Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Titan steps down

On a bright summer’s day in June of 1975, a young man walked into the portals of a great company. He had just finished his Masters and had come to take on his first job, as a Management Trainee. He was a simple young man, hadn’t seen the world, or even the country for that matter. But he had a brilliant mind – this company was known for brilliant people and even in that crowd, he stood out.

He rapidly grew in the organization. After the obligatory stint at a factory, ( and he became a legend there), he moved back to headquarters and started to seriously turn on the gas. One brilliant stint after another followed and it became obvious that he was destined for great things. He went to the parent company in London, came back, went back again and he finally came back to take over as the CFO of this famous company. He was the second Indian to occupy this post in the company’s illustrious history.

For over a decade, he reigned as the CFO of this company. And he became a legend.

He is a leader of men. A whole generation of managers in the organisation were personally developed by him. The number of finance people, who are now dotted all over Indian industry, and who look up to him as their mentor, is legion.

He transformed the finance function. He virtually invented how to wage war on costs in good times, rather than bad times. He foresaw how the internet would transform business and piloted E commerce in the company before the term became fashionable. He was an early leader in creating shared services, again well before his peers. He designed and led control systems for a gigantic company that were ahead of its times. Corporate governance in India has often taken the lead from this company – his handling of the majority shareholder and the minority shareholders has been the example other companies seek to emulate.

I am personally beholden to this man. For after all, he recruited me into the company all those years ago. I still remember the interview, when I didn’t do too well, and yet he decided to take me. Over the two decades that I spent in that company, he was my mentor. He was either my direct manager or my dotted line manager for many a year. When we both had a dream to start something new inside the company, it was he who became the Chairman of the subsidiary we set up. We grew the “baby”, brick by brick and he was the father who ensured that the home was safe and secure . When the baby quickly grew into a lovely girl and wanted to get married, he proudly gave her away – and made sure that we would be well looked after in the in laws place.

Men like him are rare in the world of business. He moves faster than the times and yet his heart is strictly in the old world. A world where loyalty matters, people come first, business aggression is tempered by a soft touch, humility is a virtue and where the joy is in the job superbly done, rather than in the column inches.

For more than three decades, he shone brightly in one company. He didn’t leave, he didn’t change jobs, although he could have walked into any company in the land. When dusk settles down today, something will unalterably change in this company. For, this titan would have stepped down.

Adieu Sundaram. Good luck and Godspeed in the ventures to come.

Sundaram retires today as Vice Chairman of Hindustan Lever, after 34 years of sterling service. Hindustan Lever, to use its old name, is the Indian subsidiary of Unilever.