Business Today

Infosys' almost-CEO

Mohandas Pai has given up a chance at Infosys' top job for something seemingly big.

Rahul Sachitanand        Last Updated: April 18, 2011  | 17:06 IST

T.V. Mohandas Pai rose from being a finance manager with a truck operator to being the finance chief for Infosys in a decade and then stepped away just when his career was peaking, allowing V. Balakrishnan, his replacement to take over. He was CFO from 1994 to 2006 (he became a board member in 2000) and anchored Infosys' listing on the NASDAQ. After resigning as CFO in 2006, he focused on the people initiatives of Infosys, alternately drawing praise and ire for his efforts.

Most recently his initiative to add management and technical depth to Infoscions, with the contentious iRace program drew a hailstorm of protests from employees, with the company nearly shuttering the initiative. "This industry is all about your people's talent," he told Business Today during a recent interview. "All of us need to build a high-level layer of domain consultants to our business." Pai was spent his time as a director of facilities and administration trying to add a touch of science to the relatively abstract field of HR to use predictive tools to forecast hiring needs, overhaul appraisals at India's second largest software exporter to make it more numbers and data-driven and therefore predictable.
 
Recognising a sharp turn in the growth of the outsourcing industry, Pai was pushing his peers and juniors to shift from the linear business model adopted by Infosys and the rest of the tech sector to a more outcome and services based model. "To me the biggest threat for the IT industry is the commoditisation in the bottom 25-40 per cent of the services we provide," he told this writer. "We need to ramp up our software platforms and build more re-usable intellectual property assets."

Over the past couple of years (especially after co-founder Nandan Nilekani quit), Pai had become an even more visible face for the company, becoming its voice not only for all things Infosys, but also a votary for better public governance, larger spend on public infrastructure and a key player in the retooling of the stock markets, especially as a member of The Board of Securities for market watch dog SEBI. "Some analysts are exceeding their brief," he complained over a simple south Indian meal at Infosys headquarters recently. "Their job is to make accurate statements based on data they have crunched. They are not meant to make speculative reports based on hearsay and rumours."
 
When Pai became CFO of Infosys, the firm had revenues of a little over $203 million and when he quit as CFO in 2006, it had revenues of over $3 billion and this year, when he quit the company altogether its topline was over $6 billion. In this duration, the company went from a provider of basic IT services, to an expert at fixing Y2K bugs to being a provider of consulting, technology and business process outsourcing services. While growth was rapid until a couple of years ago, Infosys has been slow to recover and lagged peers Cognizant and TCS in their recovery from the global economic slowdown.

Internally too there was discontent, with a restive second-tier management wanting a bigger play, but senior management, including Pai calling for "building an enterprise-level rather than unit-level view." However, in the interim, Infosys floundered, winning fewer deals than its rivals, losing people to them and building a weaker front-end marketing team too. Even as rivals stabilised their businesses, Infosys continued to struggle, most recently in its fourth quarter results announcement, when the conservative firm failed to meet or exceed analyst expectations. "In the first phase, the offshore IT industry was a curiosity," he said, describing Infosys core market. "Today we have a $60 billion industry and we're taken seriously." Now, the challenge is to move from a project-centric business to a business outcomes focused one, he said.
 
Internally, several people expected the bearded Pai - a lawyer by academics and a numbers nut by passion - to become COO of the Bangalore-based company. However, unlike several rivals for this post, Pai hadn't run a business unit himself, only been involved in the functional or support units, according to his critics. With his mentor and Infosys Chief Mentor, N.R. Narayana Murthy expected to retire in the next few months, many expected his blue-eyed boy Pai to get a CXO- level appointment. However, that was not to be. Instead, Pai, who co-founded the Akshaya Patra Foundation, which has become the largest mid-day meal program in the world and is a vocal supporter of the anti-graft campaign launched by Anna Hazare, will get his chance to launch a nation-building initiative of his own.
 


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