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Meet Mrityunjay Athreya, India’s pioneering management guru

LiveMint logoLiveMint 12-06-2017 Sundeep Khanna

New Delhi: Before there was Mckinsey and BCG and Bain, before there was the Blue Ocean Strategy and Porter’s Five Forces and the 3Cs framework, there was Mrityunjay Athreya. Long before it became de rigueur for every Indian company to seek help for periodic restructuring of its business from global management gurus, Athreya was laying the foundations of the consulting business in India.

He was the perfect guru then, as he is today, the man who would parse through the layers of inefficiencies companies had built into themselves over the years and offer a simpler, more reasoned way of doing business. Not for him the slash and burn recommendations that are the norm among consultants of today, for he believes in a more humanistic and inclusive way of bringing in change.

Despite having the perfect credentials to be a management guru—a PhD in management from Harvard followed by teaching stints at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Calcutta as well as London Business School (LBS)—Athreya has managed to beat the trappings of gurudom by his rootedness. Not for him mere models and motherhoods. Rather he’s the teacher who would roll up his sleeves and work with people to solve organizational problems or chart future goals. It is a different mindset, one that involves taking everyone along through workshops and intensive training sessions.

Despite having the perfect credentials to be a management guru—a PhD from Harvard followed by teaching stints at IIM Calcutta and London Business School—Athreya has managed to beat the trappings of gurudom by his rootedness

On one occasion, when Rajendra Pawar, chairman of NIIT group, initiated a baithak at his home to discuss whether the measure of quality and its pursuit differed across endeavours, he requested Athreya to be the sutradhar. The assembly was high-powered and included world-renowned quality guru Philip Crosby, danseuse Leela Samson, santoor maestro Shivkumar Sharma, DCM group chairman Vinay Bharat Ram, former Indian cricket captain Kapil Dev and educationist Arun Kapur among others. Pawar says Athreya, who helped his group in its quality journey, impressed him with how he drew out people at the event.

Now 76, Athreya has over the last 10 years concerned himself more with the non-profit sector since, as he says “the government can’t solve all the problems”. Indeed, the government, he believes, is just one part of the troika comprising civil society and the market. Since 1985, he has also taken it upon himself to usher in the Vedanta philosophy in management to complement the Western and Japanese models followed more extensively. In this he has extracted not the religious but the spiritual essence from such works as the Upanishads and the Gita and despite initial scepticism managed to convince managers of the importance of dharma, the universal ethical platform which can act as the lodestone for all actions.

Today, in any discussion on the three biggest problems of this century—climate change, inequality and terrorism—Athreya says the thought leader most often quoted is Mahatma Gandhi, who had the answer to each of these. If we curb our greed there will be no climate change, if we share there will be no inequality and if we practice non-violence there will be no terrorism.

‘The government can’t solve all the problems’, says Athreya, as he believes the govt is just one part of the troika comprising civil society and the market

That’s not quite the kind of stuff you are likely to hear from your average management consultant. But Athreya has always been different. Indeed, the Padma Bhushan he won in 2014 was richly deserved but was also significant as it drew people’s attention to his journey from a Tamil-medium school in a small Tamil Nadu village 400 miles south of Chennai to his present status as a much-loved and revered management guru.

Among Athreya’s early heroes was Subhash Chandra Bose, whose INA (Indian National Army) movement excited him while also instilling a love for his country which would see him spurn numerous opportunities to work abroad later in life. When he was 16, Athreya’s family shifted to Chennai where he went to the famous Loyola College. Even at that early age, he gave a glimpse of his analytical brain by choosing an area of study which, as he says, suited his family’s financial condition besides meeting his own aspirations for the future—a bachelor’s degree in statistics with commerce as a minor. “It was all planned,” recounts Athreya, sitting in his aesthetically loaded home in New Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park area, because that combination would allow him do his cost accountancy which he chose over chartered accountancy since, “We could not have afforded the three years of articleship needed to do chartered accountancy.” Cost accountancy was also close to management accounting, part of his later brief.

In 1960, he moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to work as a junior cost accountant with the then boxwallah firm Guest Keen Williams, which advertised itself as “engineers to the engineers”. He also registered with the Institute of Cost Accountants in London and bagged a gold medal in his intermediate exams on the basis of which he applied to a number of business schools in the US. But true to style, his wasn’t a straightforward application. He wrote to the schools arguing that having done his graduation and a professional cost accounting degree to boot, he should be considered directly for admission to a PhD programme and not a master’s degree. Stanford, along with Harvard and two other universities concurred, and also offered him financial aid, so off he went to the California-based university. But then came a scholarship from the Ford Foundation which allowed him to travel East to the even more redoubtable Harvard to complete his doctorate in management.

Mr. and Mrs. Athreya in their cacti garden.

Even as the three other Indians in his class decided their fortunes lay in the US, Athreya headed home to serve his country. Of course, over the years the others too ended up doing no harm to India’s reputation. One of them, Ram Charan, is today among the foremost thinkers and writers on leadership.

For Athreya though, it was always about India, which he calls his janmabhoomi and his karmabhoomi (land of birth and the land where he chose to work). Shunning the many job offers from American corporations that might have been the perfect happy ending for the young man, he came back to India and joined IIM Calcutta as a teacher of strategic planning and behaviour. In this phase, his influencers ranged from K.T. Chandy, founder-director of IIM Calcutta, to Ravi Mathai, one of the pillars of IIM Ahmedabad.

