August 8, 2014 3:36 pm

The chief executive of India’s TCS and his marathon mentality

The head of India’s largest IT services company talks about how long-distance running has helped him in business
Natarajan Chandrasekaran, chief executive of Tata Consultancy Services, at his home in Mumbai©Subhash Sharma

Natarajan Chandrasekaran, chief executive of Tata Consultancy Services, at his home in Mumbai

Most professionals needing to work from home are content with converting their spare bedroom into a home-office, but Natarajan Chandrasekaran (commonly known as Chandra) went a step further. The 51-year-old chief executive of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), India’s largest IT services company, modified an entire apartment into an executive suite to conduct his official business.

The “office” is located below his residence, in a block of sea-facing apartments on Worli Sea Face, one of Mumbai’s most famous promenades. It has a small gym, a videoconferencing unit and a large banquet room. Upstairs, Chandrasekaran shares a three-bedroom apartment with his wife, Lalitha, and their teenage son, Pranav. Both properties are company-owned, and equally compact, measuring about 2,000 sq ft each.

Chandrasekaran says he felt the need for an adjacent workplace after becoming chief executive of the company in 2009. “I can do late-night videoconference calls from my home, without any disturbance. I can also host more people downstairs for a dinner, than I can in my home.”

Brass statue of the Hindu god Ganesha©Subhash Sharma

Brass statue of the Hindu god Ganesha

Bringing the office closer to home is characteristic of someone with a reputation for long working hours and close customer focus. “In the worst month I travel 20 days. In the best month I travel 15 days. It’s been that way for 12 to 14 years. I’m accustomed to it. On those Sundays when I don’t have to get into my formal clothes or get into the car, I love just staying at home, where I can work or meet people,” he says.

Chandrasekaran’s professional stamina is mirrored in his personal life, and particularly in his interest in long-distance running. He started off as a novice runner in his mid-forties, when he realised he was at risk of becoming diabetic. He now runs one full marathon and several half marathons every year in cities across the world, such as Vienna and Chicago.

“My marathon time now is far better than it was five years ago,” he says, adding that one of the biggest attractions of his home is its proximity to the sea. He runs along the coast every day at 5am.

Favourite things

meditating Buddha sitting beside an elephant

Chandrasekaran is most fond of a painting of a meditating Buddha, seated near an elephant. “I like the way the peaceful Buddha can influence that giant creature,” he says. He also likes a glass sculpture depicting “togetherness” which he and his wife bought when they visited Stockholm for their 10th wedding anniversary. “We saw this in Gamla stan, the Old Town, and liked it,” he says.

It was closeness to nature that spurred him to invest in his first property, a weekend home overlooking a lake in Lonavala, a hill station outside Mumbai. “I saw the plot and immediately liked it. I’m basically a nature person and all my breaks are always in the mountains, where I can be with nature. Because we spend so much time in the city, I like calmness and serenity. I like to go for runs, walks, it readjusts me,” he says. “Running has made me more observant, calmer and taught me to persevere. One thing I’ve learnt from running marathons is that everything is long haul. Nothing happens overnight.”

TCS’s five-year financial results validate his approach. Since being appointed chief executive, company revenues and headcount have more than doubled to $13.4bn and about 300,000 people respectively. In addition, its market capitalisation has increased eight times to more than $80bn, making TCS India’s most valuable company, and among the most valuable IT services companies in the world, larger than Accenture.

Chandrasekaran is a TCS lifer, having joined the company as an intern before becoming a full-time employee in 1987. Born, raised and educated in small towns in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, he exemplifies the archetypal “global Indian” software engineer. After joining TCS, he lived and worked outside India for 10 years in the US, the UK and Sweden, while taking on increasingly senior roles for the company.

Sitting room in the office apartment of Natarajan Chandrasekaran's home in Mumbai©Subhash Sharma

Sitting room in the office apartment

His apartment reflects both his Indian roots and global travels. Vintage European-style lighting and furniture are juxtaposed against folksy Indian paintings and a collection of decorative objects from around the world. “I usually like calm, happiness or colour, I don’t like tough paintings. Heritage and tradition are also important,” he says, pointing to a painting of a Kolkata tram and another of the bathing ghats of Varanasi.

These works are blended with antique items from other countries, such as a set of weights once used by spice traders from a flea market in Amsterdam. “I don’t have much time to shop, so if I see something I like while I’m travelling, I just pick it up.” This ability to assimilate different cultures is a hallmark of Indian IT firms’ global success. “Because of the way we grew up, we’re very adaptable and flexible and I feel that has helped us get ahead,” he says.

Wall cabinet of Natarajan Chandrasekaran's home in Mumbai©Subhash Sharma

Wall cabinet

Equally, Chandrasekaran’s experience overseas has helped him to appreciate the value of thoroughness and attention to detail in daily life. “Societies abroad are very rigorous, they have to get perfection, unlike in India where we often stop at 90 per cent. So that’s something that I’ve worked on. And I’ve learnt when you want perfection, it’s very important to delegate. Because when you do 100 things all by yourself, you can never perfect something,” he says. A few years ago, he implemented this thinking in the company through a more agile organisation structure.

Because of the way we grew up, we’re very adaptable and flexible and I feel that has helped us get ahead

Now, the focus for TCS is to build innovation capabilities to better serve its customers, an important move for a company aspiring to be perceived as on a par with rivals in terms of brand recognition. “Customers want us to be more proactive. They expect more from us [and] ask us to bring ideas,” says Chandrasekaran. “Ten years ago we didn’t have the scale, we didn’t have the size. But today we are at the forefront, on an equal footing with everyone else. I’m pretty confident that innovations will happen, and that big product areas and world-class platforms will come out of India.”

He adds that the company also hopes to heighten its intellectual proficiency and reputation by investing in digital competencies and broadening its talent pool.

Videoconference table and exercise equipment in the office apartment of Natarajan Chandrasekaran's home in Mumbai©Subhash Sharma

Videoconference table and exercise equipment in the office apartment

“We have created a digital collaboration centre for customers in Santa Clara [California], and hired a lot of people with the right skill sets from the Valley, to create intellectual property, work on foundation software, and offer digital re-imagination services to clients, he says. “We want to get design people, and people with all kinds of backgrounds, whether a history background or managerial background, into the company.”

Despite a demanding agenda, he insists he can accommodate more personal activities. “I’m looking at learning a foreign language. My son has taken up Spanish, so we’re just fixing up a teacher for the three of us.”

Photographs: Subhash Sharma

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