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Meet Ashok Soota... - President, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)

On April 27th, 2002 Ashok Soota took over as President of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), thus making him the first CII President from the information technology sector. We knew about his appointment 2 days before the official announcement was made. Besides being a well-wisher of Koramangala.com, Ashok Soota is a resident of Koramangala and that itself was reason enough to feel thrilled. Therefore, it was but natural for us to seek an interview with him. Like always, he willingly obliged.

Ashok SootaAshok Soota has this tremendous passion for the outdoors. Especially, long treks in the mountains. Nothing rejuvenates him more than the surrounding green, picturesque mornings and song of the birds. The last trekking holiday in pursuit of these pleasures was when he managed to squeeze in time and drive off to a small resort near Vienna, in Austria. But that was quite some months ago. Deep inside him is trapped the urge to pack his bags and head for the mountains. Feel the clean morning air, climb the hillocks and cuddle with Nature. Now of course, he will have to temporarily put to rest his passion for at least a year. As President of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), he's on a mission.

His association with CII goes back to 1980, when he first became a member of the Andhra Pradesh State Council. That was when he was based in Hyderabad working with the Shriram Group. Then, when he moved to Bangalore having joined Wipro Infotec, he was elected as the Chairman of the Karnataka State Council for the period 1988-89 and has served as Chairman of several national level committees. "You might say, I've been having a continuous ongoing involvement with CII and having done that work I became part of the group of people who are qualified to be possibly invited to this position," he says and adds that there's eventually an election process deciding the issue.

Ashok SootaThe CII Presidentship doesn't happen just like that. It's an organization with it's own ladder and career path, requiring people to spend time and not just the position. "So, you really do have to in a way literally work your way up," he points out. And he would know quite a bit about climbing ladders and career paths. For, it was under his leadership as President that Indian IT giant Wipro Infotec earned its spurs as a global organization, building that division literally from scratch. This was way back in 1984, at a time when the Indian IT industry was still trying to locate its bearings.

CII has grown to be the most visible business association in India. The primary goal of the CII is to develop Indian industry meet the challenges of competition and globalisation and to ensure that government and society as a whole, understand both the needs of industry and its contribution to the nation's well being. "British Prime Minister Mr. Tony Blair described this as a world class organization," says Ashok Soota, injecting this piece of information as we discuss the Indian industry.

What ailed the industry all these years? Why didn't it make a global impact as IT did? Ashok Soota believes that the problem in India clearly was that the manufacturing industry hadn't really thought in terms of world-class size and scale. Major exceptions being organizations like Reliance and a handful of others. The much needed infrastructure efficiency to be globally competitive just didn't exist and that was partially because of government policies. "Things began to change only in 1991 and we became a part of the world economy," he says. "Even then, the infrastructure is still deplorable. Our custom's cycles are very unpredictable. These things have to be brought into control," and adds that there's a national consciousness saying that this has to be done.

Ashok Soota and Balbir SinghAshok Soota is clear on one thing, though. A country the size of India can't grow an economy by services alone. He explains why. "Today, only 23% of India's GDP comes out of manufacturing, which is absurd. China gets about 55 to 60%. Even more advanced nations that have notionally moved out of manufacturing get a higher percent. My theme for CII this year is 'Competitiveness for India Inc' and we've placed a lot of importance on manufacturing." The inference is obvious and the focus will be to enhance competitiveness. In his presentation some time ago just after assuming charge, he specifically highlighted that, "To survive and grow, global competition will be the name of the game and competitiveness would be the key." In doing so, CII's role would be partly that of a catalyst, partly work with the government and with the industry itself. He mentions that, "CII has programs which will focus on excellence in different spheres and through that bringing up the industry to a certain level."

Recently, Ashok Soota led a CEOs delegation to the US. Amongst other things on their agenda was this issue of travel advisories by the US, UK, Australian and Japanese governments. The matter was of great concern to the delegation, as continuance of these restrictions would have impacted bilateral trade and business relations with these countries. There were discussions with lots of people. In the White House, the Department of State, senior people in commerce, multiple Congressmen and interaction with Senator Hillary Clinton. "Some of them agreed to voluntarily write to Secretary of State, Colin Powell or the White House," reveals Ashok Soota. Apparently, this had effect and by the time they got back, they were told that the Ambassador here had received his inputs and was keen on meeting them. "In our own way, we did certainly contribute to the easing of the travel advisories. There's still some way to go, because it's only an easing. We'd like to see them completely lift it," he adds.

Ashok Soota with MindTree TeamHow does he balance his time? On the one hand he has to spend considerable amount of time towards his company, MindTree Consulting, which he founded in August 1999 along with nine others. On the other hand CII initiatives have to be pursued and that means more time. And then of course there's that perennial desire for the trekking holiday. And mind you, he'll turn 60 in November 2002. Ashok Soota smiles. He knew this question was coming and his reply is candid, "You must appreciate that this is after all only a one-year assignment and so when I took it on, in my own mind I was clear that if need be during this year I'll forgo some of that and clearly, I can't do that at the cost of MindTree either. Certainly I can do a little more delegation, which is good. It'll serve the company in the long term. I found that when you let go, other people take on more responsibilities and that'll be a perpetual advantage for the company. Obviously, I had to give up something."

