The race to the corner office at Infosys Technologies has always been less like a race and more like musical chairs. If you are still running, you have a chance. Every founder who kept running had a shot at being CEO.
With the last one - SD Shibulal, the current CEO - set to retire in early 2015, the game once again looks like musical chairs. But this time, serious contenders are dropping off one by one. Mohandas Pai, who many thought would be the first CEO from outside the founding team, was the first to quit, leaving the field open to Ashok Vemuri, BG Srinivas and V Balakrishnan.
Ashok Vemuri, a board member who was in charge of manufacturing and the Americas, left in August to join iGate as its CEO. Vemuri made it clear that he was quitting because he didn't think of his chances as bright.
NR Narayana Murthy, who returned to Infosys in June 2013 after his semi-retirement, told The Economic Times: "He said he wanted to be the CEO of a company as early as possible and that he had gotten the opportunity now even though the company is much smaller.. On the other hand, he said, the probability of his becoming the CEO at Infosys was at best 33 percent and at least 18 to 20 months away."
Yesterday, the company announced that V Balakrishnan, the former CFO who was in charge of several divisions, including BPO and Finacle, would be quitting too. Bala (as he is known to colleagues) has a knack of deflecting questions with witty retorts and a wry sense of humour. When CNBC TV-18 asked him why he didn't discuss his leaving Infosys with Mohandas Pai, with whom he is starting a fund, Bala replied, "He is a partner in my fund, not a partner in my life."
Bala has since been insisting that it was a personal decision. But it was clear to his friends that he got tired of running around chairs. "For leaders like him to continue in an indefinite race (for the top job) could be exhausting," Swami Sawminathan, Infosys BPO's former boss told The Times of India.
That leaves only BG Srinivas, head of Europe and financial services, in the field. Does that mean he is a shoo-in for the CEO role?
Infosys insiders say no.
"While there is support for BG Srinivas, especially from the current CEO SD Shibulal and Executive Vice-Chairman Kris Gopalakrishnan, this support is not across-the-board. Murthy himself might prefer an internal candidate, but it would go against form not to have strong external candidates in the fray, especially with the smaller pool we have now", one of them said.
Even earlier, when there were four good internal candidates to choose from (besides Vemuri, Bala and BG Srinivas, Stephen Pratt was also seen as a contender. Pratt quit in November), some board members felt there was a case for an outsider to lead Infosys. As Forbes India reported earlier, the reason for Infosys' poor performance in recent quarters was that its leaders dropped the ball on the core business IT services segment, while implementing a futuristic 3.0 strategy. This was seen by the board not so much as the failure of Shibulal as it was of the second-rung leaders.
"Given recent performance, a more thorough hunt that includes candidates from outside too is something high on the agenda," one member told Mint newspaper in April.
The market response to Infosys suggests that investors agree. Since Murthy came on board as Executive Chairman in June, Infy's share price has gone up by 47.26 percent. In fact, on the same day the Bala resignation was announced, Infosys' market cap crossed a milestone. It became the sixth company - after TCS, Reliance, ITC, Coal India and ONGC - to be valued at more than Rs 2 lakh crore. While it's a thumbs up for Murthy, it also indicates what investors see as a leadership void at Infosys.
BG Srinivas might still have a good shot at the corner office, but after Bala's exit, that task has become harder, not easier.
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Updated Date: Dec 21, 2014 01:09:41 IST