In seeking HRO’s growth frontier, J.P. Sakey tolerates bouts of airplane food, experiences abject poverty, and discovers in a land of contrasts great outsourcing potential.
Harry Feinberg, the CEO of Outsourcing Today, asked if I would be interested in accompanying him on a trip to India to meet with leading middle-market companies in the business process outsourcing (BPO) space. I readily agreed, and we worked feverishly to get it planned. This abbreviated essay is not meant to be a detailed diary of our trip to India but more of my impressions. Clearly, I was there on business, seeking out potential partners in support of our growing enterprise. But I will leave those details and impressions to my memo to my board. Instead, I’d like to focus this column more on an overall sense of the country and the opportunities.
Out of JFK, some 30 hours later we departed on the last leg of our trip on a not-so-comfortable business seat on an Air France 777 flight to Mumbai (Bombay), an area of extraordinary contrasts and extremes. Wherever we went, we traveled through chaos on the outside, while we found the indoors were strangely serene. Perhaps this is the key to how India will earn overwhelming success in supporting theworld’s organizations.
No travel essay is complete without a comment about food. Food is very important to my travel partner and myself. Meals served on three of the four legs of our flight gave a new definition to mediocre. In India, the cuisine is another story. Oh my! Extraordinarily complex, spicy foods contrasted with diabetes-inducing sweet desserts. We had wonderful meals with our Indian hosts at the three cities visited: Mumbai, Bangalore, and Chennai. These people are great hosts, and their food is served with pride, as it should be. Better than the food was their easy-going humor and conversational style.
Let’s talk about the country and its people. Each city we visited (Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai) had at least 10 million easy smiles despite 10 million car horns blaring in crazy traffic hampered by jaywalking pedestrians, free-wheeling auto-rickshaw taxis, wild dogs, and the occasional sacred cow. In Mumbai, our hearts were broken early on as we drove past endless miles of squalor and abject poverty. Literally, tens of thousands of people live in tin-walled hovels formed on garbage heaps next to hotels that resembleDisney-like palaces.
The aftermath of the recent devastating monsoon floods will take Mumbai years to rectify. Here is another extreme contrast: We found WiFi high-speed internet access everywhere, while garbage, trash, and waste flooded the streets with each rain. Men spoke on cellular phones while hauling tins of milk on wooden carts pulled by cows. There was not a tree, bush or blade of grass for miles in a sea of concrete, garbage, tin hovels, whizzing motorcycle traffic, tri-wheeled taxis, motorcars, buses, and pedestrians. A sole, sacred cow marched in the middle ofall this chaos.
Mumbai was our “Gateway to India” experience; the contrasts did not end there. I was emotionally moved when we were greeted at one company with ceremonial flowers, wreaths, and Hindu offerings of red paste and ash offerings for our foreheads. Frankly, we would be hard pressed to find a culture as kind, accommodating, and service-oriented as this. The contrasts sharpened in Bangalore. We found a true “Garden City” with lovely large trees, grasses, bushes, and seeming order on the roads.
Bangalore felt different from Mumbai. Thousands of young people traveled around the clock on mopeds, motorcycles, and cars to technology-driven jobs. Streets were lined with commercial shops and enterprises. Yet that uncomfortable feeling that we were “not in Kansas any more” lingered.
Chennai was where we tasted maximum Indian spiciness in temperature and humidity—very different from Bangalore and Mumbai with an environment much like Malaysia. We quickly discovered that we were less than five miles from the devastation wreaked by last year’s tsunami. One young man told me that his village lost 800 people. This all puts Hurricane Katrina and our Gulf Coast in perspective. Once again there was that deep contrast.
And what of my business impressions? I have been in business and an investor for more than 25 years, and as a natural skeptic, I am not impressed easily. Let me summarize my thoughts with a series of contrasting impressions after a dozen or more meetings with more than 50 businessmen over five days: India possesses extraordinary intelligence in technology applications and process management at all levels. Highly articulate and expressive people are available in the labor pool. They are well-informed in relevant business literature and global current events, including a U.S. focus. An extraordinary number of educated and qualified professionals are highly motivated and ready to compete. These family-oriented workers are aided by a supportive work environment that is also rigid in its productivity andperformance expectations.
However, the country suffers from weak sales and marketing strategies. They clearly boast highly focused quality control in all business processes but have over-engineered basic business processes. They also have a keen understanding of networking and the six degrees of separation. There is also serenity and order in a country of chaos and congestion.
Social problems are profound in India, but I believe that these people will accelerate past them to opportunities that we are only beginning to explore with them.