Chief exemplary officer

Written by Banikinkar Pattanayak | Updated: Aug 31 2014, 05:32am hrs
IN THE early 1970s, state-run Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (Bhel) was scouting for locations to set up a corporate office in New Delhi, and the multi-storeyed Hindustan Times (HT) Building on Kasturba Gandhi Marg in Connaught Place had just been built. Since Bhel required a large office, its company secretary approached the office of HTs proprietor KK Birla to rent out space. He was told that Bhel couldnt be a tenant there because it was a public-sector company and wouldnt be able to maintain decorum or cleanliness. Bhel finally got to rent there after the intervention of then company affairs minister KV Raghunatha Reddy, but Birlas initial reluctance mirrored many peoples shared perceptionthen and nowof public-sector units as inefficient organisations, incapable even of maintaining basic hygiene standards.

In a 305-page memoir, At the Helm, then Bhel chairman

and one of Indias most celebrated managers, V Krishnamurthy, seeks to strip away notions that state-run companies are unproductive and a cesspool of vice.

The man, who should be credited with picking up talents like RC Bhargava (current Maruti Suzuki chairman) at erstwhile Maruti, also counters the notions that Jawaharlal Nehrus vision of the public sector was a replica of the Soviet model, where the private sector didnt exist. Instead, in the Nehruvian model of mixed-economy, only the manufacturing of arms and ammunitions was reserved for the public sector and the private industry was free to pursue its economic potential, he says.

Interestingly, the memoir comes at a time when focus is increasingly being shifted towards the need for more privatisation and the abolition of Planning Commission, a place where Krishnamurthy had the turning point of my life and learnt many valuable lessons. But then it was a different Planning Commission at that time, not a body where chief ministers would make a queue to seek funds, as it is now.

The Planning Commission in those days was an intellectually vibrant place where a fledging countrys development story was being written by the finest Indian minds, he says. The quality of those discussions was outstanding and completely non-partisan. National interest always prevailed over everything else.

On one occasion, the author recounts, former West Bengal chief minister Bidhan Chandra Roy came up with a proposal for setting up a steel plant in Durgapur. KC Neogy, then member (industry) in the commission, was not in favour of the idea despite being a Bengali, as he thought there might not be adequate demand for steel in the country, especially because two other plants were already there in Bhilai and Rourkela. However, TT Krishnamachari, former finance minister and a Tamilian, favoured the idea so much that he threatened to resign if the plant was not set up. This is in stark contrast with the parochialism that modern-day politicians often exude. Finally, the proposal was approved.

The book marks the long career of the author, who was tasked with the difficult job of bringing in not just efficiency in three companiesBhel, Maruti Udyog and SAILbut also fulfilling the vision of a country struggling to seek its own identity as an industrial nation.

The challenges were many, as well as varied. At Bhel, he had to save the company from imminent disintegration; at Maruti, he had to not just come up with a peoples car, but modernise the automobile industry; at SAIL, he was to shake up the organisation from its very foundation and put it back in a leadership position.

Among various innovative ways he adopted to turn the fortunes of each company, depending upon the need of the hour and the political establishment at the Centre, one quality perhaps defined Krishnamurthys exemplary managerial role most effectively: centralising policy-making and decentralising implementation with adequate operational freedom to even mid-level staff. On top of that, his deftness in picking, nurturing and promoting talents, handling the changing political dispensation at the Centre and tackling even the conflicting interests of various trade unions made him an ideal chief executive.

Through several anecdotes, Krishnamurthy gives an unbiased as well as candid account of politiciansincluding former prime ministers Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Morarji Desai, George Fernandes and Pranab Mukherjee when he was the finance minister, something remarkable for a technocrat. While he doesnt mince words in voicing his reservations about some of their policies, he also gives due credit to them for their support and foresight, wherever required.

He recollects his differences with Fernandes, then industry minister in the Desai government, who wanted to make a statement on the floor of Parliament that Nehrus vision of economic development with emphasis on heavy industry resulted in the country not progressing in the 30 years since independence, so greater focus should be laid on promoting small and medium enterprises. Krishnamurthy dissuaded him from dismissing the Nehruvian model in Parliament, arguing that the country had made adequate progress in consumer goods production and even conducted a nuclear test on its own. Fernandes heeded him and refrained from airing such a view in the House.

The third son of a Tamil-Brahmin family, the author recounts his struggle during the anti-Brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu in his youth. In any case, getting into a good college was not easy. The anti-Brahmin movement had started, and I had the double handicap of being a Brahmin boy with a rural background, he writes. Although the book doesnt deal with the caste problem in Tamil Nadu in detail, Krishnamurthy has highlighted many such obstacles he had to encounter because of his caste.

An otherwise rational man, Krishnamurthy was also not without idiosyncrasies. He announced that the first car manufactured at the Maruti plant after the companys revival would be offered to the presiding deity of the Tirumala-Tirupati Venkateswara temple in Andhra Pradesh. He also stresses his familys lost fortunes were regained and his ailing wife recovered soon after he helped complete a temple project in Karuveli, his ancestral place.

Overall, At the Helm is a balanced account of events in Krishnamurthys professional life, presented with high seriousness. The memoir makes for a fine read.