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Veterans Unpacked | Ishaat Hussain: 'The corporate discourse has to completely change and we have to focus on the basics'

'To manage the increased size and scope of business today, you require highly efficient and nimble managers, and I think we have plenty of them in the ecosystem in India.'

May 09, 2021 / 09:36 AM IST

Note to readers: How ​do corporate leaders surf life after hanging up their boots? What do they do next? What are the lessons they learned in their eventful journeys? What advice do they have for the current crop of leaders? Veterans Unpacked is a new series of interviews aimed to offer readers lessons from retired bosses on life outside the corner office.

Born in Patna the year that India became Independent, Ishaat Hussain -  often called the “Wise man of Bombay House” - went to Doon School, and then St Stephen's College before starting his career at Imperial Chemical Industries.

Veterans UnpackedHussain was later recruited by Russi Mody at Tata Steel - he worked his way up to become chairman of Voltas and later hold other senior positions across a variety of Tata Group companies. Hussain is one of the few Tata executives to have worked with four chairmen of the Tata Group over a tenure of around four decades—J.R.D. Tata, Ratan Tata, Cyrus Mistry and the present chairman N. Chandrasekaran. The former Tata Sons director was also interim chairman of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and chairman of Tata Sky.

Edited excerpts:

What have you been up to since hanging up your boots?

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You know I am always conscious of the fact that one definitely has to have a game plan post-retirement, and that came to me from personal experience.  My father was a doctor. I was very young and he was only 55 when he retired. He was really at a loss and a couple years after he retired, he passed away. I am sure there were other factors, but his retirement had something to do with it. I was 16 and he felt that he was really at a loss. That left a mark in my mind and I thought that when I retire, I am going to manage my retirement in a better way.

I was working in  a high pressure job in the corporate world and had become director at 32 and remained there for 37 years. I had wide interests and also my wife was an artist and had a very eclectic bunch of friends, so I had a life beyond the corporation. For me, life has always been more than just finance and business. So outside of work, I read a lot, especially for a corporate person and have a wide interest in people and am sociable but also genuinely fond of people.

What keeps you busy now?

The NGOs that I am on for starters. They are the State Bank of India's SBI Foundation, the Aga Khan Foundation and also an arm called the Aga Khan RSP board. Then there's also a magazine called Marg that was supported by J.R.D. Tata back in the late 1940s and led by Mulk Raj Anand, and I got involved with it over the years.

Then I am with the Gateway House, a think tank and also on my Doon School board. Having said I won’t join a board, I  was persuaded to join one that is the National Infrastructure Investment Fund (NIIF), which is a government fund and very interesting and run by a bunch of youngsters who worked for me and were very persuasive. It's not really an operating company, more like asset management.

I'm also a very regular walker. You'll see a  figure on Marine Drive for the last 25 years walking five to six kilometres and quite fast - I believe in exercise and yoga. I spend a lot of time on what I call maintenance and which I couldn’t do when I was working, and do it now seven days a week.  I also spend time with grandchildren.

Also read: Remembering Russi Mody, corporate India’s original maverick

Looking back, can you tell us about three interesting events or anything that has stayed with you since?

Number one, without a doubt, was taking TCS public and that was a terrific learning experience. The number of moving parts one has to handle, right from investment bankers in New Delhi and road shows and piloting the roll through and getting to know the senior guys at TCS. We told the bankers to not talk to us unless we got a $10 billion valuation - now it's 15 times that - was one part of that journey that was so rewarding and fulfilling and after that nothing really excited me.

The second thing which was a great learning experience was to be party to the Tata Steel transformation journey. To cut a long story short, in 1992 when we had the so-called liberalisation, the highly contained environment was completely thrown out to the wolves.  Competition price controls were removed, barriers of tariff were removed and it was a challenge for existence.  Along with co-directors, I worked to not only save Tata Steel but let it continue to prosper.

Third was when I took over Voltas in 2002. It was in the ICU and I took it over, and when I did, Mr Tata was not happy at all. The market cap was only Rs 200 crore and we owned 26% - so even if we let it go, it would only fetch us some Rs 50-Rs 60 crores. My suggestion was to give it a chance and that company turned around and when I left, the market cap was around Rs 16,000 crore and the market share was 26%, and it gave me a sense of great satisfaction.

What do you miss most about the C-Suite?

I really got to know some lovely people. There's a certain amount of missing the interaction on a detailed level with the colleagues and CEOs. More than anything else, anybody who was anyone in the financial world would come to Bombay House: bankers, brokers, economists. The who's who of everywhere, and I always had a chance to meet them, and sometimes on Mr Tata's behalf, and I got a great amount of exposure at a global level. It was wonderful to be up to date on what was going on, some knowledge, some trivia, a little gossip - it made the day, and I missed that. I do capture that in the NIIF with the meetings and board people, but all good things come to an end. I actually had a two-stage retirement - I was an executive director and retired at 65 first and then continued with the directorships of 15 other companies until 70 and then I stepped down.

If you had to relive your corporate career, what would you do differently?

I never reappraise the past and look back. I can clearly tell you I have no regrets, by god's grace, very honestly. But if I were to see it differently as self-assessment, I think I was a bit risk-averse and I lived in my comfort zone which was very comfortable but perhaps I could have taken more risk.

What are the changes in the corporate world that you see now that are vastly different from your time?

When I look back over the span of my career of 45 years, it's chalk and cheese. In the same time, everything has changed but nothing has changed is also true. Take something like Tata Steel; we would produce 1.7 million tonnes of steel and fast forward to 1999, I think we had got to 3 million tonnes, now it's about 35 million tons. The question that kept coming up was how scalable is the model during the TCS IPO (initial public offering) and that time they were at a turnover of $1 billion and 35,000 employees, then $15 billion and 350,000 employees and now 500,000 employees and $20 billion. Also, what has changed a lot is the framework and compliance and the talent. So, people today in general are very much more advanced in terms of training and exposure and academics.

Which business leader in the current crop impresses you?

I wouldn’t get into specifics, but to manage the increased size and scope of business, you require highly efficient and nimble managers, and I think we have plenty of them in the ecosystem in India.

How did you plan for life after retirement?

I made a conscious decision not to join a bunch of corporate boards. Friends like Deepak Parekh were upset and asked me how I could do that, and I explained that when there were a maximum of 20 directorships permitted, I was on 20. So I decided to dedicate myself more to the NGO sector and do more advisory.

Is there anything you would tell your younger self?

For me, things like technical competence, a good education, being smart are hygiene factors to get around the world today. So today you need a good management degree and that’s hygiene but what is taken for granted is the softer side and repertoire of character.  I think emotional quotients (EQs) are far superior than IQ (intelligence quotient). Once the door opens, EQ takes over completely. When I interviewed folks for CEOs for jobs, I would assess personal qualities - integrity and emotional intelligence, moral positioning and right and wrong - and that is what I would tell any youngster who would come to meet me. Work on the software.

What is your advice for the next cadre of corporate leaders?

This COVID period made think a lot about world of NGOs, the world of the underprivileged and the challenges of perhaps a billion of my countrymen. And my sense is, their life is rotten and the challenge before us is that we don’t have to power them with computers so they can watch TV shows and listen to music. It's really health that we need to think very seriously about.  Our countrymen who are dying for lack of oxygen. The discourse has to completely change and we have to focus on the basics. Whatever you say about China, what they have achieved is worth studying in granularity. What did the Chinese do to succeed? How did they obliterate Covid in their country? Study that.
Pavan Lall is a senior journalist based in Mumbai.
first published: May 6, 2021 01:00 pm

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