Agreed, the name ‘Lakshmi Narayanan’ doesn’t quite conjure up iconic images from the current realm of information technology. Yet that very name cannot be omitted when it comes to India’s IT firmament. While the media-shy Narayanan is adroit in building fully functional toy trains in his spare time, he’s known for training his guns at IT services majors in the beginning of the new millennium. For the affable 64-year-old built a firm from a mere back-office outfit to a multi-billion dollar company — Cognizant. Without much chest-thumping, Narayanan took Cognizant to a billion dollars in revenue. Sample this: When he took over as CEO of Cognizant in 2003, the IT services company clocked a revenue of $368.2 million and at the time of leaving office in 2006, the figure had touched $1.42 billion. This was one of the fastest growth trajectories for any IT company based out of India. Narayanan has been associated with only two companies in his entire career spanning over 30 years — Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and Cognizant. It is also pertinent to note that Cognizant has emerged as the closest competitor to TCS, going way ahead of some of its peers like Infosys and Wipro. In his 19 years at TCS, Narayanan was responsible for implementing large-scale programmes of some of India’s largest technology services companies. Some of the projects he was engaged with had revenues bigger than many well-known IT firms of today. An offer to join the IT captive arm of Dunn & Bradstreet in India in 1994 as the chief technology officer propelled Narayanan into a completely different orbit as one of the founding members.
The Dun & Bradstreet operation was later rechristened Cognizant, which went public in 1998, with a listing on Nasdaq. Narayanan, who was born in Tamil Nadu, did his studies in Bengaluru as his father was employed with the public sector firm Hindustan Aeronautics. An engineering graduate, he did his master’s in science from the prestigious Indian Institute of Science. Early in his career, Narayanan exhibited traits that sowed the foundation for a multi-billion dollar growth path for Cognizant. His expertise in handling very large-scale programmes proved valuable when the company pitched for business from the global banking or healthcare giants. Apart from technical expertise, Narayanan also brought in leadership qualities, demonstrated by a flow of talent from TCS into an entity that was nowhere in the reckoning at that point of time. Some of the former TCS executives who joined Cognizant now hold key positions in the company.
Narayanan took over as the chief executive officer of Cognizant in 2003 and went about articulating a strategy called 4/4. It was quite clear that the company could not focus on too many areas, which could turn into a distraction. So the game plan was simple: Four geographies, four business verticals and four service lines. Narayanan has often said, “Strategy is also about what you do not focus on. We are not everything to everybody and we are happy about it.” Cognizant, under Narayanan’s stewardship, had kept a dizzy pace. The market capitalisation of the company grew from $2.82 billion in 2003 to $13.36 billion by 2006. The headcount was 9,000-strong in 2003 and crossed 38,000 people in 2006.
To put it in perspective, Infosys crossed $1 billion in revenue in FY2005 while Cognizant touched $1.4 billion in the 2006 calendar year. Since then, however, the gap has only widened and Cognizant is very clearly ahead of Infosys in revenue terms. Infosys closed FY17 with a revenue of $10.2 billion while Cognizant closed 2016 calendar year at $13.49 billion. At the helm, Narayanan brought in the ability to build deep customer relationships, a vital element for any IT services company, as well as the keenness to hire talent with varied skill sets. Of course, the twin benefits only helped Cognizant in the long run.
Surprisingly though, Narayanan stepped down as CEO in three years in 2006, at just 53, and made way for a much younger chief executive — Francisco D’Souza. He was also the chairman of Nasscom for 2007-08. Narayanan remains with the company as vice-chairman emeritus, having stepped down from his executive functions. He is described as somebody who is performance-oriented and highly competitive with almost no ego. It is also recounted that he could be seen carrying water to the players in the middle of the cricket field in one of the internal employee matches of the company. Having moved out of corporate life, Narayanan is today passionate about education and skill-building. He also takes active interest in the start-up community, also having made investments. His philanthropy, true to his self, is quiet too. Narayanan’s understated nature is evident but all his actions bore high impact.