B Suresh Kamath: The humane CEO

08 Dec 2005


Laser Soft CMD B Suresh Kamath is a businessman with a difference; one-third of his employees are physically challenged, says Venkatachari Jagannathan.

B Suresh KamatChennai: It was one of those hot Chennai evenings. Two IIT-Madras students were walking towards an ice cream parlour at Adyar junction when they saw a naked gypsy toddler falling down. Though the gypsy group was nearby, one of the two students rushed forward, lifted and cajoled the crying baby unmindful of its runny nose and dusty body.

That compassionate young student was B Suresh Kamath, now 46, and chairman and managing director of Laser Soft Infosystems Ltd, a banking software company. "It is a spontaneous reaction to a situation that shows the true colours of a person," says Madhavan — the student accompanying Kamath that evening — who now works in Dubai. CEOs come in varied hues. "Somebody like Kamath is rare. He is a humane CEO," says the former State Bank of India managing director P N Venkatachalam.

Today, Kamath's Laser Soft (turnover Rs20 crore) is an acclaimed equal-opportunity employer. Out of its 500 employees close to 100 are physically challenged. The company has received several awards for this, the latest being the National Award for Welfare of Persons with Disabilities for 2005, from the union ministry of social justice and empowerment. Earlier, it won the Helen Keller award from the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People. This year, the Government of Tamil Nadu named Laser Soft as the Best Private Employer.

"One of the reasons for starting this company was to help the underprivileged," says Kamath, who is committed to the cause of the differently abled. Recently, an MNC willing to invest in Laser Soft withdrew its offer, as Kamath refused to change the company's recruitment policy.

Born into a large, lower middle class family, Kamath was the eldest of the Krishna and Geetha's three sons and two daughters. His father, Krishna, was a clerk in the Mangalore Ganesh Beedi Works, who also sold LIC's policies to make ends meet.

Humility and compassion was a family tradition. B Siddiah, Kamath's childhood friend, recalls, "After my mother passed away, Kamath's mother treated me as one of her sons and used to feed me along with her children."

The Avila Convent and the Sharadha Vilas High School, where Kamath did his schooling, played a great role in moulding his personality. "It was Rengasamy Iyengar and A S Lakshmana Rao who influenced me during my formative years. The religious discourses at Shivananda Dandalaya in Mysore taught me the importance of human values and simple living at an early age," he says

Kamath wanted to be a doctor, so that he could treat his ailing grandmother. Though he scored around 87 per cent in the pre-university course and was ranked 28th in the entrance exams, low marks in chemistry (67 per cent) dashed his medical education dreams.

A dejected Kamath joined an arts college. Fortunately for him, the college principal saw his mark sheet and advised him to join an engineering college. "I joined BE-electronics and Communications at the National Institute of Engineering, Mysore," Kamath recalls. Scholarships and college library books made his college life chug past smoothly. Now, he also took care of the education of his siblings, and became their banker.

"We used to deposit our pocket money with him. Sewing up a few pages of our school notebooks, he issued us 'Bank of Kamath' passbooks," recalls sister Nayana Vinod. And what did they do with their money? "He loved our grandmother very much, and the money went for her medicines, while we had our passbooks updated," she laughs.

The engineering gold medallist decided to chuck up a job with Bharat Heavy Electricals to do his MTech in computer science at IIT-Madras. Thanks to the Rs400 stipend he received from IIT, he was financially independent and could also send Rs200 to his family each month.

He did a job initially, before starting his own company. Madhavan says, "Most IITians went to the US. Kamath could have easily got the opportunity had he tried." But he had an important reason to stay in Chennai. "I will come and stay with you in Chennai once you get a job," his grandmother had told him. And he wanted to fulfill her wish.

In 1982, he got an offer letter from Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), but his jubilation was short-lived. When he called home with the good news to invite his grandma to Chennai, he was in for a rude shock; she had passed away that very day.

"I was not able to become a doctor, nor was I able to fulfill her one wish. I will carry those regrets to the end," he says softly. Despite the bad omen, he joined TCS and worked there for a year.

Growing with the Genie
He then joined Genie Computers, a computer assembling company owned by late politician Rangarajan Kumaramangalam. Growing up with the company, he became its executive director in three years.

As Kumaramangalam got busy with politics, the company was sold to a group that was more inclined towards marketing imported computers. But the experience and confidence he had gained enabled Kamath to make the leap and start his own company.

With huge hopes in his heart but a very light purse — he had just Rs200 at that time — he started Laser Soft. An old lady with whom Kamath was staying as a paying guest permitted him to use one portion of her building as his office.

