I HAVE BEEN covering Ashok Leyland or 54 years. In the 1960s I interviewed A E L Collins, the then Managing Director of the auto major. In those years, British Leyland held majority of Leyland’s shares. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders Ltd, on a kind reference from a senior executive of British Leyland provided rich opportunities to look closely at the British auto industry. SMMT said I was then the first non-European journalist to be extended such a facility! This visit, along with one to Germany, helped me gain deep insights into the global auto sector.
A niche player in heavy vehicles...
AL earned a great reputation for the quality of its heavy vehicles. It earned a niche in the passenger segment. Along with the Tatas, they pushed out the Dodge and Fargo models of Premier Automobiles and the Bedford trucks of Hindustan Motors. AL strengthened its position focusing on indigenisation.
Seshasayee, after qualifying as a chartered accountant, joined Hindustan Lever and then shifted to Leyland in 1976. AL witnessed a sea change when George Fernandes decreed the dilution of foreign shares in Indian companies to 40 per cent. R J Shahaney, who earlier turned around the public sector Jessop & Company, took charge as the Managing Director. For a while, S V S Raghavan, a finance wizard who excelled in technology and management, worked for AL. The formidable team of RJS, RS and SVS embarked on a massive expansion setting up units in Bhandara in Maharashtra and in Alwar in Rajasthan; a large plant took shape at Hosur, liberating the company from the constraints of expansion at Ennore. Hosur evolved as a strong centre for engineering. AL developed markets for exports in several Asian and African countries. RJS expanded and encouraged his young team of managers Expanding orders from State transport undertakings and thrust on exports contributed to the steady growth of AL.
The acquisition of the British shareholding by the Hindujas in the mid-1980s was a landmark. The collaboration with IVECO of Italy contributed to the upgradation of technology.
Multi-dimensional expansion of AL
All through, the financial acumen of RS, who built a strong team of young finance managers, ensured effective cost management and profit maximisation. RS’s yen for systems and interest in technology were positive factors. When RS took charge from Shahaney, he gave fuller play to engineering and technology development.
In the late 1990s, I pointed out the poor commitment of auto manufacturers including AL and Bajaj Auto, to R&D. A critical report on AL’s stagnant technology was not flattering. The company that ordered 85,000 reprints of my special feature on AL once stopped its advertisements and subscriptions! However, I was happy over AL’s subsequent focus on R&D. In a very short time, the company built a strong team of scientists and engineers, liberally recruiting from the US, Europe and elsewhere. A large contingent of over 2000 work today on R&D. The company introduced in quick succession new designs and models expanding the range of vehicles for on the road and off the road applications. It also forged new collaborations and set up three joint ventures with Nissan Motor Company. AL further strengthened its leadership by inducting V Sumantran into the board. AL acquired technology companies in Europe and expanded in volume. RS’s expertise was used by the Hindujas in the group’s larger range of activities. RS assumed charge as the chairman of IndusInd Bank. He also provided his expertise to the Hinduja Power Corporation and host of other activities of the group.
AL’s production during four decades of RS’s association grew from a few thousand commercial vehicles to nearly a lakh!
Articulate business leader...
In a recent chat, RS referred to the carnatic musician Aruna Sairam interviewing him for a music channel: “during the conversation two things struck me. The first, should I have too many interests? Should I have focused on a single interest where I should have excelled?” he ruminated. I was inclined to support the first part. RS has varied interests. Happily he excels in all these!
RS described the evolution of his career in distinct parts: having worked with a multinational, moving on to a family-controlled organisation, later to head a professionally-managed company and now focusing on technology and skill development. Creating new businesses in these, he has had the opportunity to look at governance issues.
RS referred to his experience in working with the renowned scientist Dr S Varadarajan who was heading research at Hindustan Lever in the early 1970s. This experience helped him understand the essence of research and development and explain RS’s extensive foray into R&D at AL. This transformed the course of AL in the new millennium and helped it introduce new technologies and model systems in a continuous stream.
RS is among the few business leaders who have been actively contributing to policies and reforms at the national level. For two decades, his counsel has been made available to the government through the Society of the Indian Automobile Manufacturers and CII. I remember his brilliant address along with Jyotiraditya Scindia at the CII national conference.
Many social concerns...
RS has also been doing quiet work as the Chairman of the executive council of the Cancer Institute Chennai, as president of the Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF) and vice president of the Music Academy, Chennai.
I have been an admirer of RS in two other areas, music and Tamil literature. RS’s mother Vasumati Ramaswamy was active in the Congress and also well known in the Tamil literary world. I remember her prolific contributions in popular Tamil weeklies like Ananda Vikatan and Kalki at a time when women were not much active in social and literary fields. In a tribute on her centenary year, RS has written a brilliant piece in the Tamil magazine Amuda Surabhi.
RS is also proficient in music, having learned under a famous musician. I had the treat of listening to him along with the famous couple Trichur Ramachandran and his wife Charumathi at RS’s son Balaji’s wedding.
Dhiraj Hinduja, Chairman, Ashok Leyland organised a felicitation function for R Seshasayee for his four decades of service to the company. The very many colleagues of RS who had worked with him, some of these for forty years and business leaders, were present at the function.
AL Managing Director, Vinod Dasari recalled RS words at their first meeting when he moved from Tata Motors: “it is my responsibility to ensure that you succeed.’ It put me at ease in an unfamiliar city,” said Dasari. Bharat Sanghvi speaking on behalf of the vast network of AL dealers pointed to the customer orientation, concern for dealer viability and grasp of technical issues of RS. An elegant audio-visual produced by Thomas T Abraham who headed AL corporate communications with great elan, described the multifarious qualities of RS such as his affable nature, knowledge in diverse subjects and eloquence in explaining intricate finance and technical issues, accessibility and his rich contribution to policymaking through SIAM and CII…
In his response RS stressed that it was a responsibility of a leader to dream the future. RS reminisced of his long association and outlined his plan to set up a foundation for technology and skill development in collaboration with the California Institute of Technology.
Last year, Infosys invited RS to take charge as chairman. RS has moved from his AL office in Guindy to the Ramanujam Industrial Complex adjacent to Tidel Park. He has been focusing now on issues relating to technology, IT and systems. I feel the rich expertise of RS should be put to fuller use by the Central government in evolving its national transport policy as also in streamlining fiscal administration. The state could also put to use his very considerable knowledge and expertise in vast areas of development. The post of Chairman, National Skill Development Corporation vacated by Tata’s S Ramadorai could be handed to RS.