Soota at the Millenium New Years Eve Celebrations at Koramangala ClubInstead, he chose to detach himself from his only love - Nature. Albeit, temporarily. His farm is only one hour away from his Koramangala home and a major outdoor activity for some time now. But he's only been able to go there and that to just for a day, since becoming CII President. There's no disguised tone of regret as he says that. On the contrary, he looks at his new assignment from the brighter side. "But you know, that doesn't worry me. I'm getting a different sort of involvement and I've made my first ever trip to China. It was an excellent trip and I can't think of a better way to see China than I did here, because we went as guests of their state trading organizations." He's quite enjoying all this. With like-minded people on these delegations there are new friends to be made, spending time with people he never had the opportunity to do so in the past and sort of building new relationships. "So it all adds up. You gain somewhere, you lose somewhere," he confesses. Then, when the Indian Prime Minister was going to Kazakhstan, Ashok Soota headed the CII delegation and was part of the entourage. His eyes sparkled as he described Almatty, "I was amazed at the beauty of the place. You know, it has a lovely altitude, it's completely surrounded by snow-capped peaks and even though we had only two days, we managed to have an outing there." That must have been really gratifying for Ashok Soota.

Ashok SootaInformation Technology was once the sunrise industry. It still is but for those dark clouds that hung around for sometime and hopefully disappearing. Nowadays, the talk centers on Biotechnology. Or Biotech. Or BT. Will this blossom and once again put India on to the global map as IT did? "Well, the momentum is incredible. No question about it and there's a lot of interest in it," admits Ashok Soota and at the same time points out one important difference between Biotech and Infotec. IT grew up purely as a services industry whereas BT, though there are services too, is essentially an R & D based industry. He feels that not enough R & D work of our own was done. Either the industry or didn't realise the value of it or not been able to commercialize it. "I would say our real challenge is going to be, how do we move very rapidly into R & D oriented successes of our own?" Ashok Soota is optimistic that Biotech will grow. And his optimism stems from the fact that pharmaceutical companies are coming to terms with the values of research. Companies like Biocon are already in BT for some years now and more such entities will come up, especially those with venture capital funding. "The real challenge is, how much of research they do?"

Somehow, the very mention of our neighbour China invariably invokes a discussion and the all-familiar term, 'the Chinese threat'. So, what are these smoke signals about China that everyone's reading into?

Ashok Soota with his pets"Everybody in the world seems to accept the fact that China is on its way to becoming a super power and in some sense already is," confirms Ashok Soota. China began their liberalization a decade before India and in many parameters they are larger - PC penetration, mobile phone usage, steel consumption and what have you. "On infrastructure, they are miles ahead," he adds. He recounts that during his trip to China, the hosts didn't just show us their showpiece cities of Beijing and Shanghai. The took us to cities in the North West desert where the implicit thought was to say, come and see this later and see how much progress we've made. India has to sort out many things internally by the time they reach that level. Yet, he feels that India's open system has its benefits and overall it hasn't done too badly. Inflation is under control and what ever exists in our system they surface out very early. In the case of China, their economy has developed geographically on a less balanced basis than ours. Also, it's grown across the Pacific Rim, along the coast. "The rest of the country has a lot of catching up to do and therefore their disparities are very large," he says.

He's of the firm belief that India as a whole has definitely moved forward. Development at State levels has been good and there are a fair amount of success pockets across the country. On the downside, he singles out states like UP and Bihar who chose to remain backwards because of their folly and strongly recommends that its time they moved into the 21st century. Now, that's a fact and these two states are really something.

He is a bachelor but is strongly attached to his family. So much so, that each year it's become sort of customary for the family to get-together at a common place. In December 2000 the happening was in Koramangala, Bangalore. This year the bonhomie will happen in London coinciding with his niece's wedding. "That time our whole family will get-together and I'll take a few days off," the very thought brings a beaming smile to his face.

And stashed away somewhere in his mind, amongst heaps of facts, figures, GDP percentages, inflation rates and what not, is an almost mischievous master plan titled, "How I'm going to sneak away into the mountains and you won't know where to find me."

"Competitiveness for India Inc." - CII theme for 2002-03

About Mr. Ashok Soota
The first CII President from the services and within it the information technology sector, Mr. Soota symbolizes the increasing importance of the service industry in the economy and for CII. As Vice President, Mr. Soota was the first Chairman of the CII Services Council, which was set up last year under the Associations Council of CII to regularly review the performance of the sector and discuss strategies for growth and competitiveness.

Mr. Soota is an Electrical Engineer with an MBA from the Asian Institute of Management in the Philippines. He started his career with the Burmah Shell and a year later joined Shriram Group of Industries in 1965 and in 1984 he took over as President of Wipro Infotech. In August 1999, Mr. Soota co-founded MindTree Consulting together with nine other professionals. Mr. Soota, a leader of the IT Industry, has been the President of the Manufacturers Association for Information Technology (MAIT) of India, Chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industry Southern Region, Chairman of the CII's National Committees for Electronics and Information Technology.

In recognition of his contributions to the IT industry, the Electronic Component Industries Association named Mr. Soota the Electronics Man of the Year for 1992. Dataquest named him the IT Man of the Year for 1994 and he was recognized as the IT Man of the Year in 1997 by Computer World magazine.

His association with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)
1980 onwardsMember of the AP State Council
1988 - 89Chairman, Karnataka State Council
1989 - 90Chairman, Electronics Sub Committee, CII (SR)
1991 - 92Chairman, CII (SR)
1995 - 96Chairman, CII National Committee on Information Technology & Electronics
2001 - 2Chairman, CII - Services Council
2001 - 2Vice President CII
2002 - 3President, CII

Ashok Soota

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