The billionaire who shares

The billionaire who shares

In 1975, six twenty-something corporate executives in New Delhi convinced each other that the microprocessor - then still in its commercial infancy - would change the world. They believed a revolution was coming and they wanted to be part of it, and bring it to India. So they quit their cushy jobs to start an information technology (IT) company in a barsati - a garage-sized room on a rooftop of a house - with an investment of Rs 2,000,000 (about S$43,000 today). They chose as their leader Shiv Nadar, who was then on the cusp of 30. From those beginnings emerged India's HCL Group - HCL being an acronym for Hindustan Computers Ltd, which was once the company's name.

Fast forward to 2013 and HCL's annual revenues have crossed US$6.2 billion, more than 10,000 times what they were the year it started. The group employs 92,000 staff and operates in 70 countries, including Singapore, where its subsidiary, Far East Computers, has been around since 1980.

HCL turned out to be a pioneer in its industry. It was the first Indian IT company to have an offshore operation. It was the first to launch an indigenous computer with an 8-bit microprocessor, in 1976. The group started India's first chain of private computer education institutes, using a franchise model. It was also a pioneer of remote IT infrastructure management.

Today, HCL Technologies - which was spun-off from the research and development (R&D) operations of HCL - serves a global clientele. It has written close to 40 per cent of the software for the flight management systems on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It creates and maintains products for Cisco, builds diagnostic and curative products for medical companies and is one of the world's biggest providers of outsourced R&D. In India, the group is a huge IT distributor covering hundreds of towns and cities, and the largest provider of computer education through its subsidiary the National Institute of Information Technology (NIIT) - which also operates in Singapore.

Although these achievements were a team effort on a huge scale and over many years, nobody disputes that the visionary behind them all, the driving force, the strategist and the mastermind, was Mr Nadar, who still personally owns about 60 per cent of the group. Forbes Asia estimates his net worth to be close to US$6.5 billion.

But Mr Nadar's empire is not all business. In the 1990s, he ventured into philanthropy with the same precision planning, strategising and creativity that he applied in business. That initiative, too, has taken on vast proportions, comprising free schools for the poor, state-of-the-art universities, an engineering and business school that compares with the elite Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and a private art museum. This year, Mr Nadar will spend more than S$125 million equivalent on philanthropic activities; last year he spent around S$100 million. In all, he plans to spend at least US$1 billion.

And so now Mr Nadar has two empires - one business and the other philanthropic - and he devotes equal time to both. Typically, in the mornings his life is all business, and in the afternoons he switches to philanthropy - which, judging from how he talks about it, is his real passion.

A film buff, he says: "My life is like a film script."

Mr Nadar, now 67, was born to a family of land owners in a rural part of India's Tamil Nadu state, the seventh of eight children. His father was a district judge. His early education was almost entirely in Tamil; he never saw a city, or spoke English, till he was 21, when he went to Chennai.

After graduating from college, where he studied engineering, he joined a company in New Delhi called DCM, as a management trainee. Originally a textile firm, it had a fledgling IT division of which he took charge. That was when he teamed up with his five friends to venture out on his own.

The rest is history, but still in the making.

Empowering people

HCL, which is considered one of India's most favoured employers, has a distinct culture. It is known for two things in particular. One is a tradition of "intrapreneurship", whereby staff are encouraged to come up with ideas which, if they pass muster - particularly Mr Nadar's meticulous scrutiny - get funded, with the idea-generators being given free rein and big stakes.

Intrapreneurship was baked into HCL from the beginning. As Mr Nadar explains: "When we started, I was the oldest in the company - I turned 30 in 1975. The people around me were all oozing with energy and ideas. They wanted to start new things. For example, Raji Pawar felt that if we build computer products and there are not enough people to use them, there won't be much growth. So we then thought we should create a training institute. At that time, there was no private training institute for computers. So we launched the NIIT in 1982. It was a brilliant success." Mr Pawar went on to be its chairman and key shareholder - and also the chairman of India's IT industry body, Nasscom, in 2011.

"Our philosophy was, if people want to start something, let them start it. Let them be the entrepreneurs," says Mr Nadar. "That's how companies like NIIT, Comnet, and HCL-Perot systems (all HCL subsidiaries) came about. The key people got entrepreneurial options - not small stakes, but significant stakes. HCL was also the first company in India to issue stock options to staff. We did that in 1986."

As with any entrepreneurial incubator - which is effectively what HCL became - not every venture succeeded, although the big ones fortunately did. HCL made no headway with electronic cash registers and photocopiers in the late 1970s. On a lighter note, it even invested in making exotically-flavoured chewing gum. "That just never took off," says Mr Nadar with a laugh.

The second thing HCL is known for - and which has made it a case study at business schools - is its philosophy of "Employees First". "What it all really means," explains Mr Nadar, "is that an employee at a very low level is really the one who is in the value zone between us and the customer. What he or she does determines how well we deliver anything to our customers. So it is about letting people have a say."

This reflects in HCL's performance assessment, which is a 360 degree system, in which colleagues rate each other and subordinates rate their bosses. "This also helps to discover leadership patterns - who are team leaders, and who are not," points out Mr Nadar. "And we counsel them if necessary. We also put everything on the intranet; everybody in a department can see what is written about everybody else. It may sound radical and may create some discomfort. But it works."

In the early 1990s, while still in his 40s, Mr Nadar started a big new chapter in his prolific life: he ventured into philanthropy. As with business, he did it on a grand scale. He credits his mother for the inspiration. "She was always oriented towards philanthropy," he says. "Even when our family had to go through a difficult phase after my father passed away, she continued to put away something for others. She would say, if we have 10, we can do with nine. That was her philosophy of life, and she wanted me to have it as well. She also said, if you think that by giving, something will reduce for you, just look around and see how many people live with so little; you will also get to see how you feel when you give. Actually, it's not about giving - she always used the word 'sharing'."

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