There are two sets of people in this world. Those that make the best of the opportunities that come their way, and those that spend all their mental energies on the what-if’s. That is, the optimists and the pessimists. So, when most 69-year-olds are enjoying their post-retirement days, there are some that break the mould and find something interesting and innovative to do with their lives. Ashok Soota is such a person. In August 2011, he announced his second venture, Happiest Minds, an IT services firm in Bengaluru. Not ready to call it quits, he’s decided to run a company with happy employees because they bring in and keep customers happy. To call him an optimist would be apt.
Soota belongs to a family of six siblings. His father was in the army, which gave him the privilege of growing up across the country. By age 12, he had gone to 12 schools. “I built a huge network at a young age and got a pulse of India as a whole,” recalls Soota, Executive Chairman, Happiest Minds. The foundation years helped him adapt to rapid change, and growing up surrounded by siblings gave him multiple mentors. Soota joined the University of Roorkee, the then premier institute in its field, to purse a degree in electronic engineering. He enjoyed a well-rounded life as a student, taking part in sports, external events, debating and theater.
First job and an MBA
After a brief stint at a company which he chooses to write off his career graph as blip, Soota joined DCM (Shriram Group of Industries) in 1965 for senior management training. In 1966 he was transferred to Usha Fans in Kolkata, a city which turned out to be a constant in his life, in the form of multiple postings in the years to come. He spent a large part of his career at the company, the then fifth-largest and premier firm in India, until 1984. “It had a great training scheme, and exposed me to multiple cultural experiences,” the soft-spoken Soota reminisces.
And life is also about luck, he believes. Whilst in the third year of his career, the company’s subsidiary in Sri Lanka had a position for an engineer, but one who could do more in the form of sales, procurement, marketing and labor functions. “When they looked at the profile of various people nobody fitted in like I did and there I landed in Sri Lanka, as the number three person in that entire firm,” he says. The role gave him a broad range of functions which
Soota said he couldn’t even aspire to get in a larger set up back then. This was 1968-’70, when the nation was idyllic sans political turmoil. For all practical purposes he was commercial manager but in reality he was handling technical and front-end roles together.
“The period was marked by fun and adventure, I can remember the name of every small town in Sri Lanka till date,” he laughs. Four years into his career, he was already part of top management of a small company. When he came back he went on to become Deputy General Manager and, finally, General Manager, Usha Fans, when he was just 33.
He continued to mark his space in the minds of the management to the extent where Chairman Charit Ram saw in the 36-year old the potential to turn around Shriram Refrigeration, a group company on the verge of bankruptcy. Soota was moved to Hyderabad in 1978 and eventually took the firm to a stage where it became a leader in each of its product lines. The cash position was tight, and therefore the only mantra was cash revival. R&D went into a lot of cost reduction and new methods of getting money back from customers were imbibed, including in voicing credit-day periods, separate repair centres to avoid attracting a particular tax, among others. The firm’s revenues before he left as CEO touched Rs.35 crore with 8-10 percent profitability.
During his 19-year career at Shriram, Soota took a break in 1970 to pursue an MBA at the Asian Institute of Management in Manila, Philippines, a careful choice made for a variety of reasons. “They had a pre-requisite of minimum three-four years of prior work experience and I didn’t want to end up in an institution with fresh engineering graduates as classmates,” he says.
“I feel you can learn a lot from your peers, plus I was looking for a different cultural experience,” Soota adds. The experience, he feels, gave him a conceptual background to what was in the end a managerial and not an engineering career.
Wipro and the move to IT
Interestingly, in his last year at Shriram, Soota was computerizing the firm and one company which had not been invited to bid was Wipro, because it wasn’t well-known. They were unprofitable and only two years into operations. IT was a sunrise industry and one that he did not know. Yet, the change was inevitable for Soota, and came about as a result of life’s many coincidences. After reviving Shriram’s refrigeration business, he decided to take a sabbatical and visited old friends from his Roorkee days. As luck would have it, his friend Anand Khokha knew of Azim Premji’s requirement at Wipro.
“It took me months before I agreed to meet Premji,” recalls Soota. On a Sunday when they met, Soota had gone with the mind-set to refuse the offer, but remembers the interview as a most rigorous one: over a 12-hour day, all meals and Campari, Soota’s drink of choice, included. “It was all part and process of knowing me better, because it was going to be an important decision for a fledgling IT business,” he says, impressed by Premji’s thoroughness.
Soota sensed things would plateau off in the manufacturing world and IT was an industry of the future, a large one at that, coupled with the challenge of doing something new. So he joined Wipro in 1984 as its president. “I had a natural inclination towards understanding IT,” he says. As for skepticism from employees, “They were open to change, because it was a sick company,” says Soota. Wipro’s revenue at Rs.7 crore in its second year of running was almost flat at first year levels.
Good timing has also played its part in Soota’s life. Ashok Narasimhan, Founding President, Wipro Infotech (computer business) and Wipro Systems (software business) had moved away, in his mind, to the software side of things which is why the computer business was stagnating. “I didn’t make an iota of change, it was the same team that went on to make Wipro’s computer business the number one firm,” says Soota.
The period also coincided with liberalization in the country. “It created a wave of growth which we could ride,” points out Soota. For him, too, this phase was a period of accelerated growth in a large organization. “It didn’t take us too long to overtake everyone except HCL, which we did ultimately later in 1993 to become the top computer firm,” he affirms.
For the first seven years he looked after computer business. As a company Wipro stood out because it was based on its own products and R&D which management could support in a closed environment. Under Soota’s leadership, the IT behemoth built its capabilities and introduced personal computers, entered into system engineering and expanded its range of offerings to customers with various services, something the rest of the software industry did later, we are told. “We added business verticals at a very early stage,” he notes. This went on till 1991.
In software business, its strategy was ahead of time for which the market wasn’t ready. Narasimhan had left and Wipro had a spate of CEOs who dabbled with different things. Premji soon assigned that business to Soota in 1991. “The timing was great with Infosys struggling to do its first IPO,” quips Soota.
The period from 1991-’99 saw a remarkable turnaround in Wipro system’s growth, what
Soota refers to as the ‘second wave of growth’ as it overtook Infosys to become the number two software firm in 1998. “TCS was always way ahead,” he admits. The revenue run rate for Wipro as a whole was at $500 million (Rs.2,500 crore now), of which computer business was $270 million (Rs.1,350 crore now) and software business at $230 million (Rs.1,150 crore now).
Soota was getting itchy feet again and so handed over the mantle to Arun Thiagarajan who became Vice-Chairman. “My earlier roles were intra-preneurial, soon I saw several entrepreneurial opportunities outside,” he says.