Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Business Leaders who can see far far ahead are an extreme rarity. Usually a business leader’s definition of long term is the next quarter. Occasionally, there comes a business leader who plans for the next couple of years. Rare is the leader who sees decades ahead.

Two such examples are the subject of this post. The surprising thing is that their names are completely unknown – I don’t think there are more than half a dozen people who’ll even recognize their names. After all, business has short memories and business history is virtually an unknown science. As a demonstration of this, can any of you recall who was Jack Welch’s predecessor at GE – he was a titan in his own right; honoured with the title of the Businessman of the Decade; but who remembers him now.

Back to these two men. One was the Chairman of this famous company in India , a subsidiary of a global company headquartered in the UK. He was chairman only for three years or so until ill health forced him to return back to the UK. The other was his boss, the head of the global business outside of Europe. Their names were Steve Turner and Andrew Knox.

Consider the environment. Late fifties. India had just attained independence. Just shaken off the colonial yoke. There were only a few multinationals in the country. This company was by far the largest of them. As was the norm, everywhere in the world at that time, managers from the parent country would be sent to run subsidiaries across the world. It would be rare to find a brown skin, or a black skin in a senior position in Asia or Africa.

But this company was different. These two wise men, wise beyond their years, and absolutely without parallel in any other company, decided that Indian business was not to be run by foreigners. They decided that Indian managers would now be entrusted to run the company. For those times, this was a positively majestic step.

Steve Turner, in his short tenure, and Andrew Knox, did many far seeing things. But one of their greatest contributions was that they groomed and decided to hand over the chairmanship of the company to an illustrious Indian. The company never looked back. Generations of outstanding Indian business leaders have graced this company . And the company went on to become a star, outdistancing its competition combined until the turn of this century. All because a few very wise men foresaw that to succeed in business in India, you have to let Indians run it. They called it "isation”. Indianisation. And then replicated it in every other country in the world.

The reason I muse about this, is that here we are in the twenty first century. In China, I still see expats running many of the foreign companies here. Many senior posts are occupied by expats from Europe and North America. They talk of the same issues – lack of senior management talent, trust, etc etc. And then I marvel at how wise they were in this company in the 1950s. They were “men of substance”; men, truly way ahead of their times.