Coming of Age

An extraordinary thing happened this summer whose significance has escaped almost everyone. While the nation was engrossed in petrol pumps, Shivani's murder, and other weighty matters, Wipro, the software company in Bangalore, quietly bought Spectramind, a call centre in Delhi, from ChrysCapital, a venture capital fund. The call centre was valued at Rs 606 crores and this landmark event sent a strong positive signal to the global financial world that India may finally be coming of age.

How does a call centre create so much wealth for the nation in thirty months? The answer comes in three acts of a play. Act One: Ashish Dhawan, a 28-year-old graduate from Harvard Business School, quits his enviable job in 1999 with the bluest of the blue chip investment banks on Wall Street, Goldman Sachs. He and his partner, another young Indian, succeed in raising $65 million in America, and they create a venture capital fund, ChrysCapital, to invest in businesses where India has a competitive advantage. They come to India full of hope, invest in lots of dotcoms and lose lots of money.

Act Two: Raman Roy, the head of General Electric's (GE) call centre, meets Ashish Dhawan and based on ChrysCapital's commitment to back him, he decides to leave his job to become an entrepreneur. Spectramind is thus born. Dhawan backs Roy not only for his experience at GE, but because Roy has customers in hand--one them is American Express, where Roy had earlier worked. Dhawan too helps in convincing some of his corporate contacts in America to outsource business to Spectramind. Roy persuades some of his key collegues to join him at Spectramind in exchange for a share in the ownership of the company. In thirty months, Spectramind has a dozen Fortune 500 customers, a second centre in Mumbai, and 3700 employees.

Act Three takes place in Bangalore, where Wipro is seeking other avenues for growth after the global software slowdown and is attracted to business process outsourcing (BPO). Wipro likes BPO because, like software, it can be delivered through the telephone line; software customers can become potential customers of call centres, and visa-versa; one can also leverage one's domain expertise (such as in finance, insurance, retail sectors) between the two services, and strengthen one's hold on the customer. Wipro finds Spectramind and quickly realises that it has found a jewel whose competence would take years and hundreds of crores to duplicate. So, it buys Spectramind from ChrysCapital to give itself a jump-start.

There are many lessons in this story.  First, it demonstrates that BPO call centres are a robust business. No wonder it has been growing 70 per cent a year and is now worth $1.6 billion to the nation, employing 100,000 people. McKinsey's projection is also beginning to make sense; BPO has to grow only 27 percent till 2008 to deliver $17 billion in revenues and employment of a million people. Spectramind's example shows that the starting point in this business is to win a customer and that needs full time sales employees overseas. Ideally, the CEO of the company should be based overseas close to customers.

The second lesson is that venture capital can play a wonderful role in nurturing entrepreneurs, but it needs an exit door in order to deliver returns to the investor. When ChrysCapital sent cheques to its international investors from the proceeds of the Spectramind sale, India's image soared in world capital markets. Third, reforms create wealth for the nation. Telecom costs have dropped to one-fourth of the levels three years ago and our telecom infrastructure is improving by the day. This obviously improves the competitiveness of our call centres, and makes India an attractive BPO destination. Finally, globalisation can create enormous wealth for a poor country. GE, the American  multinational, came and pioneered the call centre business in India by transferring its business processes here from around the world. In the process it has trained 10,000 Indians to collect debt, authorise credit, process insurance, do payroll accounting--all remotely over the telephone line.

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