The years at IIM Calcutta were to be crucial for Athreya’s future career as a consultant. In 1971, while he was teaching at the institute, then civil aviation minister Karan Singh constituted a committee to reform and restructure Indian Airlines, which had been formed by nationalizing eight small private airlines. For Athreya, who was part of that committee, it was an early lesson in the problems that mergers present. The committee though did its bit by giving Indian Airlines a structure and an effective plan to deploy its human resources efficiently, along with the requisite systems which allowed it to move from the Dakota era to the Caravelle and on to the Airbus era. Athreya says that with less political interference, it would have done even better today.

The six-year stint at IIM Calcutta allowed Athreya to launch his career as a management consultant and a trainer. It gained teeth when he went on a three-year sabbatical to LBS where he incorporated ideas from European businesses into his management learning.

In 1978, Athreya came back from LBS to begin his management consulting career in right earnest, preferring to base himself in Delhi rather than Mumbai, which would have been a natural choice given its corporate bias. But Athreya wanted to work with the government as well as with public sector units (PSUs), which is why he chose Delhi. Early clients included PSU giants like National Thermal Power Corp. Ltd (now NTPC Ltd), Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd, Indian Oil Corp. Ltd (IOC) and Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (Bhel), along with a slew of multinational companies as well as the more progressive Indian groups like Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd and Bharat Forge Ltd. Public sector oil firm IOC was an early adopter of his ideas. He did a five-year planning exercise with the oil marketing giant under its then chairman A.J.A. Tauro. The company, which had emerged after the exit of multinationals like Caltex, had always been a crucible of new ideas in the PSU realm, in part because it had the money but also because it provided a safe and promising career to some of India’s brightest students. The late Sumantra Ghoshal in fact started his career with IOC before going on to advise companies on globalization and write such bestselling books as Managing Across Borders and The Individualized Corporation.

In 1978, Athreya came back from London Business School to begin his management consulting career in right earnest, preferring to base himself in Delhi rather than Mumbai, as he wanted to work with the government as well as with public sector units.

Athreya’s first strategic planning assignment though came with Bhel, which under the leadership of V. Krishnamurthy, was emerging as a dynamic organization in the India of the 1970s. 

We now live in a world where firms hire multiple consultants, sometimes even to cross-check on each other and mostly to second-guess themselves. But is wasn’t always like that. In the less faddist world of the 1970s and 1980s, Indian companies were smug (or passive) so they rarely felt the need for major restructuring. When they called in an external expert to help them with a part of their business that was doing particularly badly, it was for a mild brainstorming session over a cup of tea. And then whatever the gathered wisdom, it was passed down the line through structured training programmes which often resembled college classrooms complete with recalcitrant executives who took perverse delight in disrupting the proceedings.

All that changed with economic liberalization in 1991, which to Athreya’s mind brought back the symbiosis between business and government that had been lost after independence. He figured that the new environment required a fresh look at not just companies but also at how corporate bodies went about their jobs. In this phase, he worked closely with associations like the Confederation of Indian Industry and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. 

But Athreya was to become a much more integral part of the unfolding liberalization when in 1991 he was chosen to head the Telecom Restructuring Committee, which set the ball rolling on the telecom revolution in the country. He calls it one of his most difficult assignments since it involved dealing with a huge national government monopoly with 400,000 employees, and extremely strong and vocal unions who would demonstrate regularly outside the committee’s office in Sanchar Bhawan. The six-member committee comprising people like V. Krishnamurthy, Sam Pitroda, N. Vittal and the late M.R. Pai decided early on that it would submit a unanimous recommendation to the government. These recommendations included throwing open the sector to private companies, use of the latest telecom technologies available worldwide, corporatizing the operational part of DoT (department of telecommunications) and the setting up of an independent regulator. Significantly, it also recommended selling Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd at any cost to whosoever would pick it up since the losses were only going to mount and the opportunity cost on those compounded losses would far outweigh the price cut, a prescription that applies to the stricken Air India today. Significantly, recognizing that one airline wasn’t enough for such a huge country when liberalization dawned, Athreya was among those who advised the government to open up the skies to more private firms even as it allowed Indian Airlines to keep flying. It was advice the government took, in part.

Athreya was among those who advised the government to open up the skies to more private firms even as it allowed Indian Airlines to keep flying.

As for the rest, Athreya firmly believes that it will get done eventually. It is in keeping with his management credo, which is also the motto of his life: there is no situation in life that is hopeless. A student of optimal management, Athreya is never completely happy but he is delighted by the transformation of the Indian economy. This government, he says, has the right philosophy though it is going slow on privatization.

Today, Athreya is called to address companies, associations, B-schools and some even more interesting groups like the Indian Society of Cacti and Succulents. This last he probably owes to his wife Geeta, an alumnus of IIM Calcutta who went on to carve out a successful career working for UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund). Alongside, she tended to her passion for plants visible in her magnificent rooftop cactus garden where she grows thousands of varieties of succulents, many of which were picked up on their various trips abroad. For the couple, their garden is an abode of peace and joy, and Athreya often uses it as a metaphor for life in his talks to management students.

It is difficult not to be impressed by this man with deep roots in the past but a mind firmly set on the future. His personal routine of waking up at 5 in the morning and sleeping by 10pm hasn’t changed in 40 years. Once upon a time he enjoyed a few drinks before dinner, followed by a cigar. Not any more. Now he practices what he prescribes, which is that for all managers their first dharma is to stay fit. His neat figure without an ounce of extra fat and a razor sharp mind as well as the boundless energy he shows as he bounds up the stairs of his house to his much-loved garden testifies to the effectiveness of his advice. 

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