When Madhu Kannan, now running India's oldest stock exchange, turned up at the Bombay Stock Exchange at 6.30 a.m. on his first day at work, the guard posted at Phiroze Jeejeebhoy Towers, where the bourse is housed, stopped him. He did not know that BSE had recruited the youngest CEO in its history, and thought that Kannan, 36, was pulling a fast one (Kannan's predecessor was 45).
Rajesh Kamat, 36
These young CEOs symbolise a challenge to the stereotyped greying CEO with decades of experience as more promoters and boards favour young leaders. Is it because they understand target markets (read: the young population) better or take the pressure better?
Jayanta Roy, one of the promoters of Peerless MF, explains why he chose Gupta, 36, to run the fund: "The business requires the right competencies and capabilities and, after a certain experience level, age does not add much incremental value."
E. Balaji, Director & CEO, Ma Foi Management Consultants, thinks the trend of younger CEOs so far has been largely a new-economy phenomenon. "We see younger CEOs in retail, IT, media & entertainment, and financial services," says Balaji, adding that taking bets on younger CEOs would be the next logical step for even older family businesses that are mostly into manufacturing.
Gagan Banga, 34
Then, he says, it's not always viable for even existing companies to tap "experienced" CEOs as many have a huge asking price. "Younger professionals are willing to take risks in new areas that senior leaders, often, are unwilling to," he says.
SBI Macquarie's Bajpai, pointing out that many businesses owned or run by families are now hiring professional CEOs, says: "That's simply because India itself is operating at a very fast pace and promoters are smart enough to realise that."
Reliance Media's Katial puts the "pace" in perspective: "The work life cycle that one would earlier cover in 3-5 years is now completed in one year." Katial himself works for 12-14 hours a day, six days a week. The way these new CEOs operate is unconventional and requires both entrepreneurial and large operation skills. One of the first things Kannan did at BSE was to move down from the CEO's palatial 25th floor office to the 15th floor. "You have to be where the engine (operations) is," explains Kannan, whose new office is a seventh the size of the earlier room.
Madhu Kannan, 36
"We are not stuck on any one particular format of doing things in a market where consumer likes and dislikes are changing very fast," Kamat says. Example: Colors is ready with Rock Star, a musical show in a tie-up with Indian Premier League (IPL), the matches for which are on, and a Fear Factor show with IPL cricketers. Still, for such professionals, the journey to the corner room is not an easy one. Candidates must have the ability to take risk with their career.
Take Indiabulls' Banga, who joined NIIT and rose quickly up the ladder. "I was staring at a wall after lapping up three promotions in quick succession," says Banga, who left NIIT as National Sales Head while still in his 20s. The big bet he took was to join a lesser known brand, Indiabulls, which had an Internet-based stock-trading model.
Tarun Katial, 35
Kamat left a cushy job as MD of UK-based Endemol's Indian operation after setting up the business from scratch. "I actually learnt the business aspect at Endemol much before pitching a format and producing a show," he says. ASK's Kamdar also had an unusual career and route to the CEO's chair. He did research, built a corporate mutual fund business in India and then joined ASK AMC as its CEO. He was 35 then.
Some nuance the leaps they have made in their careers. "I would term it as initiative rather than willingness to take risks," says Bajpai. How do these CEOs deal with issues in a culture where age is treated mostly with deference? Getting senior and experienced people to work for him initially was difficult, admits Colors' Kamat. "Not everyone works for a vision."
Rishi Khiani, 34
Maturity of the individual and his or her professionalism, too, are factors that outweigh the young-in-years considerations, says the young brigade. That may be the reason for Kannan to get the top job at the BSE. He had earlier worked at the NYSE Euronext. Highquality relevant experience, attitude and the willingness to adapt to a changing environment "are bigger drivers than age," he believes.
But, being "too young" has other downsides. As Banga says: "If I had seen more of life, I would have probably not made some of the mistakes I made." Katial, who was a business head at age 30, cites another downside: "At that age people tend to reject you."
Sameer Kamdar, 36
Indiabulls' Banga expects the balance sheet (loan asset) to be Rs 25,000-28,000 crore by 2012 from the current level of Rs 10,000 crore. Katial wants Reliance Media to be one of the largest integrated media platform for brands in the country. Macquarie's Bajpai expects his fund to grow to $2 billion and be the largest infrastructure fund in the country.
The pace at which these CEOs are working could make them burn out faster. In fact, many talk about striking a balance. "You need stability and an anchor at home," says Kamat, who is into yoga and squash.
Varun Bajpai, 34
"You need to have some multidivisional, multi-functional experience to run a company, say, of 30,000-40,000 employees," says Balaji of Ma Foi, pointing out that there are few examples of young CEOs heading conglomerates. Tata Chemicals, the world's secondlargest producer of soda ash, has 42-year-old R. Mukundan as Managing Director, for instance, and Carrier Aircon's India Head is 38-year-old Zubin Irani.
But the age barriers are falling, and not just in innovation-led sectors like the Internet companies or media. "It's also very important to be at the right place at the right time. There could be many more who, given the opportunity, could have done equally well or better," says a modest Kamat.