Author : R Gopalakrishnan,
Publisher : Penguin, Rs 499
In his latest book, R Gopalakrishnan offers a must-read analysis of journeys of celebrities from corporate world and reveals their Achilles heels, writes Kumar Chellappan
The Verger, a short story by Somerset Maugham still retains a sense of freshness and charm even though the writer created the story more than seven decades ago. Before I get into talking about R Gopalakrishnan’s recently released book Crash: Lessons from the Entry and Exit of CEOs, I would like to offer a summary of Maugham’s short story.
It is about Albert Foreman, a verger in a countryside. Despite being poor and illiterate, Foreman executes his duties with perfection and is liked by everybody. But when a new priest who has a doctorate in theology takes over as the new parish head, Foreman is kicked out of the church. One can very well imagine what would happen to a person in his fifties if he/she loses his/her job. The new priest clears Foreman’s dues and asks him to not return for work from the next day. An embarrassed Foreman comes out of the church and steps into the scary world without as much as a clue about what he would do next.
Struggling to find a solution, he feels the urge to smoke a cigar. But when he goes around the church premises in search of a shop selling cigar, he can’t find one. And that turns out to be a blessing in disguise. It gives him the idea to set up a small shop selling cigars, cigarettes and tobacco in the same area. Within just two or three years, he makes a huge profit that opens a dozen shops in various parts of the city. One day, when Foreman’s bank manager comes to meet him with some investment advice. he finds out that the extremely rich man is illiterate! Staring at him in disbelief, the banker asks,“And do you mean to say that you’ve built up this important business and amassed a fortune of thirty thousand pounds without being able to read or write? Good God, man, what would you be now if you had been able to?” This short story always creeps into my mind whenever I read news articles or books about corporate wars or about industrial giants.
There are many characters resembling Foreman in our own country. The titan who set up India’s largest corporate group was a common man with basic educational qualifications. But, he was blessed with farsightedness and common sense. He made the business of making money an art. Where the MBAs from world class universities failed, this ordinary man without any pretensions excelled and emerged as a legend in his own lifetime. There are hundreds of such real life characters in India whose life story could be read only with a sense of awe.
While the likes of Dhirubhai Ambani and Dharam Pal Gulati of the MDH brand are legends and heroes of modern-day folklores in the corporate world. Business management degrees from reputed schools have little or nothing to do with their journeys.
A strange trend, however, has been that many of the professional managers who have emerged as celebrities in their fields have found themselves stuck somewhere in the middle. In Crash, author R Gopalakrishnan, a former executive director of Tata Sons and many other Tata Group companies, discusses the nuances of the rise and fall of these managers. His book is a case study on seemingly inexplicable trends in the corporate world. His writing style is lucid and impressive. And nothing less should have been expected from this author as he had created a sensation in the corporate world when he had written The Case of the Bonsai Manager in 2007. This was immediately after his exit from the Tata Group.
In Crash, Gopalakrishnan does an in-depth analysis of what caused the rise and the subsequent fall of about 15 corporate honchos of the modern times. As a reader, one might initially feel that one particular case study which he could have included in the collection was that of Cyrus Mistry, who was appointed as chairman of Tata Sons in 2013. He was replaced in 2016. With his vast experience in the world which makes and breaks CEOs every day, his insights in this area would have been rewarding. But still, the reader would have no complaints by the end of the book. The author more than compensates for what he seems to have ‘missed out.’ He brings back Lee Iacocca, the chief executive for Ford Motors who resuscitated and revived the fortunes of the dying automobile giant through his shrewd salesmanship as well as street smartness. When Iacocca wrote his memoirs (autobiography) in 1984, it turned out to be an instant hit with more than 7 million copies getting sold in the first year itself. Please understand that this happened at a time when there were no paid news systems or satellite TV channels to promote the book or its author. For some, it was a status symbol those days to claim that they had read the Iacocca book three or four times. Despite the fact that a car designed and sold during Iacocca’s tenure as director of the company turned out to be an instant hit (Mustang), Henry Ford II, the scion of the Ford Group had no qualms in firing him. The reason cited by Ford for removing Iacocca was interesting. Crash gives us some intel. It quotes Henry Ford II as having said, “He had a lot of ability, an unfortunately his ability lies 99 per cent in sales. But it isn’t only in selling cars; it’s selling everything. It’s selling himself, it’s selling an idea, selling anything — the Brooklyn Bridge, if you will. When he started to talk, he could talk interminably, and he did a good job. Now if he was really wound up I think at the end he forgot what he started with...”
But Iacocca’s version of the story for his exit from the group stands entirely different.“ The Fords are one of America’s last great family dynasties. In any dynasty, the first instinct is self-protection. Anything, anything — good, bad or indifferent — that might affect the dynasty becomes a potential problem in the mind of the man who heads it. Henry has never hidden his intention of having his son, Edsel, succeed him and he believed that I stood in the way of those plans,” wrote Lee Iacocca’s in his autobiography in 1984.
The book tells some equally compelling stories of CEOs and COOs whose journeys unfolded in India. Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, and Infosys are only some of the firms discussed. For anybody interested in the corporate world even remotely, it’s a must read.