Mar 13
THE BOSS
THE BOSS

What is the vision of L&T’s new CMD Mr S N Subrahmanyan? What is the strategy he is adopting and what are his priorities? Bappaditya Paul takes a peep into his heart and mind 

It drizzled at Mumbai’s BKC the previous evening. Mr Sekharipuram Narayanan Subrahmanyan and his family drove home to Cumballa Hill late in the night after a grand ceremony hosted at BKC’s Jio Convention Centre to mark his ascent to the position of L&T’s Chairman & Managing Director (CMD).

The day had been hectic. There was an L&T Board meeting in the morning, an L&T flag hoisting ceremony at AMN Tower in Powai in the afternoon, and then the grand leadership transition ceremony at BKC that lasted late into the night.

The next day – October 1 – Mr Subrahmanyan’s first day as CMD, happened to be a Sunday. And if you thought, having toiled so much the previous day, he granted himself a well-deserved rest, then you don’t even know the ‘S’ in S N Subrahmanyan.

Instead of spending a leisurely Sunday, he invited the nine fellow members of L&T’s Executive Committee – the Company’s apex governing body – and together they went to visit the Mumbai Coastal Road project that L&T is executing. That evening, they visited another of L&T’s arterial projects – the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link.

Prior to these visits, he had sent out, at 9 am, a letter from his personal mailbox to all L&T employees.

These proceedings give a glimpse into Mr Subrahmanyan’s overall persona – hardworking, goal-oriented, ambitious, passionate, highly energetic, straight-talking, and a team player. But for these attributes, it would have been impossible for him to climb up from L&T’s Supervisory-B cadre to the Company’s topmost chair.

Mr Subrahmanyan was born in Chennai on 16 March 1960 to a homemaker mom and a railway officer dad. Before joining L&T in 1984 at the age of 24, he obtained a BTech in Civil Engineering from NIT Kurukshetra. Placed with L&T’s construction arm in Chennai, he exhibited a passion for hard work, fast learning and out-of-the-box thinking and soon became someone upon whom his seniors could depend.

“I had the privilege of working and growing under some fantastic leaders like CR Ramakrishnan, A Ramakrishna, K V Rangaswami and A M Naik. They have been great teachers to me. They gave me the freedom to innovate and the bandwidth to tread on and off the beaten track – and even make mistakes,” Mr Subrahmanyan says.

He cherishes the many lessons that he learnt from Mr Naik. “There were always takeaways: AMN’s thought process, the ability to think ahead, the relentless pursuit of shareholder value with a zeal to protect L&T,” he says.

These bosses not only groomed him as a professional, but one of them – Mr C R Ramakrishnan – even shaped his personal life in a way!

It so happened that Mr Ramakrishnan, who later went on to become L&T’s Deputy Managing Director, was once the regional manager at L&T’s Kolkata Cluster which had jurisdiction over the east and northeast India. He used to maintain a strong business relationship with all clients – one of whom was a high-ranking official of the Indian Oil Corporation in Assam, having a daughter named Meena.

“Years later, when someone proposed a match between me and Meena, her dad at once dialled Ramakrishnan to enquire about my credentials and got excellent feedback. That’s how I found for life this beauty with brains, who happens to be a gold medallist in Economics,” Mr Subrahmanyan says with a huge smile.

Mrs Subrahmanyan has an interesting anecdote to share in this context. “Even as a child, I had a solid grasp of all subjects – except for geometry. It was some sort of an enigma to me. To boost my confidence, a friend suggested that I write ‘Shree Rama Jayam’ a page a day and I continued this practice for nearly two decades. Interestingly, the diaries on which I used to inscribe the sacred words were from L&T – that Mr Ramakrishnan used to gift my dad every new year,” she recalls.

It was not very long after their wedding that Mrs Subrahmanyan realised L&T would always occupy the prime position in her husband’s life and thus, she willingly assumed the mantle of family responsibilities.

Be it the education and weddings of their two sons – Sujay and Suraj – or the care of her parents-in-law, she has single-handedly shouldered all crucial responsibilities for nearly four decades. Many would find it interesting to learn that she is also the one who manages the personal finances of the CMD of this USD 23 billion company.

Mr Subrahmanyan is not an armchair business leader. He is always on the move: either visiting an L&T project site, manufacturing facilities or a client. If today he is at India’s longest river bridge project in Assam, tomorrow he could be in Egypt meeting highly placed government clients and the next day at some project site in Uttar Pradesh.

Having come up from the construction field, projects are his passion. At any given point in time, L&T executes around 800-1000 projects: instead of reviewing them solely through the reports that the respective teams send, he visits the projects in person.

