Hatim Tyabji

Date:   Friday , November 21, 2008

Hatim Tyabji is not an entrepreneur. He is a manager and known as a radical one at that. What he did at VeriFone, which makes credit card authorizing point-of-sale terminals, is legendary in management and has become the subject of a case study by the Harvard Business School, among others.
He was 22 when he left Mumbai and came to the United States, where he earned two graduate degrees, one in engineering and another in management. He worked at the Sperry Corporation (now Unisys) for 13 years and in 1986 became the CEO at VeriFone, the stage for his experiments in management.

Tyabji was among the earliest to conceive of the 24-hour global workday across different time zones, and also one of the first to take advantage of it. Today, software companies, notably, use the time zone to great benefit. Although this initiative was not radical by most contemporary standards, some of his others clearly were.

The 55-year-old executive also created the “decentralized” office, allowing his executives to live where they chose. While Tyabji lived in northern California, his CIO resided in Santa Fe, New Mexico and his head of human resources chose Dallas. Typically, one-third of the VeriFone employees used to live away from “headquarters.” VeriFone spent up to $5 million on air travel, and Tyabji himself logged several hundred thousand miles a year.

At VeriFone Tyabji also banned secretaries, and led by example. Communication was always through email, and paper was never used. He achieved what others only talked about.

Tyabji’s leadership is quite unquestioned when measured by VeriFone’s success, before its sale to Hewlett-Packard for $1.3 billion. His leadership style was a different story. Tyabji kept a poster in his office depicting an Irish setter that showed the dog heeding a “sit” command only in the 12th frame, after repeated urgings. Tyabji’s suggestion was that human beings are just like the dog, and need to be told several times before they did something

“If someone wants to be offended (by the comparison with the dog), tough,” he once said. “That goes for me too, by the way. If you read my email on leadership, I state very clearly that if anyone feels I am not following my own precepts, they had better sit on my head.” Do as I do, not as I say, was another of Tyabji’s philosophies.

His most radical theory was on the subject of work and life. “The distinction between life at VeriFone and life outside of VeriFone, between the professional and the personal — that distinction, in our company, is blurred,” he told Fast Company in a 1995 interview. “We work very hard to blur it.”

Tyabji rewarded his employees handsomely. In 1994, he sent them off on a three-day paid holiday on top of a weekend, in compensation for the losses they suffered a year ago when the company’s stock price tanked.

Tyabji is now the CEO of Saraide, a company that has developed technology that turns any wireless device into an interactive information appliance. The technology obviously holds enormous potential for wireless Internet access. Saraide was recently acquired by Naveen Jain’s InfoSpace.

In the 1980s, he was sometimes called the model manager for the twenty-first century. This is one Silicon Valley Indian who will leave a legacy of management style, not of technology expertise.

When siliconindia interviewed Tyabji in the summer of 1998, he was just exiting EvriFone and he said, “I now plan to smell the roses.” We laughed it off, predicting that he would soon be heading another company. We were right. He soon headed to Saraide. Now that Saraide has been acquired, it would be reasonable to see him at another company sooner than later.