Ten months. Five candidates. Three countries. That is the journey Wipro Ltd chief executive officer T.K. Kurien and human resources head Saurabh Govil undertook before the company named Abid Ali Neemuchwala as chief operating officer (COO) on 16 March.
Kurien and Govil, who flew to London, Seattle, Dallas and New York between April and November on this mission, had at least a dozen meetings with external candidates.
So secretive was the management about the hunt for a COO that even the Wipro board was informed only a day before India’s third largest software services exporter announced the appointment.
“This thought process started in March (2014), but we kept it under wraps. For a long time, only two of us knew,” Kurien said in an interview on Wednesday. One executive privy to the developments said on condition of anonymity that he got to know about the COO search only in November.
In the summer of 2014, Wipro reported another set of feeble growth numbers, recording annual revenue growth of 6.4 % for the year ended 31 March last year. Although this was better than the 5% growth in 2012-13, Wipro’s revenue increase paled in comparison with that of larger rival Infosys Ltd, which posted 15% growth.
Both Kurien and Govil realized that it was time to act.
Kurien, who took the helm of Wipro in February 2011, had first discussed the need for a COO with Govil in March.
One theme that recurred during Kurien’s interactions with many of Wipro’s 986 customers was the impact of technology on the way the traditional outsourcing work was done by Indian outsourcers. Is Wipro embracing open source software to which many of its biggest clients, including Citigroup Inc.,were switching? Is it investing enough in next generation technologies, including automation of back-end infrastructure maintenance?
Although by now Wipro had a team working under intelligent technology platforms, Kurien knew it would take some time before results start to show up. He needed someone who could execute his plans.
“If you look at the way technology is being bought, it is very different from the way three years ago,” said Kurien. “Three years ago, CIOs (chief information officers) took infrastructure from us, took application from someone else, and acted as integrator. But now more and more specific workloads are getting stack-based. People take a process view and say how do I integrate applications, hardware and data. So which means how can you (an IT vendor) integrate applications, infrastructure and data together, and present it before the customer.”
“So we started meeting people from April,” said Kurien, who a few days later read in the press that cross-city rival Infosys, too, had started its hunt for a CEO to replace S.D. Shibulal, who wanted to leave. Infosys asked two search firms, US-based Development Dimensions International, a specialist in executive evaluations, to rank leaders within the company and executive search firm Egon Zehnder to help it identify leaders outside the company.
“Executive names normally come through referencing. But TK is one CEO who is always meeting clients and he knows most people well enough,” said Navnit Singh, country head for India at executive search firm Korn/Ferry International. “I think that explains why they did not seek any outside help,” said Singh, whose firm helps companies, including Wipro, fill senior management ranks.
Two months later, in June, Infosys named Vishal Sikka as the first non-founder CEO and MD-designate of the company. Unlike Infosys’s hunt for Sikka, which took two months, spanning three continents and the three-member nominations panel of the company meeting a dozen external and internal candidates, Wipro’s search was a long-drawn affair.
By now, Wipro leaders had just had two meetings with executives, names of which the management declined to share. Mint now learns that these executives were from Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc. But Kurien knew their decision to bring in an outsider was the right one.
“We wanted someone who could challenge the existing dogmas that sat within the enterprise. Within an enterprise you typically don’t question things which are done for many years. We wanted a little bit of external challenge the way we have worked,” Kurien said, explaining the rationale for selecting an external candidate.
A few months later in August, both Kurien and Govil first met Neemuchwala in Dallas over dinner, according to the executive cited above.
Neemuchwala, 48, was no stranger to the outsourcing sector: He is credited with having doubled the revenue at Tata Consultancy Services Ltd’s (TCS’s) back-office division in the six years he headed the business and also helping the company win some billion-dollar deals, including a multi-year contract with Nielsen.
Wipro’s management declined to share details of what transpired in the dinner meeting, but this it was followed by at least two more meetings in Dallas, according to the executive cited above, before Neemuchwala flew down to Bengaluru to meet Wipro chairman Azim Premji in late December.
“Such meetings with chairman are never so short,” Kurien laughed when asked if it was a quick 15-20 minute meeting, again declining to share details.
To be sure, once Premji approved of the choice, Wipro knew by February it had found the right candidate to lead the operations team. But it wanted to wait for another six months before naming Neemuchwala as COO.
“Things in the last month moved way too fast than we had anticipated. He (Neemuchwala) left TCS (in early February) and by then, other than Wipro, he had four other offers (including one from a private equity-backed technology firm). So he took a decision and we are happy he joined us,” said the executive cited above.
“The biggest quality he (Neemuchwala) has is the ability to execute. He integrates all these stacks. All the stacks (technology service lines at Wipro) report to him. He will be building service integration layer that sits on the top,” said Kurien.
“He (Neemuchwala) genuinely understands how to marry business process delivery with IT delivery—an expertise also shared with T.K. Kurien, who used to lead Wipro’s BPO business before becoming the company CEO,” said Phil Fersht, CEO of US-based HfS Research, an outsourcing-research firm. “He can truly help globalize an indian-heritage provider with his experience, which is essential for a firm like Wipro.”
For now, Neemuchwala lives with his family in Dallas. But Wipro won’t dictate where Neemuchala should work from. “He will be wherever he wants to be, be it in India or the US,” said Kurien.
Neemuchwala declined to comment.