Many years ago, after seeing off senior government officials, guests and some media representatives at the end of a meeting in Hyderabad, Y C Deveshwar, then the executive chairman and CEO of ITC, wrapped his arms across the shoulders of two men in the room and the three began walking in tandem across the long corridor outside the conference room. Deveshwar was very subtly displaying not just how much he leaned on his two crucial leaders from the region - S Sivakumar and Pradeep Dhobale - but also a relationship cemented by a sense of faith, camaraderie and empowerment.
Still trying to sync into the new reality of not seeing Deveshwar again, Pradeep Dhobale says, "he converted us from boys to men". Dhobale, the former executive director at ITC and one who for many years led the ITC Paperboard and Specialty Paper business, worked closely with Deveshwar for two decades. He explains that unlike the supervision that boys typically need with a paternalistic presence around them for hand-holding, Deveshwar was all about a belief system that rested on leadership and the role responsibility expected of men. He would set audacious targets, give resources, and the freedom to perform.
Consider this: In the year 2000, not happy with the 2,000 hectares under pulp producing crops like eucalyptus, subabul and casuarina that the company achieved in a decade, Deveshwar set a target of 100,000 hectares in the next ten years, which to Dhobale and his team, meant doing about 10,000 hectares per year as against just a total of 2,000 hectares achieved in the previous decade.
"We got to 100,000 hectares one year before target, in 2009 itself," says Dhobale. Without having to rely on precious forest reserves, the measure ensured an increase in pulp production and with it a five-fold jump in paper production. All of it that found use across a wide range of products - from notebooks, packaging material to paper cups. Today, the area under these crops is double at over 200,000 hectares. All of it is mostly in rain-fed areas, where farmers have one crop a year and low income to sustain themselves on.
Other than the business, Deveshwar was about thinking big to make a meaningful impact on matters that were crucial to the environment and the country. The same was true for S Sivakumar, group head, agri and IT businesses of ITC. In the year 2000, with a great deal of hesitation, Sivakumar approached Deveshwar with a Rs 50 lakh proposal to experiment on an initiative, which later evolved into ITC e-choupal. But then, to Sivakumar's surprise, Deveshwar committed Rs 10 crore. That was because Deveshwar did not want to run the risk of failure due to the small scale of the project.
Again, not just was Deveshwar thinking big but yet again underlining his belief in distributed leadership that made his team leaders owners of their initiatives, backed by resources and the freedom to perform, and ensure they can stand up to new challenges and succeed.
In a similar vein, he had set the goal of Rs 1 lakh crore revenue from FMCG by 2030 for ITC. Work is clearly cut out for the ITC officials heading for their leader's cremation on Sunday, May 12th.