During such visits, he does not confine himself to meetings with top officials alone. Rather makes it a point to catch up with the juniors and pose for a group photo. If there is a chance, he will dance with them too or play the drum. The electrifying energy that his gestures transmit to the project teams is amazing!

“He has some indices to measure the performance of EPC projects: design must be completed within 20% of the timeframe and procurement within 30%. These helps complete a project on time, which is one of his non-negotiable expectations. He has a simple way to monitor monthly performance: review strike rate vs asking rate,” says Mr M V Satish, L&T’s Whole-time Director & Sr EVP – Buildings.

Mr Subrahmanyan brooks no compromises on Environment Health Safety (EHS) and quality. “He says: MVS, if I see a site from afar, I should be able to recognise it as an L&T site. He stresses upon standardisation, both in processes and operations,” adds Mr Satish.

Mrs Subrahmanyan says that a packed suitcase is a constant feature in their living room and it’s a testament to her husband’s numerous trips. “Countless are the times when he had returned home in the wee hours of 3 am or so, only to leave again at 7.30 am for a project visit,” she says.

Mr Subrahmanyan is fond of music and is an avid reader. His choice of books includes biographies of legendary sportspersons or adventurers, and the ones that talk about fitness. Curiously, he catches up on these hobbies during his frequent flights in L&T’s own aircraft.

When Mr Subrahmanyan isn’t touring, he reaches his office at Andheri East by 7.45 am. He is an early riser, and mind you, before coming to office he jogs for at least four km, finishes breakfast and then sets out for office while reading newspapers in the car.

By the time he reaches office, he has circled important news items pertaining to L&T and its competitors and shared it over WhatsApp with his corporate communications team or other relevant people. On a typical day, he leaves office at 7.30 pm.

Such a busy schedule leaves Mr Subrahmanyan with hardly any free time, yet he makes it a point to coach his sons on important life lessons.

“I keep on telling this to my two sons and daughters-in-law – and would like to advise the same to all young L&T employees: before the age of 35 do something different and then the line is set for you to achieve something else in the rest of your life.”

“Take that as some kind of an age earmarked to achieve something – whatever it be, whether you are in proposals, operations, services that doesn’t matter – do something different, do something out-of-the- box. If you do that then you stand out, and if you stand out, people notice you in a big set-up like L&T.

And that’s what is important,” he says.

Standing Out
Mr Subrahmanyan has been particularly lucky on two counts – he has always had nurturing bosses and a wife who provides the crucial back-end support.

With his wife shouldering the responsibilities of the family, he was able to focus solely on L&T – achieving career milestones one after another. But his first major career break came in July 2008 – nearly 24 years after he joined L&T – when he was made the Head of the Buildings & Factories (B&F) vertical – one of the cash cows of L&T.

This role gave him a large canvas to paint his story on. He went on executing one big-ticket project after another – HITEC City in Hyderabad, T2 of Mumbai Airport, T3 of Delhi Airport and the new airport in Bengaluru. He also started the Ready-Mix Concrete business of L&T Construction.

“By championing initiatives that prioritise ‘Make in India and Make for the World’, he has been instrumental in building scale and promote growth – not just for L&T but also for the Nation. This helps create new jobs, invigorate the economy, and fortify India’s self-reliance,” says L&T’s Executive Committee Member Mr J D Patil.

Mr S V Desai, L&T’s Whole-time Director & Sr EVP – Civil Infrastructure and a long-time colleague, recalls an incident from Mr Subrahmanyan’s B&F days which reflects his innate passion for hard work and the go-getter attitude.

“It was during the Delhi International Airport Ltd (DIAL) Phase-I tender negotiations, in which he was instrumental in negotiating with the client. The negotiations concluded at 2 am and the scale of that project was huge and certainly one of the biggest in those days. This is one of the many testaments to his determination to make things possible in tough circumstances,” says Mr Desai.

The projects that he executed and the revenues that he brought in gave Mr Subrahmanyan the visibility in the diversified conglomerate that is L&T. In July 2011, he was inducted on the L&T Board and also made the Head of L&T Construction – which, to date, earns the highest revenue for the conglomerate.

This role further widened his horizons – apart from B&F, he now acquired a grasp over all the other verticals of L&T Construction – Heavy Civil Infrastructure, Power Transmission & Distribution, Transportation Infrastructure, Water & Effluent Treatment, and Minerals & Metals.

But Mr Subrahmanyan is not one to rest on his achievements. Rather, for him, a milestone achieved is the starting point for yet another journey towards a bigger achievement. So just as he was asking himself “what’s next” – which he still does on crossing every new milestone – came a call from his boss Mr A M Naik.

