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September 25, 2012

The Temporary CEO

Every ambitious executive aspires to the top spot. But what if you get it only temporarily? In an exclusive interview, Ashishkumar Chuhan, interim CEO of the Bombay Stock Exchange, reveals how it feels to be a fill-in.

Betsy Wiesendanger

It’s the top berth, but it’s not quite his — yet. Ashishkumar Chuhan became interim CEO of the the Bombay Stock Exchange after the former CEO, Madhu Kannan, left in April to join Tata Sons. Chuhan, who was deputy CEO at the time, was the natural choice to step into the role, but board hasn’t yet confirmed a permanent choice. While in New York recently, Chuhan spoke to Chazen Global Insights about being an interim leader, managing the BSE’s upcoming IPO, and how running a cricket team helped form his world view.

Chazen Global Insights: You have a fascinating resume, including being CEO of the Mumbai Indians.

Ashishkumar Chuhan: I was in the right place at the right time for a large part of my career. Several years ago I was heading IT for Reliance Group, which owned the Mumbai Indians.

We did the ticketing for the team the first year. Then, molding the next season fell to me. Previously, Indian cricket was run by the clubs [nonprofit entities staffed by wealthy patrons and/or former cricket players]. Now there was a need for revenues to support the sports activity and to make it into a business, which included ticket revenue, television rights, licensing and merchandising, and in-stadium advertisements. Because I worked in many layers in Reliance, there was a comfort that I know how to set up new stuff.

It was also a reward for my love for cricket. The chairman of Reliance Group knew that I played in [amateur] cricket leagues in Bombay.

CGI: How did that experience prepare you to run BSE?

AC: One thing I learned is that these athletes, at a very young age, earn huge sums of money and have a huge following. Still, they concentrate on the business at hand and continue to hone their skills and be humble.

CGI: That’s quite different from, for example, major league baseball in the United States, which has been riddled with doping scandals.

AC: The respect these cricket players have for the game, and the commitment, despite all other extraneous activities that go on around them, is unbelievable. You don’t reach that level by viewing it as a hobby. They stay committed, they learn new things each day — it’s very, very impressive.

CGI: I see a parallel here. You took the Indians to a more corporate structure. Now you’re taking BSE public. What are the challenges there?

AC: We take a lot of companies public, so it’s nothing new to us. You have to take into account the perceptions of many different stakeholders, including the government, because they have an important institution. If the stock exchange starts profiting too much, what will happen? Will it affect small investors’ rights? Will it affect rights of mutual funds insurance companies?

Media has its own perception. And you have issues relating to your shareholders. What are they expecting from an exchange as a commercial entity? Also, employee expectations about what their role will be in the new paradigm.

CGI: What’s it like being an interim CEO?

AC: An interim CEO is like a caretaker. In any organization, there is an uncertainty until the named CEO comes in. You have to keep the fires burning and make sure the strategic initiatives don’t lose momentum.

You become a little more cautious, especially when dealing with outsiders. When they look at your designation, they have a perception. It will affect their confidence when they negotiate contracts; they’ll wonder whether they need to have a relationship with you at all. At the same time, you have a job to do, and you have to do it to the best of your capabilities. You want to confer whatever is being committed to now will be committed to in the future, even if a new CEO comes in.

CGI: Has that been difficult?

AC: No, I’ve been a part of BSE for three years. I’ve been part of the ecosystem. There is a continuum in the way the organization has behaved with outsiders as well as its own employees. They’ve seen the organization having a particular strategy, and it will continue to be executed.

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