The importance of being Infosys

New Delhi, July 29 | Updated: Jul 30 2006, 05:30am hrs
You are late, NR Narayana Murthy said, looking at me, the wall clock and his watch, with a scowl on his now famous face.

Being 15 minutes late is not exactly a crime amid Bangalores narrow, winding roads, and certainly not for a journalist from another city trying to meet the head of a little known company. But that incident told me a lot about Infosys Technologies, which chairman Murthy ran with passion and dedication.

Ten years after that meeting, the staff strength of the nations software darling has kissed 50,000, about 100 times the headcount I was shown during my visit to the campus, since described by former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee as the latter-day Taj Mahal, courted by visiting heads of states.

Somewhere along the way, the 50-acre campus in the Electronic City suburb sported several new steel-and-glass facades, a golf course-like landscaping, golf carts to match for visiting VIPs, and telltale multi-coloured umbrellas for campus walks piled up in the corner.

It also survived and put behind a challenging downturn in its key markets, and a sexual harassment suit involving its head of sales.

A sapling planted by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is now called the richest tree in the campus. Infosys, which celebrates its silver jubilee this weekend, has indeed come a long way. Yes, we know about Infosys millionaires and its hyper growth, it being the first Indian company to list on the Nasdaq, and its significant cash chest. But its importance lies not so much in its heady growth as its culture and character.

The companys PR machine is aggressive and efficient, and has been so since it listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange in 1993 with a share issue that had to be supported by its underwriters because it was under-subscribed. But Infosys rarely spends on advertisements, barring those that seek out talent in appointment ads.

Its executives compete with global consultants as they schmooze customers like Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, but a walk through the campus will find you face-to-face with hundreds of small-town Indians, cycling from one building to another on the campus free-to-use bikes.

These are the voyagers of Starship Infosys, their little gleams and little dreams powering global scale growth. Murthy often uses the term pushing the hot buttons to describe the way he inspires, cajoles, and occasionally pressure his army of simple workers in a manner that taps into their inner psychology.

If that makes it a people company, the timing of Infosys success tells another story. Up until the start of economic reforms in 1991, Indias big business icon was certainly Dhirubhai Ambani, as notorious for his political connections and regulatory gains as he was famous for shareholder value and dizzying growth that Reliance Industries was famous for. Ambani had replaced JRD Tata and GD Birla as the most visible face of Indian industry, but who was going to replace his

The answer came in the persona of Murthy, who seemed to epitomise the new spirit of Indian reform: the old economy was traded for the new, the manufacturing company gave way to the knowledge company, protected growth yielded place for global ambition and friendly mentoring management took the seat of the distant boardroom.

Powered by intellect, driven by values, is Infosys ad mantra, but dont let that fool you. Powered by simplicity, driven by ambition could be the flip side of the motto. To his credit, as the baton of industrial iconhood passed quietly to Murthy, he retained the core element of shareholder value that Ambani championed in the 1980s.

Murthys stack of western classical CDs defies his South Indian Brahmin origins, but the chief mentor routinely stops by to chat up sweepers in his campus in his native Kannada. And some of them at least are recruited from nearby villages stirred by creeping urban growth.

I have seen visitors like British PM Tony Blair speak to eager hordes of Infoscions at the campus collegial quadrangle but prefer to recall the day in Mumbai, when Murthy stepped out from Oberoi Towers Mumbais toniest of hotels to hail a yellow-and-black Fiat taxi. Patrick Sutch, a portly Nasdaq executive with an insurance salesmans demeanour, pointed to Murthy and his simple lifestyle, My investors can trust him.