilekani who went on to write a critically acclaimed book on India and landed an enviable assignment as the head of the Unique Identification Authority of India, Murthy hasn't quite managed to parlay his success at Infosys into a larger public role although urban legend has it that he was approached for the job that eventually went to Nilekani.

Then, urban legend also has it that Murthy lobbied for and didn't get the post of India's ambassador to the US.

His investment firm Catamaran hasn't exactly set the streets on fire, although it may be a bit premature to judge it.

And so, just as the board of Infosys may have decided to request Murthy to return (overruling a tenet regarding retirement age at the company; outgoing chairman KV Kamat said, in effect, that difficult times call for exceptions), the desire to play white knight (and maybe relive some of his past glory) may have prompted the man to agree.

His decision to insist his son serve in his office, as his executive assistant, is a bit strange, though, given that the founders of Infosys decided in the late 1980s that their families wouldn't be part of the company.

Murthy has a tough job.

Apart from generic problems related to slowing businesses and the inability to get into so-called non-linear businesses (where revenue growth is not a function of an increase in staff strength), which Infosys faces maybe a little more strongly than some of its peers, the company suffers from poor image, low employee morale, and lack of strategic leadership.

Its CEO Shibulal, also a co-founder and a particular favourite of Murthy, did come up with a vision called Infosys 3.0 that entailed a radical move from plain vanilla application development services to higher order work such as consulting, but the plan hasn't worked.

In a parallel universe, he may have lost his job and, indeed, the board has set up a committee to look for a replacement. He may still go, but, for the moment, his job looks safe.

Murthy's return is sure to help immediately in the image and morale fronts and it is likely the Infosys stock will open strongly on Monday.

As for strategy, one can only hope Murthy comes up with a plan that works better than the succession plan he orchestrated - with the founders taking their turn, as if by divine right, in the corner office - which, in some ways, is responsible for the mess in which the company finds itself.

(The author is Editor of Mint)


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