But Kamath had to convince one very important person. That was Gayathri, a BSc graduate who his parents had chosen as his future wife. In India, the girl's parents marry off their daughter to the prospective groom's job rather than to the person, and here, Kamath had just quit his Rs4,500 job to seek his fortune. "The way he explained his plans, I sensed he would succeed," recalls Gayathri. They were married on 3 December 1986.

The `queen' with the kerosene stove
Life before marriage was fairly comfortable for Kamath's wife Gayathri. Her father was a businessman, and had a car. When her marriage was fixed, Kamath had a cushy job, but when she realised he had different plans, she fell in with them. She didn't worry too much about the come down in the standard of her life while Kamath was struggling to stabilise his business.

"He treated me like a queen," she says, though this 'queen' slept on the floor and cooked on a kerosene stove. It was only when business picked up that life at home eased considerably. The couple have two daughters — Akshata (16) and Archana (14).

This year, their wedding anniversary —December 3 — turned out to be a great day. Kamath received two prestigious, best employer awards — a national award from the president of India and the Helen Keller award.

A software company sans a computer
For his other 'wife' — Laser Soft — Kamath made life difficult by opting for products in the healthcare and banking domains. Hiring five people at a salary of Rs1,000 each — he took home the same salary — Kamath made two calls, one to Dr Pratap Reddy of Apollo Hospitals and the other to the State Bank of India's (SBI) chief general manager.

Dr Reddy directed him to his daughter Sangeetha, who promised to buy the product if it suited their requirements. The SBI official put him on to a colleague, to sort out a problem at their extension counter at Madras Fertilisers Limited.

For Kamath, both fields were new. He spent the mornings at Apollo, learning operations like inventory management, laboratory protocols, outpatient services, etc, and afternoons at the SBI extension counter to learn banking, to understand the work flow and logic of both fields.

Laser Soft first automated the outpatient department at the Apollo Hospitals, followed by the other wings. "The whole project earned us Rs2 lakh in phases," he recalls. The SBI assignment was more challenging. The extension counter had a staff of just four, but received hundreds of cheques. Consequently, entries were not posted for several months.

Not having a computer of their own, Kamath and his team spent nights at the bank to write the software. "Those were the days when a PC cost an arm and a leg," he says. Soon, the bundles of pending cheques vanished, and the bank counter started counting its money more swiftly.

This success brought Laser Soft another assignment — automating SBI's Chennai overseas branch. One of the largest in the country, it dealt with piles of exporters' bills and had to turn away customers. The branch had a turnover of Rs500 crore, but its profit was just Rs5 crore. Again, Kamath and his team spent the days learning and the nights working, and the results started showing for SBI. Workloads eased, and the branch profits zoomed to Rs35 crore as it took in more customers.

The grateful branch manager, Venkatachalam, sanctioned a car loan to Kamath and a business loan for Laser Soft, to buy computers. He remembers, "That was the first time our overseas branch ever sanctioned a personal loan. Kamath's quotes were always the lowest and we were happy with the results."

More SBI orders came Kamath's way. By this time, Laser Soft had developed 52 banking software products, giving Kamath the confidence to focus solely on the banking domain. Laser Soft first implemented its core banking solution, Laser Panacea, at Corporation Bank. Earlier, it had developed a cash management system, ProFunds, for the bank.

Next came the order from Andhra Bank. The company also bagged orders from two regional rural banks, and is currently executing a project in Andhra Pradesh. Products like ProFunds and e Circular have got a good response from private and PSU banks.

But Laser Soft's growth started to stagnate. Last fiscal, the company barely managed to break even, with a turnover of Rs15 crore. Kamath says some nationalised banks have started placing unreasonable restrictive tender conditions of requiring a huge turnover to qualify.

"Even big IT companies will not qualify if their product revenues alone are taken into account. Given our low pricing, it is even more difficult to meet turnover norms," he complains. Not to be cowed down, he has charted a growth path for the company that includes selling the intellectual property rights for some of his products.

A recent convert to vegetarianism, Kamath takes his family to Ooty for vacations. "For a change, this year we went to the Corbett National Park," says Gayathri. An avid reader of philosophy and computer books, Kamath's taste in films is quite out of character; he likes Jackie Chan and Shammi Kapoor movies.

Apart from Konkani, his mother tongue, Kamath knows English, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. Every year during Ganesh Chaturthi, Kamath's entire family assembles at Mysore. "We take our children to our old schools, college and other places that hold memories. I think this will help our kids find their roots, and inculcate a sense of humility in them," he says.

Also see : Indian Banks in an IT trap?

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