To figure why Infosys caught the public imagination like few others, one does n't have to look further than the riches it brought lakhs of ordinary shareholders and its mainly middle-class employees. If you had bought 100 shares at the offer price of Rs 95 per share in 1993, today it would be worth Rs 2.30 crore. Given that Infosys pays out 30% of its net profit, you would have earned a tax-free dividend income of Rs 5.76 lakh last fiscal on that modest Rs 9,500 investment.
The man who started it all, Nagavara Ramarao Narayana Murthy, who retires from the company this weekend, will go down in the annals of Indian business history as a champion entrepreneur, a man who connected Bangalore to Boston, a flag bearer for corporate governance, a visionary leader. But his 'sex appeal' -- a wrong phrase to perhaps associate with Murthy but a phrase that sums up best his attraction to the great Indian middle class -- is that he showed it was possible to make serious money, legitimately and in a single generation. That he used middle-class India's favourite tool for social and economic mobility - education - made him a hero they could appropriate and appreciate. However, it is a moot point if Murthy would be eulogized and lionized to the ex tent he is, if he had merely built a great institution without at the same time making sacksful of money for lots of people in the process. In post-reforms India, when the long-suppressed Indian instinct for making money found utterance, wealth sad, though it is-- is seen as the primary validator of success. That Murthy lived simply and donates liberally, added to the mystique.
While the wealth creation part of Infosys has been well chronicled, a facet of Murthy's which has been underrated is that of a marketer. He built the Infosys brand almost single- handedly with a zero budget. He figured very early that if he and his company did interesting things and stayed on the message, the burgeoning print and electronic media, always looking for a good story, would cover Infosys well. Hence all the innovations that Infosys introduced: employee stock option programmes, exhaustive annual reports in some umpteen languages, a fabulous campus that transported you straight to Silicon Valley, cycles for the young employees to zip around, got tremendous play.
Ditto every time the media wrote about his frayed belts, him cleaning his toilet driving a lowly sedan, living in a middle class home even after he became a billionaire. Of course, all this wouldn't have worked, if Infosys hadn't delivered in the market place. Which it did, handsomely Revenues rose from $6-million to the over $6-billion in 20 yeas.
Most assumed that Murthy would head to a public office on leaving Infosys. That hasn't happened. He did have an offer from former prime minister A B Vajpayee to join the government. He declined as he then felt Infosys - post the dotcom bust - needed him more. Of late he's been stead fast in stating that at 65 he's too old to hold a public post. He now wants to focus his energies on mentoring and funding the next generation of Indian entrepreneurs.
Murthy is retiring when the gloss is wearing off Infosys. Competitors are snap ping at its feet. Its long-held premium pricing is under stress. People are wondering aloud if the company is suffering from promoter' exhaustion given that the baton is handed over only to those who started the journey with him in his home-office in Pune in 1981.
The transition hasn't been smooth. Proteges have left noisily. Distracted by the chairman and CEO search perhaps, the company has failed in the one aspect at which it was a superstar: communication So a company that grew topline from $4. billion by over 26 % to $6-billion last fiscal and whose gross profits are 44% of revenues is being portrayed as one which has lost the plot, much to Murthy's annoyance
In fact, a true barometer of his legacy will be how well Infosys fares Monday on wards. If all the vaunted processes and systems he has built over the decades deliver without him at the top.
Of course there are those who believe that Murthy won't be fading into the sun set anytime yet and that even as chair man emeritus his shadow will loom large on Infosys. But in an Indian culture where people are loathe to let go of their chairs well into dotage, that he's officially walking in his mid-60 s makes for powerful symbolism.