Then the Group Executive Chairman of L&T, Mr Naik asked him to go to the US and the UK and spend some time there to get familiarised with the IT and digital initiatives. That was in late 2014. There was another reason behind this: the erstwhile L&T Infotech’s US offices were facing a leadership vacuum and Mr Naik wanted someone who could not only mitigate this but also instil a business focus.

Being the one who sees opportunity in every challenge, Mr Subrahmanyan stuck his neck out and went to the US in 2015, leaving his family behind. He spent a year in the US – dividing time between New Jersey and Seattle – and another three months in London. He forged enduring relationships with the who’s who of the world’s leading industries, especially in the IT sector. So much so that he is now on first-name terms with over 60% of the Fortune 500 leaders.

This sojourn not only gave him a fresh perspective on the fast-changing industrial landscape but also set L&T on a new course – the journey from brick-and-mortar to click-and-mortar.

Interestingly, it was also during this period that Mr Subrahmanyan was elevated as L&T’s Deputy MD. In fact, he was at Seattle on 21 September 2015 when the announcement came that he would assume the new role effective 1 October.

Invigorated by the new responsibility and the insights he acquired from abroad, Mr Subrahmanyan introduced the concept of connected devices in L&T. Over the next two years, he ensured digitalisation of over 13,000 assets pertaining to construction equipment use at project sites, predictive maintenance, safety measures, worker management and quality checks – so that these can be monitored remotely from anywhere in the world.

This is just an example of his ability to break a macro idea into actionable points and apply the same at the micro level.

“His insistence on granularity is well known. He poses high quality questions and challenges assumptions. He is sort of obsessed with raising the bar,” says Mr T Madhava Das, L&T’s Whole- time Director & Sr EVP – Utilities.

“He sometimes gets personally involved in deciding some minute things which, on first glance, do not appear to be major decisions, but in hindsight, you will realise that they have got great symbolic value – for example, the speaker list for an event,” Mr Madhava Das adds.

Re-imagineering the Future
As in any business establishment, in L&T too numbers speak the last word. First as the Head of L&T Construction and then as the Deputy MD, the revenues that Mr Subrahmanyan generated from the construction segment made him stand out.

Recognising this, the L&T Board appointed him the CEO & MD of the Company effective 1 July 2017, and thus he relocated from Chennai to Mumbai – the city that houses L&T’s headquarters.

Having tried and tested Mr Subrahmanyan’s capabilities on multiple occasions, Mr Naik now assumed the role of the Company’s non-executive Group Chairman, effectively leaving all operational responsibilities of L&T to him.

In all the peaks that Mr Subrahmanyan has scaled in L&T, one thing has always been constant – his client- first approach. This works both for him as a business leader and the Company as a whole. It is his big picture mindset that makes him quickly resolve issues with a client, tap the present opportunity and pave the way for many more in the future.

“Having spent a large part of my career abroad, I have the exposure to a wide array of international customers and business leaders. Yet, I have never come across someone with his attributes. He has the right blend of aggression, boldness, passion for technology, youthful energy, and more importantly a captivating charm,” points out Mr Subramanian Sarma, L&T’s Whole- time Director & Sr EVP – Energy.

“No wonder he goes to all those difficult (customer) meetings and walks away with some very big orders. Very recently, I was a witness to one such meeting in which he resolved a few disputed items and paved the way for a long-term partnership with a major international oil company,” Mr Sarma adds.

A business is not only about volume and scale but is more about margins. This has made Mr Subrahmanyan to pivot L&T towards hi-tech services that give higher returns.

As of today, Construction, Manufacturing and Services (IT, tech, finance) contribute one-third each to L&T’s profits. He plans to increase the share of Services by scaling up the existing businesses in this segment and adding more to the bouquet.

“There are some businesses that are getting old, getting commoditised, getting too intense from a competition point of view and we have to retire them. And if such businesses go away, it is natural that the Company has to get into new businesses to take itself forward,” he says.

“If we look around the world, there are three major changes taking place. There’s an energy transition, the world is looking at sustainability in a different manner, and then there is this digital transformation. There are huge opportunities in these areas. We need to make every effort to be in that space and capture the market,” he clarifies further.

Broadly speaking, under Mr Subrahmanyan’s stewardship, L&T has been gradually getting out of the products and concession businesses and replacing them with new- age businesses in the Services and energy sectors. Going forward, this will continue to be the Company’s strategy, he indicates.

