Column : Where the mind is without fear ...

Written by Darlington Jose Hector | Updated: Apr 8 2011, 09:27am hrs
A founder-chairman deserting his own baby is a rare act. And then starting another firm in the same competing space, is an even rarer deed. Ashok Soota, MindTrees founder-chairman and one of the highly respected leaders in the Indian IT industry, has done precisely that. His new start-up Happiest Minds Technologies (announced on Tuesday) has certainly managed to turn heads, not only on account of its unique name. But then will investors believe in this second innings, even if scripted by someone like Soota

The fact is that no one expected the 68-year-old to do the things that he did over the last three months. How can one think of creating a dream organisation twice in the same lifetime, some wondered. A few others were unsure whether Soota had enough gasoline in the tank, to propel another venture.

After all, MindTree, established in 1999, was supposed to be the panacea for all HR ills in the Indian IT industry, only to lose its momentum subsequently.

MindTree Minds, as the employees were addressed, were accorded freedom, flexibility and a rare sense of responsibility towards creating an idealistic company where employees ruled. Led by the shrewd Soota and guided by the master motivator Subroto Bagchi, MindTree had a few glorious years at the top. The companylargely regarded as a break-away group from Wipro where both Soota and Bagchi played stellar roleswas taking shape as a firm where employees loved to work because of the way they were treated and respected. Sootas stature certainly helped in this regard and MindTree was on its way. But then that brings us to a very difficult question. Why did he leave MindTree What can he do at Happiest Minds that he couldnt have done at MindTree

Soota himself has not been very forthcoming on these matters. When he quit, he said he was leaving for personal reasons. Not that anyone believed him. And now that he has set up another IT services firm, which just about sounds and feels like his first dream project, it is clear that there was something amiss. It is now becoming clear that Soota had serious differences of opinion with the way in which the MindTree management was running the company. The division of labour between Soota and Krishnakumar Natarajan, MindTrees CEO and MD, was becoming a worrying factor.

When Soota was steering the ship, MindTree was doing just fine. It crossed the $100-million mark in six years. The firm then got ambitious and said it will achieve a revenue of $1 billion by 2014. Its IPO in 2007 was oversubscribed 103 times, and all was looking good. But in the last three yearsand recession played a role just like with other companiesMindTree started to stagnate. It struggled to break the $300-million mark and it became clear that it was lacking the x-factor that could catapult it to the tier-I league. The $1-billion target now looks colossal.

Soota then took a big call that eventually backfired. In late 2009, Soota decided that MindTree had to enter the business of manufacturing mobile phones. For this purpose, it also acquired the Indian R&D centre of Kyocera Wireless. Never before in its history had MindTree indulged in product play. This was risky territory.

For the first time in his life, a big decision of Sootas failed. And it probably came at the wrong time for MindTree. A year later, it was decided that the products business be abandoned. The company suffered financially.

It is said that many of the senior officials had not liked the idea of entering the product space in the first place. There was said to be considerable anguish over the decision, but Sootas word had prevailed. Once the plan failed, Krishnakumar Natarjan grew stronger within the company. Now, Natarajan had always been under Sootas shadow, but now he began taking the wheel. Before anyone could sense a breakdown, Soota stepped down in January this year, leaving the industry aghast.

Employees at MindTree are not exactly a happy lot ever since his exit. Creating Happiest Minds is probably Sootas way of hitting out and the thespian, it can be sensed, is looking for a happy ending in his second innings. And he could well drag a few senior executives at MindTree with him.

dj.hector@expressindia.com