His sense of humour and the capacity to laugh at himself mark him as a great individual; his accomplishments though are that of a serious professional. Alok Bajpai, Global CFO, Netmagic, breaks every rule in the CFO rulebook and defies easy categorisation.
“I HAVE MADE the same mistake few times over, and that is, reaching a place even before the host is ready. Since I am a stickler for time, I don’t realise that in India, the culture is different and I am not supposed to be ‘on time’.” That’s Alok Bajpai, Global CFO, Netmagic (an NTT Communications Company), on the most embarrassing mistake of his life. His wry wit and sense of humour are contagious. Obviously, he doesn’t take himself too seriously despite an endearing trait mostly absent in people who have reached the pinnacle of their careers. He recognises the frailty of humans. “On a serious note, we all make many mistakes and learn from them. One thing that they teach me is that making mistakes is human and also necessary if one wants to be bold and decisive and wants to achieve big results.” Of course, as he says the safest way to not make mistakes is ‘not’ to do anything. But he is not one of those afraid to make mistakes. “That’s a sure recipe for stagnation and final failure.” It is this lesson that he extends to his mentees. “I have always mentored my teams to be bold and think out of the box. While goading them to do that I had to give them the confidence that they will make few mistakes on the way, and that I am okay with that. What I am not okay with is, them not trying new things or not taking bold and decisive steps to improve everything around them.”
Bajpai is a risk taker and is not afraid to go against the conventional wisdom. A trait that becomes apparent within minutes of being around him. Part of his personality is his heritage from a father who was from the Indian Administrative Services and who was a “very honest, bold and disciplined officer,” as he shares. Young Bajpai was in awe of him and till this day, has “great respect for him and for his ideals”. Many of his principles and style of working are modelled on his father’s conduct. “Respect for time, regard for others’ views, being efficient, being bold and decisive and being upright and honest in thoughts and actions, was probably the culmination of this upbringing,” he acknowledges. This is why he firmly believes that the seeds of a genius are not sown in childhood, rather “geniuses evolve every moment through their life – starting from childhood” and the “formative years of childhood have a very crucial impact on who you become tomorrow because that curiosity in children fosters a thirst for knowledge and interest for understanding most of the facets of life.”
The other thing that benefitted Bajpai and helped him become what he is today is the freedom he had to do just that – become his own man. “My parents were non intrusive in my education and career choices and allowed me to pursue whatever I had interest in and in whatever I believed I can excel in.” The freedom to make his own choices in life worked for him. Though he would have also written the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) exams and perhaps joined the bureaucracy like his father, it was quirk of fate that showed him the path he was finally travelling down. When Bajpai graduated, his age wasn’t the minimum required to sit for UPSC examination and so he went ahead for an undergraduate course in Science. “During that period I realised how the CA course will bring me closer to the business and corporate world, which had started fascinating me by then,” he recalls, and adds for good measure, “I am happy I made that choice.”
ONE BIG HIGH
PASSION BEYOND NUMBERS
It was a decision that was to chart an interesting and inspiring career graph for him – graduating from being a CFO for two companies to becoming the CEO for another company, and again returning to take up the reins as the Global CFO of Netmagic. Being a merit holder in CA, Bajpai got direct interview calls from quite a few blue-chip Indian and multinational companies. What is most memorable from this phase is his visit to Calcutta for the ITC interview and “how I was thrilled (or, was I aghast!) to see cigarettes on each of the conference room tables (just like now we have the candies). These were for anyone to have while in or after the meeting.” It is this sense of wonder that has still kept the curious child within him alive.
Bajpai finally joined HCL Systems as the first Senior Management Trainee in Finance, a fast-track and highly respected profile for few handpicked individuals. The young trainee was privileged to work on various initiatives and projects under the direct guidance of Board members, which laid the foundation for his future endeavours. “It really helped me kick-start and shape my career in a very impressive way,” Bajpai pays his dues.
His career graph spanning more than 25 years has notched many interesting landmarks, and every such incident or opportunity has been more inspiring and exciting than the previous one. He shares an important learning from his career: “One thing that I am very passionate about and try to mentor others about, is that every leader needs to exhibit and practice few important traits and behaviour in every possible sphere of his or her influence. True leadership doesn’t necessarily need a designation or a formal authority title. Of course, it does help if one carries the CXO badge and derives a natural legitimacy and influence that comes along with it.”
Bajpai never considered his job as that of a bean counter accountant. “I have always been a business leader first and an accountant later and as such have moved seamlessly between the roles.” It is this vision of his professional goal that has helped him take on different roles. “Even earlier in my assignments in Nigeria and in Canada, I started as the finance head and ended up running those centres as the profit centre head, with even production, quality and all other units reporting to me.”
His enjoyment in what he does is apparent. It is this perspective that has helped him transition from one role to another smoothly. Starting at HCL in 1988, he spent the initial years working at ICIM and PepsiCo Restaurants in India and then moved on to Nigeria, where he worked with a Belgian company. In his long illustrious career, he has served as Financial Controller and Unit Head of Port Fish in Canada, Associate Vice President for Finance and Administration of Infosys Technology Ltd, Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer of Intelligroup Inc and as Principal Accounting Officer, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of a Manipal Group company, Chief Financial Officer and Head of India Operations at Aditi Technologies Pvt. Ltd, and Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President of CSS Corp.