It was part of this strategy that in 2019 L&T acquired IT company Mindtree, sold in 2020 the Electrical & Automation business and Servowatch Systems (which offered marine automation solutions), and in 2022 divested L&T’s entire 51% stake in L&T Infrastructure Development Pvt Ltd.

“Under his leadership, L&T is strategically streamlining its operations, thus creating and unlocking value. The Company is divesting non-core assets, aiming to reduce debt and unlock resources, and in turn, improving the bottom line progressively,” says L&T’s Executive Committee Member Mr D K Sen.

L&T launched e-learning venture L&T EduTech in 2021, e-commerce company L&T SuFin and renewable energy company L&T Green in 2022, and birthed LTIMindtree – revenue- wise India’s sixth largest IT company – by merging Mindtree and LTI in early 2023. The Company is scheduled to formally launch its data centre business, L&T-Cloudfiniti, either later this year or early next year.

In this context, Mr Subrahmanyan’s colleague – L&T’s CFO Mr R Shankar Raman – credits him with having immense “commercial acumen” and the ability to “take bold calls”.

“His grasp of the financial implication of a given situation is top-class. Deep understanding of the business dynamics helps him to excel in taking bold calls. His commercial acumen and the capacity to instinctively evaluate the risks and opportunities in financial terms enable him to take quick decisions. He benefits from an innate ability to assess the inputs received through back-of-the- envelope validation process – which is unique to him,” Mr Shankar Raman says. 

What’s Next?
Now that Mr Subrahmanyan has assumed the huge responsibility of heading a mammoth company like L&T, the challenge before him is to scale up the new-age and newly incubated businesses so to sustain the growth momentum far into the future.

Despite the L&T Group as a whole touching an all-time-high market cap of Rs 700,000 crore and the parent L&T recording the largest-ever order book, Mr Subrahmanyan’s extremely grounded business outlook has few parallels in the industry.

“We cannot afford to rest on our laurels. The world is evolving fast, and we need to evolve faster to stay relevant,” he says, underscoring the adoption of new technologies as one of the key tools in this direction.

For now, Mr Subrahmanyan has set three priorities for himself – taking the Company’s IT and Technology Services revenue to USD 10 billion, revitalising the financial services business, and overhauling L&T’s HR processes.

Some of his efforts are already showing results – for example, L&T Finance is all set to meet its Lakshya 2026 targets well before time. It’s worth recalling that Mr Subrahmanyan took over the chairmanship of L&T Finance in early 2022, when the entity’s performance left much to be desired.

Mr Subrahmanyan is a person who does not mince words, and hence both his praises and criticisms are loud and clear.

“It took me about 24 promotions to come to where I’m today. I hope my successor doesn’t take that long. I have been telling our HR to short-circuit some of the processes, condense some of them and push people forward. It is important that we have more young people coming up fast. I will terrifically accelerate this now,” he says, sending out a definitive signal of career growth to L&T’s new breed of managers.

His focus on promoting and projecting young talent is not limited to HR processes. He keeps emphasising upon the need for giving visibility to young faces even on the Company’s communication platforms. Moreover, the way he encourages junior colleagues – be it age-wise or hierarchy-wise – is amazing.

“He is extremely approachable. He connects instantaneously through messages or video clips over WhatsApp. Some of his key messages – ‘Life is about give and take. More give than take and making deals’, ‘Good bosses need to have patience’, ‘Keep it simple’ – act as a guiding light for us,” says Mr Anil V Parab, Whole-time Director & Sr EVP – Heavy Engineering & L&T Valves.

Complementing this, Mr Shrikant Joshi (L&T’s Executive Committee Member and the CEO & MD of L&T Realty) says: “He inspires others by sharing his experience of doing the unthinkable and achieving incredible outcomes.By leveraging digitalisation, stressing upon upskilling and assigning responsibilities to young employees, he is ensuring L&T’s future readiness.”

Mr Subrahmanyan does not like surprises and does not take things for granted. He keeps a close tab on all important things happening across L&T and the relevant developments outside of it.

One principle that he keeps on reminding himself and others is that success is not an entitlement. It is something that needs to be earned every day by treading beyond one’s comfort zone in the pursuit of excellence.

Ask Mr Subrahmanyan to summarise his overall experience of working in L&T, and pat comes his reply: “It’s been fun!”

“I have been here for nearly 40 years now: not one nanosecond of wavering, not one nanosecond of different thought came to my mind. Every second has been enjoyable, every second I am doing something, every second I am achieving something. Exciting things to be done, exciting times to be had, great people to work with, exciting things to learn, exciting fun to be had – that’s what L&T is all about!”


 

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