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Interview with India's Mr BPO
Surajeet Das Gupta | February 03, 2006
In the mid-90s only a few had heard about the magical power of business process outsourcing. So when Pramod Bhasin went to GE's headquarters in the United States and made what looked like an audacious request asking the company to outsource to India, most thought he'd gone bonkers.
After all, how would he run a call centre from where phone connections went on the blink without warning and call quality was so poor that you had to shout for someone to hear you on the other side of the world, writes Business Standard.
But Bhasin managed to convince the company's consumer finance division to try out a small experiment, to set up a tiny call centre which would update consumer records.
"We started a call centre with 20 people, got a satellite link for ensuring 24-hour communications. But when we advertised for people, we got an amazing 8,000 applicants. Something told me we were on the right track and could become the new window for the world," says Bhasin, CEO of Genpact (earlier known as GE Capital Services) and the uncrowned king of India's BPO industry.
As we settle down for a quiet lunch in Delhi's upmarket and happening 'Olive,' Bhasin warns me the food is pretty bad (the last time he brought some bankers here, the soup was cold), but the ambience and the fact we can sit in the sun on a wintry day is a plus. I go for a fresh lime soda, Bhasin orders a Coke can.
I ask Bhasin about his hectic routine since it took me a month to fix this lunch, with Bhasin rushing in and out of cities in the US and China and the new hot spots, Hungary and Romania, where they have operations. Surprisingly, Bhasin says he enjoys traveling, as he can catch up on both his sleep and his voracious appetite for reading while on a long flight.
And while he adores John Steinbeck (he has read all his books), he is now reading War and Peace, slightly late in his life, but someone told him it is the best-written book of our times. Bhasin, like most others, is full of praise for the Chinese government's focus (Genpact operates out of Dalian) -- if you need power for your operations just call up the mayor and he will fix the problem in a jiffy, he says.
As we sip our drinks and dip bread in olive oil, Bhasin tells me it took him over a year to convince his bosses in the US to sell 60 per cent of their stake to the combine of Oak Hill Capital Partners and General Atlantic since not being able to pitch for outside business was stifling the firm, and was ensuring it had no idea how good the competition was. Besides, if GE got $500 million for a non-core area, it couldn't hurt.
The menu card comes and we do the ordering quickly -- I order a baked fish while Bhasin goes for a fancy risotto with prawns.
He asks for more ice, and since I think we've broken the ice as well, I ask him for his reaction to the call for BPOs exercising more security in the wake of the rape and murder of a call centre staffer in Bangalore. I want to know if he's worried about the US backlash anymore and about the pressure to unionise employees.
Unlike many of his Nasscom brethren, Bhasin says the tirade in the US will get worse. "You can give any amount of arguments, but they have no impact on the guy who has lost his job. Today, when you see an Indian in a US hotel, you know he's there to take someone's job," says Bhasin sipping his drink and adding more ice.
But, he adds, a 40-per cent price differential is too compelling for them not to come to India. His advice is: don't make too much of noise, work quietly, and don't scream and make headlines on every new deal struck in the US since that inevitably means some jobs lost.
Bhasin is concerned about the Left's move to unionise the industry, but doesn't think there are too many takers -- after all in which profession do you see salaries go up four-fold in five years?
While the food takes forever to arrive, we order another round of drinks, and Bhasin is visibly angry about the attack on the industry after the Bangalore incident.
He says, they spend $2,000 on transport for every employee, which is something no other industry does, and they are still being made a scapegoat. "The government, unfortunately, wants us to do everything -- generate our own power, create our own infrastructure and now, run the law and order machinery," he says angrily.
Since the portions of the fish aren't big (enough), I'm already finished with the meal. And so is Bhasin. We call for the cheque, but I can't leave him without asking how he is tackling the high attrition rates in the industry. It's clear there is no quick fix solution, especially since he points out, only 8 per cent of those interviewed are selected for a job. And now, half of the employees are leaving to join other industries where demand is growing.
Bhasin has been trying some innovative solutions -- for instance, he has been hiring people who're over 50, but that experiment had a limited success. He says he's now trying to tap housewives by offering them part-time employment, to process data in their homes.
But the rules do not allow BPOs to take even a single computer out of the export processing zone were they operate, so until rules change this is a non-starter. That might sound ridiculous, but those are the rules of the game.
Bhasin, however, appears to shrug this off as yet another hurdle to be overcome, and is determined to make a success of his attempt to chart out an independent course for Genpact, from the shadows of its GE parentage.