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Portrait of the CIO as a Karma Yogi

Satish Pendse, CIO of the Kuoni Travel Group, India is a dynamic seeker of challenges and a believer in Karma Yoga, who puts his heart and soul into every project without worrying about the fruits of his labour. Deepali Gupta profiles the CIO of one of the world's leading organisations.

Compensate for each other's weaknesses, play to your strengths, and one plus one will work out to more than two.

This is what Satish Pendse, CIO, Kuoni Travel Group India (KTGI), has realised from his personal experiences and practices in his professional life. "We complement each other, [my wife] does what I can't do, and I do what she can't," says Pendse. Similarly at work, Pendse does not try to fight weakness; instead he pools strengths to make up for them. "My conceptualisation team can ideate will not implement. At some point the implementation team has to cover for it," he points out. "That's the job of the leader-to identify the strengths of people and align them to the company's objectives."

Present portfolio

"My role here is more strategic than operational," says Pendse. KTGI is subdivided into four functions: outbound travel, inbound travel, visa processing (outsourced to KTGI by the American, British and Canadian consulates), and the Kuoni Academy of Travel. According to Pendse, these four departments work like independent companies, so each has its IT functions and corresponding CIO. Pendse acts as a coach to these CIOs, and provides the managerial leadership and strategy to align IT, business and the global goals of the Kuoni Travel Group. "I learnt to manage by exception. It would be easy for me to give a solution, but I only do that when something is going drastically wrong. Otherwise I allow the CIOs below me to exercise their independence," he says, explaining his style of management.

Made for each other

Even though Pendse has been with KTGI for only a little over two years, he believes that the company and he were made for each other. KTGI was looking for someone who could adapt to its dynamic culture, had a successful track record in IT, and would be credible. At the same time, the prospective CIO had to be willing to distance himself from operations and assume a strategic role. Pendse had earlier tasted success with the innovative deployment of MiNet and Midas at Marico Industries. His work at Jet Airways also worked out to his advantage, giving him prior experience in the travel industry. At the airline, a seven-aircraft concern at the time, the goal was to eventually fly 50 aircraft, and the IT deployments were made keeping that in mind. As KTGI has a policy to grow by acquisition, its culture undergoes changes after every acquisition until it is transformed into a unified homogeneous mass. The challenge of precipitating that integration, from a strategic standpoint, attracted Pendse. Moreover, the independent functioning of departments at KTGI meant that he would govern through best governance policies, which was a welcome change from his role as the central controller of IT at Marico.

Pet projects

Given that his work profile at KTGI requires him to be hands-off on all projects, Pendse admits that his pet project was the deployment of the ERP and MiNet at Marico. "We were the first to connect distributors to our system, covering 35 percent of our business," he recalls. MiNet won many accolades, and provided a good conclusion to Pendse's four-year stay at the company.

At KTGI he was faced with a different kind of assignment. This was an IT-based travel acquisition, a first for the organisation, of Resnet from Traveljini. Resnet is a B2B online booking portal for business travellers. It required due diligence from Pendse. It was a make-versus-buy decision, and it was Pendse's job to evaluate the cost, feasibility, potential and risk involved.

The legal aspects too were a cause for concern. "Software IPR is still a grey area, so it was important to go beyond the rumours and find out the facts," says Pendse.

A business team including the CFO supported him and ratified his findings. Together the group debated and consulted industry experts and lawyers before deciding to acquire Resnet. "It was an experience that went beyond IT, and I enjoyed it," Pendse affirms.

Opportunity and threat

His entry into IT was accidental. As a product engineer in the late eighties, IT seemed to be too small a field to have much of a future. Despite this, the speed of innovation in IT captured Pendse's imagination. He realised during his internship at Mahindra & Mahindra that he was sure he would be saturated with product engineering-and equally sure that he would never get bored of IT. He decided to work for a year and planned to follow that with an MBA. In that one year he got so hooked to the field that he never went back to full-time studies. Later, he completed an MBA part-time. "Being an IT professional was a privilege. Entering the computer lab was like entering a temple. We wore aprons and took off our shoes. When everyone sweated in the heat, we wore sweaters to work. Being looked upon as the intellectuals of the organisation was exciting at that young age," Pendse recalls nostalgically. In the nineties came a time when IT became more than a matter of CEOs' prestige, more so abroad than in India. It was the period that would later be referred to as the brain-drain phase in India. Pendse had the opportunity to leave the country, but he decided to stay. "In a foreign country we are second, sometimes third-class citizens. I believed that we were low-cost labourers abroad. Here there were high-quality jobs available, and the promise of job satisfaction," Pendse explains. Indeed, over the years he has seen a sea change in the functions of IT people in Indian industry. Today, Pendse perceives that the role of the CIO is once again undergoing a gradual but vast change. He considers this change as either the opportunity of a lifetime or a threat of marginalisation. He believes that the IT person has to go from being an introvert to being an extrovert. "The CIO has to be the internal marketing person," he theorises. "He has to educate the business staff in IT, and generate related and unrelated business."

Healthy body, healthy mind

Pendse points out that the average life-span of Indians is increasing, and if a man has to have a good quality of life in his old age, he must invest time and effort now. To this end, he walks every morning on a secluded road close to his place at Thane near Mumbai. The 45 minutes of his morning walk are when he lets his thoughts float and creative ideas bud as he inhales the fresh air. Sometimes, he finds answers to puzzling questions during his walk. For the sake of a healthy mind, Pendse also practices yoga and meditation. "We are what we think we are. The subconscious is an obedient feed it with good thoughts and good things happen to you," he opines. Although not too idealistic in his approach to life, Pendse does believe in Karma Yog, and that helps him keep a light heart. He is reassured that if he performs his duties, the fruits will come to him in some form or the other.

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Indian Express - Business Publications Division

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