Jagdish Khattar’s Driven is a must-read not just for its fascinating stories, but for the insights into management styles and how they evolve
Was it the inability to provide the swimming pool that Thomas Mathew, minister K Karunakaran’s private secretary, said was needed for the minister’s house that caused a rift between the government and Maruti? And who was the “former senior executive” of Maruti who offered to broker a deal to transfer the government’s shareholding in Maruti to General Motors instead of Suzuki—it was a different matter that GM gave the letter to Suzuki which gave it to disinvestment minister Arun Shourie, who read out the letter in Cabinet as an example of the various lobbies at work. And what was it about RC Bhargava that, despite being Jagdish Khattar’s mentor in Maruti, there was, to quote from Khattar’s memoirs, “a bit of needle between us”?
Many of these stories and a lot more feature in Khattar’s memoirs—the GM one, sadly, is not part of the book, but was cited by one of the panellists at Khattar’s book launch in the capital.
Given Khattar’s fascinating journey, the book was always going to be a great read. After all, how many chief executives of a Japanese subsidiary—and why just Japanese—get to steer their company in a manner quite different from the way head office runs; who manage to retain a market share of 50% in the face of severe competition and, above all, drive Maruti from a situation where the company’s big achievement was to design a front grill on its own to becoming an integral part of Suzuki’s global R&D team—somewhere in between, Maruti’s sales eclipsed those of Suzuki in Japan.
Reading the book, of course, makes it a bit easier to understand why Khattar has been so entrepreneurial not just in his current stint, but through even his government stint. At UPSIDC, he was willing to approve a bridge loan overnight for HCL when its main lender said it would take another six months; at the UP transport corporation, he was able to convince his political bosses that it made sense to buy new buses, run them 24x7 with relays of drivers and conductors, and managed to turn around the organisation’s fortunes while even the suppliers’ credit hadn’t run out.
Dera Ismail Khan was a small area in Pakistan, but, at the time of Partition, Khattar’s father wasn’t allowed to accompany the family since, the Pakistan government order read, someone had to look after the electric supply company that the family ran. When the family finally reunited and provided the government records of their holdings in Pakistan, they were given 400 acres of land in Gurgaon as compensation—and, as Khattar recalls, “it was a fraction of what we had, but I presume that was the ceiling”. That’s also why, when he joined the IAS, his mother ensured the family cook stayed with her little child to ensure he didn’t miss home food.
Some of the stories are cute—as the lead actor in the movie Gandhi Path, Khattar fed tiger cubs along with their trainer to ensure they looked comfortable on camera. The child actor did well since Boot Polish and Jagriti also came his way, but his father decided he wasn’t going to fritter his life running around trees with sundry women.
If there’s one problem with the book, and maybe this is a bias of a person who wants a lot more of some stories and none of the others, is that it’s not quite clear why some of the stories are there. The wife of one of his seniors—the tradition was new recruits stayed in the home of a senior officer—stitching a button on his sleeve before a formal dinner is touching, but was this mentioned because she happened to be Sheila Dikshit? There’s this bit about how the girl his son wanted to marry was the grand-daughter of Mata Nirmala Devi who, in turn, was the wife of Sir CP Srivastava, an IAS officer of the UP cadre who, among other things, “had also been close to Lal Bahadur Shastri and was once joint secretary in the PMO”.
Equally strange, for someone who has first-hand seen how the bureaucracy has more often than not stifled development, Khattar has abounding faith in bureaucracy and its ability to adapt to any situation, to learn from scratch and take charge of any situation. What is true, though, and the book has enough examples of this, is that the bureaucracy is a closely-knit club and, if you’re part of it, it can do wonders for your career—it’s the same reason why, more than the education itself, going to a good college helps since the alumnus will always be at important places at the right time.
While the most interesting parts of the memoirs are those dealing with Maruti, Khattar spends too much time demolishing Bhargava, the man who, he says, was the prototype as far as success outside the IAS was concerned, but “when it comes to the journey and approach, let’s say he had his and I had mine”. So Bhargava’s nickname Kaddo, we are told, is the anglicised pronounciation of kaddu, the vegetable “earned by his round, bald head”. Though Khattar talks of how industry secretary TR Prasad caused all manner of problems for Maruti, including in promoting Bhaskarudu, who was director-materials at that time, and trying to scuttle new models, he still holds Bhargava guilty of using his IAS connections to ensure Prasad didn’t become chairman of Maruti. Like a good journalist (or was that the journalist who co-wrote the book?), the reason—that Bhargava didn’t want someone junior to him in service to become chairman—is attributed to former industry secretaries Surendra Singh and Ashok Chandra.
But those were tumultuous times and it is to Khattar’s credit that he steered Maruti in the manner he did. The final deal in ceding control to Suzuki, in which Khattar played no small role, of course, is what allowed Maruti to flourish—though Bhargava may not have had, as Khattar says, the vision to push for introducing new models, the fact is that the government did everything to scuttle this when it was part-owner of the company. This includes getting joint secretaries to decide on whether the engines Suzuki was offering were good enough to delaying the launch of the tallboy WagonR series—the tallboy was Suzuki’s innovation, but it was Hyundai, which then launched its tallboy Santro in India first.
The book is a must-read not just for its stories, but for the great insights into management styles and how they evolve. At Chamoli, Khattar handled flood relief with just three senior clerks, and the secret of his ability to clear all paperwork quickly was to approve what his people did since, as he says, the rule was a simple one: your decision is my decision. In Suzuki, while there was a distinct Japanese way, an Indian way was carved out and, to blunt the Japanese criticism, Khattar used a Bhargava tip, winked at Indian colleagues and quipped about the Japanese in Hindi; that can, of course, backfire if the Japanese learn Hindi.
It’s not just the management styles though, it’s also about how strategies are born, the kinds of data points that go into making them. So, Project Vistaar was as much about finding new businesses for Maruti—only a third of the money a customer spends on a car is on its purchase, a third is on insurance and servicing and another third on petrol—as it was about finding more touch points to connect with customers. Ditto for True Value and the driving schools.
The section on how Khattar saved the IPO from bombing—after the lawyers put in so many caveats, no one would buy the shares—offers great insights into how CEOs have to function. The story of how Carnation was born—if Maruti itself needed to invest R5,000 crore to invest in dealer networks, how much would the industry need?—is yet another example of spotting opportunity. Khattar, let’s not forget, is one of the few people who have had three careers, as an IAS officer, as a private-sector CEO and as an entrepreneur. Actually, four, if you include acting since, as Khattar tells us, both Boot Polish and Jagriti ended up becoming milestones in Indian cinema.