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Hot blood at the top

More and more businesses today are being headed by professional CEOs in their 30s. What do they bring to the table that is making them the darlings of promoters and boards? See pics

twitter-logoAnand Adhikari | Print Edition: April 4, 2010

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
CEO, Colors, since Jan. '08; Group COO, Viacom 18, since Jan. '10

  • BLAST FROM THE PAST: Brand Manager at Coke; Sr. Vice President at STAR India. Set up Indian operations of Endemol, UK's largest production house.
  • CHALLENGES AT HAND: Achieve breakeven and de-risk the business model by launching more channels.
  • "What compensates for lack of grey hair is the point to prove and passion to prove. You can always find people who want to aspire to get to the next level"
"It was tough getting in. It was easier to get the job," chuckles Kannan, who is just one among several top executives finding their youth an advantage— and a burden at times—as they race into the CEO's room in record time. Others: Rajesh Kamat at entertainment TV channel Colors, Varun Bajpai at SBI Macquarie Infrastructure Management, Tarun Katial at Reliance Media World, Gagan Banga at Indiabulls Financial Services, Akshay Gupta at Peerless MF and Sameer Kamdar at ASK Investment Managers.

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
CEO, Indiabulls Financial Services, since Dec. '07

  • BLAST FROM THE PAST: Sales Head at NIIT in two years (after three rapid promotions). Then, headed branding at Indiabulls.
  • CHALLENGES AT HAND: Build a healthy asset book and prepare for turning the NBFC into a bank eventually.
  • "There was a time when I was facing a wall — what to do next — as my job then had no challenges left"
Ashutosh Khanna, Partner, Korn/Ferry International, says that, apart from the sectoral aspect, it's also economics at play. "The number of companies keeps growing, and they do not have a wide pool to choose from— they have to look at the second rung of bright talent."

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
MD & CEO, BSE, since May '09

  • BLAST FROM THE PAST: Rose to Senior Vice President at NYSE Euronext (holding company for NYSE and Euronext); also held the managing directorship at Corporate Strategy Group of Bank of America-Merrill Lynch.
  • CHALLENGES AT HAND: Turn around BSE, which is losing market share.
  • "There is absolutely no replacement for high quality relevant experience, right attitude and the willingness to adapt to the changing environment. These are bigger drivers than age"
When Bajpai took up the Macquarie offer, he was actually the first recruit in India as MD and his first few months were spent in creating the administrative and logistic set-up. Kamat, who runs Colors, believes in walking up to his Programming Head or Sales Head instead of calling people to his room. "People don't work for you. They work with you," he says. His quick-thinking approach to programming caught giants like STAR, Sony and Zee unawares.

"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
CEO, Reliance Media World, since Nov. '09

  • BLAST FROM THE PAST: Honed his skills at advertising agencies and then rose to Head (Programming) at STAR India (KBC) and Sony Entertainment (Indian Idol).
  • CHALLENGES AT HAND: Make Reliance Media the largest integrated media platform for brands in the country.
  • "The work life cycle one would cover in 3-5 years, is now completed in one year"
Rishi Khiani, CEO of Times Internet, dabbled in entrepreneurial ventures before taking up the current job. In 1998, he founded Urban Eye Media, which was focussed on creating highend custom design for many leading brands (US Army, Nike, FIFA 2006). He was CEO at Sidewalks of the World, an online store offering customers unusual art and home decor products from around the world.

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
CEO, Times Internet, since Aug. '09

  • BLAST FROM THE PAST: Founded Urban Eye and sold it to Web18; and also worked as CEO for Web18 for some time.
  • CHALLENGES AT HAND: To be the most popular Internet and mobile value-added services destination for the global Indian.
  • "Companies in the forefront of innovation globally (the large Internet companies or the media companies) are the ones with a younger CEO"
It is important for these CEOs to create an organisation that is as meritbased as age-agnostic. Reliance's Katial says: "We need people who are younger in mind. My HR head is 50 years old, but he thinks like me." Competence and delivering on promises make for another surefire fix: "You have to deliver the expectation of the board," says Gupta of Peerless MF.

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
CEO, ASK Investment Managers, since Jan. '09; also CEO at ASK AMC since Aug. '08. He holds a minority stake in this

  • BLAST FROM THE PAST: Developed the corporate mutual fund business in India; rose to National Sales Head at Mata Securities.
  • CHALLENGES AT HAND: Set up a mutual fund business in a field with four dozen players and a dozen more awaiting clearance.
  • "I think the barriers are now coming down and I see a trend of younger CEOs accelerating in future"
Passion and Vision

All these young turks swear by the vision-mission mix. BSE's Kannan wants people with abilities, passion and an understanding of the vision of the company, rather than just experience in years, as he focusses on technology, innovation and operations. "We want to transform BSE into a financial supermarket, which offers tradable products across asset classes and an array of allied services," he says.

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
Senior Managing Director, Macquarie Capital, since '05; also CEO at SBI Macquarie Infrastructure Management

  • BLAST FROM THE PAST: Joined Kotak as part of their M&A advisory team and switched to Deutsche Bank. Later, set up Macquarie's Indian operations.
  • CHALLENGES AT HAND: Expand Macquarie's India franchise and aid in infra financing.
  • "What matters is the maturity of an individual, the professionalism one operates with and also the competence one brings to the table"
Katial does meditation and says he grew up quickly when he went to a vipasana course some years back. "You have to be self-critical when you grow to manage a larger role," he says. Banga, citing tennis star Roger Federer, says: "The patience in his game is something I would like to follow." Banga goes for long runs every day. So, will success stories like these prompt more promoters and boards to appoint young CEOs and oust oldies? There's one hurdle: 15-20 years of work experience may not be enough to understand all business complexities.

"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.

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