Back in India, I joined Imperial Chemical Industries Group at its CAFI (Chemicals and Fibres of India) unit in Mumbai as a financial accountant, which also involved a lot of administrative work. As a frontline manager, my job entailed working and managing dozens of unionised staff and it was a great experience in people management.
In the UK, at my audit firm, Wood & Company, I had learnt a lot from one of the senior partners, Norman Civval. He taught me how to handle complicated situations and he was a fine example of tactfulness. Before one dives into strategy and other exotic disciplines of management, one has to learn how to handle people. Incidentally, when I went for an advanced management programme at the Harvard Business School, based on my aptitude and personality test, I was told that I fitted the bill of a diplomat more than that of an accountant. Even when I was leaving St Stephen’s, my guide Balbir Singh said, “Ishaat, yeh accountancy mediocre cheez hai, try the foreign services, you are cut out for it.”
A few years later, I was transferred to Calcutta. It was a challenging job, where I was working with the finance director, making notes and papers that had to be sent to London, seeking and collating data from the five group companies. While I met some fantastic and intellectually first-rate people, I could sense that the organisation was fast turning into a self-serving bureaucracy. It’s a phenomenon that we are seeing now in General Electric, which was once an iconic conglomerate.
I moved out of ICI in 1981, after I realised that the company was in terminal decline. One of my former bosses, Nicky Roy, had joined Indian Oxygen, whose chairman was Russi Mody. He told me that Russi was looking for youngsters to transform Tata Iron and Steel (TISCO). “Meet the guy, but I must tell you, he’s quite a maverick,” he warned me lightly. I was asked to be at Russi’s office by 2.30 pm sharp. When I entered his room, he asked, “What have you come for?” I replied, “Nicky wanted me to meet you…” He said, “Oh yeah, but why are you wearing a suit and tie. Take off your jacket and tie. Come sit.” It wasn’t an interview but a long conversation that went on till 5.30 p