Infosys’ outgoing CEO Sarojini Damodaran Shibulal has led an exciting life

jpgFor someone whose parents wanted him to take up a teaching job close to his hometown Alleppey in Kerala, Infosys’ outgoing CEO Sarojini Damodaran Shibulal has led an exciting life.

As one of the cofounders of the $8.2-billion Infosys, he has headed various teams at the Bangalore-based software services company, including sales, manufacturing and internet consulting practice, besides being its chief operating officer. But when Shibulal, 59, took over the wheel in 2011, the once-bellwether company was going through one of its toughest phases.

Though the financial crisis had ruined Lehman Brothers a few years ago, the rest of the American financial industry, Indian IT’s largest client base, were still clamping down on IT spending, focusing only on the basics.

His reign also saw an migration from the company’s top deck, some of whom had been with it for decades. But this period corresponded with Infosys’ boldest move — it launched its 3.0 strategy, which involved concentrating on opportunities in the digital space with higher margins.

However, as clients cut back on IT budgets, the discretionary spending that funded those projects dried up and Infosys began to falter.

“Shibu(lal) took over at a time when there was a lot of global uncertainty and external environment was not right, which led to the deficit of the company,” V Balakrishnan, former board member of Infosys, told ET.

“Yet, he’s a legend and will leave big shoes to fill in for his successor. He is a process oriented person and could execute large scale projects with ease. We worked together as a team and he never interfered.”

Shibulal’s journey as an entrepreneur began in 1981 when he cofounded the company — then known as Infosys Consultants Pvt Ltd — along with NR Narayana Murthy, Nandan Nilekani, NS Raghavan, S Gopalakrishnan, K Dinesh, Ashok Arora.

A decade later, he took a five-year time off and joined Sun Microsystems, where he was responsible for designing and implementing Sun’s first e-commerce application. That experience came in useful as he returned to Infosys to establish and lead the internet consultancy practice.

It is possible that in the commotion over Infosys’ earnings, the crisis of confidence created by the constant second-guessing of analysts and now the appointment of Vishal Sikka as CEO, Shibulal’s true legacy may be lost. He wanted the company to grow not just on the back of labour arbitrage but through concentrating on the new forces changing enterprise technology like analytics and the cloud and consulting.

Even at his last press conference as Infosys’ CEO, reinvention was at the top of his mind.

“I am a firm believer that strategies do not last for more than three-four years,” said Shibulal, who is known to trifle with electronic gadgets in his spare time. “There is no guarantee that what has worked for us in the past, will work for us in future. Corporations like us need to constantly reinvent.”

Shibulal ultimately may best be remembered as a man of great vision but bad timing, exemplified by the fact that the bold moves he had urged the board to take came into force when his substitute was chosen.

As he hands on the baton to the first non-founder chief executive in the company’s history, Shibulal is upbeat. “Infosys is not a baby (now). It was a baby when I started out and I’m definitely handing over a stronger Infosys,” Shibulal said.


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