For Bajpai, a most significant accomplishment of his career was his first CFO role with a Nasdaq listed company. With his characteristics humour, he bills this assignment “a tall order” considering the fact that it was bleeding and had negative EBIT, a few class action lawsuits against it and was shunned by all analysts on The Street. “I took up that challenge and the full leadership in that organisation, helped turn around the company. In a couple of quarters, it started generating industry-par margin, stock price went up three fold, and we started walking-the-street and getting noticed by the analysts. Finally I spearheaded its sale to a Japanese major at almost five times the value at which the current investors had bought in. It was indeed an assignment where I felt that the value I added was tremendous and it brought clear and direct value for all the stakeholders.”
An assignment of such import so early in the career added paved the way for bigger accomplishments.
Currently, the Global CFO of Netmagic is at an interesting point in his professional journey. Netmagic is involved in Government of India’s flagship Smart Cities project as CSP (Cloud Service Provider) working closely with CEOs and consultants for digitisation of smart cities. Netmagic alongwith parent company NTT Communications, intends to provide connectivity and ICT services, to deliver seamless CCP services from cloud infrastructure which is fully secure and compliant. “We will also help in monetising investment done by the Government of India by hosting citizen centric portals from Netmagic Simplicloud platform,” he explains.
It would be surprising ordinarily that after graduating from being a CFO for two companies to becoming the CEO for another company; someone chooses to return to take on the mantle of Global CFO. But not so in Bajpai’s case who “equally enjoyed those roles.” He though admits, “It seems that the CFO role gives me the best adrenaline rush ever, and that’s why I am into my fourth stint as a CFO.”
But aren’t the two roles radically different? Bajpai answers, “I haven’t looked at these roles as CEO or CFO roles. I have seamlessly moved between them as I have primarily focused on where and how I can make the most impact. It’s important to be a progressive business leader first.”
His tip to the aspiring CEO is practical: “Both people and business skills are absolutely crucial for an aspiring CEO. For a CFO to transition into a successful CEO role, he or she has to first break and come out of the financial shell that many of us get comfortable with. Developing business acumen and gut becomes more crucial than always falling back on numbers to guide your decision making.” If you are surprised at his candour, don’t be for Bajpai does not believe in being politically correct and says as much. “This may sound contrary to what a politically correct CFO should say, but I have always believed in giving due priority to the exigencies of business needs.”
|“For a CFO to transition into a successful CEO role, he or she has to first break and come out of the financial shell...”|
And how can a young finance professional hope to rise to be a CFO? “Be confident, honest, bold and decisive and very efficient. Positivity and happiness are a state of mind and are inter-dependent. Inculcate and develop leadership qualities and start exhibiting them from today!” advises Bajpai. We agree.
If the foundation of Bajpai’s personality was laid in childhood, his evolution as a business leader has its genesis in the icons he chose along the way. Other than his father who he says “was surely one of those who has thoroughly inspired me,” he has looked up to many different personalities appreciating and wanting to emulate one or two particular qualities of each. “No single person, I think, has it all,” says Bajpai. So while in the personal sphere, it has been few personalities from the Indian freedom struggle that inspired him, on the corporate side, “it has indeed been the Tatas”.
With so much on his plate as the Global CFO, one would expect Bajpai to be a harried man. Ask him his mantra for a stress free life or the magic pill to unwind at the end of the day and he shares a simple philosophy. “It’s all in the mind. We can stress as much as we want or as much as we allow others to ‘create’ stress for us. In my view there shouldn’t be a need to ‘force’ a work-life balance – it should be on auto-balance all the time. For me, just sitting with family or friend/s in the evening over a cup of tea or drinks can be unwinding. Or just reading a newspaper while TV is playing in the background does the trick. And a round of weekend Golf is very therapeutic too.”
|“Work and life are both as much fun as you want to make it. Every moment is so precious that we cannot but try to live it to the fullest.”|
Though he dismisses any pretensions to being “philosophical kinds”, he culls down his belief into a philosophy that is as simple and unpretentious as Bajpai himself. “Work and life are both as much fun as you want to make it,” he says, adding, “every moment is so precious that we cannot but try to live it to the fullest.” The resulting credo by which he lives: “I want to be confident, efficient and decisive at work and I want to be happy, caring and positive minded in life. Both of these can and should overlap and then the over-arching philosophy is all about keeping a happy and positive mindset and attitude for everyone round you.”
It is not surprising then that the one thing that he is most afraid of is “making anyone unhappy,” and that he “cannot intentionally hurt anyone ever”.
The enjoyment that he gets from the simplest pleasures in life and his ready laughter are a testimony to the fact that he follows what he believes. No prizes for guessing then that the fictional character that he relates to most is author Dan Brown’s Prof Robert Langdon. “He intrigues me the most and I like him because of his affable, intelligent and cool ways of solving mysteries.”
Ask him one endearing quality about him and his job, and he retorts, “Everything about me is endearing” (and laughs) adding “and everything about my job, I make endearing. But if you really want to see my funny side, you can join me in a party where the drinks are followed by an open floor to shake a leg or two” he added laughing. We are seriously tempted.