13. NR Narayana Murthy

Infosys founder; "father of Indian IT"

Benjamin Wachenje
"It is less important, I believe, where you start. It is more important how and what you learn."

Executive chairman: Infosys
Born: Aug. 20, 1946, Mysore, India
Education: Electrical engineering at the University of Mysore and India Institute of Technology Kanpur

The most significant change to the management of large companies in the U.S. and Europe over the past 25 years has been the outsourcing of back-office processes. Much of that work has ended up in India, at Bangalore-based tech companies such as Infosys and Wipro, and at Tata Consultancy Services in Mumbai. No man did more to spark that revolution than Narayana Murthy, the visionary founder of Infosys, who is regarded as the father of Indian information technology. In building a multibillion-dollar software and IT services firm, he showed that Indian companies could compete with the best in the world.

Murthy started Infosys in 1981 with six fellow software engineers from Patni Computer Systems in Pune, where Murthy had worked after his first company, Softronics, failed. His wife, Sudha, also a computer engineer and at the time the better paid of the two, provided the initial capital of about $1,150. Murthy recalls that because of India's red tape, it took two years to get a phone line installed, and two and a half years to import the first computer. The arrival of its first mainframe was cause for a company photograph.

Infosys' first client was Data Basics, in New York. In 1990, after nine years of moderate success, Murthy had to persuade his co-founders to reject a $1 million takeover offer. The following year, India enacted economic reforms and Infosys took off. In 1999, it became the first Indian company to list on the Nasdaq; five years later, it was the first listed Indian company with revenue of $1 billion a year.

Today it has nearly 800 customers in 30 countries and derives 85 percent of its revenue from North America and Europe. Murthy, whose fortune Forbes estimates at $1.7 billion, holds a revered place among India's entrepreneurs.

Murthy ran Infosys as CEO until 2002 before stepping up to chairman. He held that post until 2006, when he reached the company's executive retirement age of 60. He continued as nonexecutive chairman before retiring completely in 2011. Last year, with Infosys facing a sales slump, he returned for a five-year stint as executive chairman.

It appears Murthy's son Rohan, who has a Ph.D. in computer science from Harvard, is being groomed as his successor. The two work alongside each other in a new chairman's office. Rohan's appointment triggered an exodus of top executives, including at least one prospective CEO. The elder Murthy reportedly said that many departures are necessary to weed out underperformers.

NR Narayana Murthy: Lifelong highlights

  • Couldn't attend the prestigious India Institute of Technology as an undergraduate, despite scoring highly in entrance exams, because his family couldn't afford to support him there
  • Set up largest corporate university, able to train 12,000 employees a year (in three groups of 4,000, for four months each)
  • Strong supporter of India's anti-corruption movement; led crusade for better corporate governance
  • Made Infosys the first Indian company to offer staff stock options
  • Was second-largest employer of H-1B visa professionals in the U.S. as of 2012, but a lawsuit (subsequently settled) accused Infosys of bringing in IT workers on visitor visas
  • His wife is the sister of the eminent Indian astrophysicist Shrinivas Kulkarni
  • Says an organization starting from scratch must coalesce around a team of people with an enduring value system

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