The appointment of K.V. Kamath, the non-executive chairman and ex-CEO of ICICI Bank, as chairman of India's third largest IT company is surely an important milestone in the history of the company which, not too long back, was the face of Indian IT exports industry. It was increasingly facing criticism for refusing to change. Kamath's appointment to the top job is the explicit response to that criticism. He is the first outsider to occupy an important position on the Infosys board.
So what should one expect from Kamath? Or a better question still: from Infosys with Kamath as chairman?
There are two expectations from Kamath. The first is to be able to fill the big shoes of N.R. Narayana Murthy. With his long-standing experience, he seems to be the best person available to be the successor to NRN. He is respected, is known for his values, has clarity of vision, and has been an institution builder himself. It is safe to say that to play a "traditional" chairman's role, Infosys has chosen the best man around. If anything, Infosys could expect to become a workplace of choice for the fairer sex, if Kamath's track record in ICICI Bank is anything to go by.
But that is the less challenging part for Infosys as a company. Even its staunch critics would agree when it comes to corporate value, corporate governance, and financial discipline, Infosys is among the best companies in India. Kamath may ensure that it remains that way, but that is about it.
Where Infosys will be really tested is not whether it remains a good institution but whether it changes fast enough like some of its peers have begun to. Kamath has been a risk taker at ICICI Bank while not compromising on discipline. In a heavily regulated industry like banking, he almost built ICICI Bank's retail business from scratch to make it not only India's second largest bank but as one of the most admired banks globally when it comes to use of technology to grow. The stories of Kamath's risk taking are part of Indian banking folklore. As a young officer, he believed in Dhirubhai Ambani's vision to help him as a banker. As an organization, ICICI Bank has always been ahead of its peers in addressing new opportunities.
Infosys, on the other hand, swears by the phrase de-risking. So much so that, even when revenues have been affected with changes in external conditions, operating margins have not been allowed to fall below 28 percent. De-risking is a stated strategy of the company. If its BPO business is much smaller than peers TCS and Wipro; if its India business is negligible compared to the other two tier one IT companies; and if its share of revenues outside North America is significantly below the other two, blame it on that penchant for not taking risk. Why, while TCS and Wipro have done significant number of acquisitions, in India and abroad, Infosys has not acquired a single company outside its BPO business, in last five years. The only one it tried to - Axon - it backed out at the first hurdle.
If Infosys has to really change, it has to take some risk. And in Kamath, it has one of the most reliable risk takers in India, as its chairman. If Kamath goes a little beyond a traditional chairman's role, and gets hands on - as he has always been - Infosys could silence all critics.
Sources say, Kamath has got clear mandate to be hands-on in at least in one area: developing the home market for Infosys. Infosys draws a little more than 2 percent of its total revenue from India while TCS and Wipro make about 9-10 percent from the home market. There is a big catch up that Infosys has to do. Kamath's relationship with most large corporates of India are extremely strong. Infosys is apparently looking forward to leverage that relationship. Insiders say that Infosys is looking at targeting a few verticals including government, banking and retail to start with. While it already has inroads into banking with its core banking product, Finacle; now it wants to get newer businesses from banks as the latter expand their product portfolio. It is believed that a new senior appointee may drive government business for the company.
Kamath's experience in ICICI Bank and his proximity to many top CEOs in Indian business may finally help Infosys achieve its long-standing dream of tapping the domestic market. A few big deals may put it on equal footing with Wipro and TCS in the India market.