Thursday, July 28, 2011

Indians winning top jobs with global giants

They form 2nd biggest group of CEOs after Americans, study of S&P 500 firms shows

By Ravi Velloor, South Asia Bureau Chief

NEW DELHI: On Wednesday night at upscale Central Park condominium in Gurgaon, a fast developing city on Delhi's outskirts, several cousins gathered to celebrate the elevation of one of their own to the apex of Deutsche Bank, Germany's largest lender.

One heads the regional operation of Akzo Nobel, the paint company formerly known as ICI. Another works for the energy giant Cairn.

To them, Mr Anshu Jain's appointment as co-chief executive of Deutsche marked the end of weeks of tension. Globally, the media had speculated that the 48-year-old's Indian roots and lack of familiarity with the German language would prevent him from getting the top job, despite Mr Jain's division being the bank's principal moneymaker - earning no less than three-quarters of Deutsche's profits.

'It is time for all of us to exhale and celebrate,' said cousin Manavendra Jain. 'All of us had been holding our collective breath all these weeks.'

The man at the centre of the excitement could not have been more unruffled, however.

On the day that his appointment was announced, Mr Anshu Jain was in a marquee box at Lord's - cricket's most hallowed ground - in the city of London.

Before him, disappointment was unfolding as India slipped to defeat against England in a key Test match. Batting sensation Virender Sehwag, a friend of his, was not playing because of injury. Mr Jain, however, had the satisfaction of seeing another close friend, Rahul Dravid, score a century for India.

Mr Jain's rise is the latest example in a string of Indians rising to head some of the world's biggest companies.

In a study of S&P 500 firms, the search firm Egon Zehnder found that Indians featured as the second largest group of CEOs, after Americans. They include Mr Vikram Pandit, who rescued Citigroup after the global meltdown, and Ms Indra Nooyi, boss of PepsiCo, who is charting new directions for the food and beverage company. Closer to home, there is Mr Piyush Gupta, head of DBS Group.

By some estimates, Indians can be spotted in leadership roles at a fifth of the companies on the Fortune 500 list.

What explains the phenomenon? Many share similarities - solid middle class backgrounds and values, and parents who stressed education. As individuals, they are competitive and self-aware.

'Indian managers are extremely comfortable with ambiguity,' said Mr Pradeep Pant, Singapore-based Asia-Pacific president of Kraft Foods. 'They coped with poor infrastructure and ever-changing rules in their formative years. Diversity was the norm. They are comfortable with the idea of scale and they all show high mobility and adaptability.'

Mr Pant's early background is similar to Mr Jain's: both are alumni of Delhi Public School and Shri Ram College of Commerce at Delhi University and come from middle-class homes.

Mr Jain is known to be strongly rooted in his home culture: a strict vegetarian and family man who invariably keeps in touch with relatives. His father is retired from the Indian Audits and Accounts Service.

In addition to government and the military, India's vast railways system was another breeding ground for talent. Senior railway executives moved around the country on postings, taking their children with them or sending them to boarding schools. Those who moved with their families picked up new language skills and learnt to handle the complexities of the nation. The boarding school boys learnt to be independent and self-sufficient.

One evening in Singapore recently, Mr Venky Krishnakumar, former chief operating officer of Citi's Asia-Pacific operations and now a board member with ST Engineering and MediaCorp, sat down with Mr Harish Manwani, chief operating officer of consumer goods giant Unilever, to count railway kids like themselves who had gone on to build successful careers with multinational companies.

In no time, they had run out of fingers on which to count. The list included names like Mr Victor Menezes, former vice-chairman of Citigroup, and his brother Ivan, who is president and chief executive of Diageo North America Inc.

'I guess it was a combination of being able to get into good schools and to think through all the problems and get things done,' muses Mr Krishnakumar, who spent 31 years at Citi. 'Our lives were full of back-up plans and we learnt never to take anything at face value.'

The initial MNC hires of the early 1970s and 1980s say they faced a measure of resistance at meetings and in corporate boardrooms. Some took time to adjust to the sight of an Asian striding in to discuss big deals. Traces of it remain, as seen in the speculation surrounding Mr Jain and his chances of getting the top slot at Deutsche, an institution steeped in its Germanic culture.

'Instinctively, the guys we were meeting would turn to my American subordinate,' said a person who retired from a senior position at a top accountancy firm. 'Sometimes, I'd handle such situations by turning to my guy and saying, 'Hey, Bill... get me a cup of coffee.' But that was an earlier era. Now, and in the IT field, particularly, people just as instinctively turn first to the Indian in the room.'

People familiar with the culture of multinationals say Citibank was one of the earliest to spot the merits of South Asians, particularly, Indian managers. Among its best-known hires are Mr Menezes and Mr Shaukat Aziz of Pakistan, who later became that nation's finance minister and prime minister.

From the late 1960s, Citi recruiters regularly showed up at India's top business schools and hired the best of the batches emerging with degrees.

'I remember a conference call with New York many years ago where the India head was proudly counting off the bank's performance numbers,' said a Citi veteran. 'He was interrupted by the man at the other end, who impatiently said, 'All that's fine, now tell me how many MBAs did you hire for us this year'.'