The Raman Effect

Times News Network - April 19, 2008
He chose a bad day — Delhi was hosting the Olympic torch relay and though we started a good hour before the scheduled time to reach Delhi's Hyatt Regency hotel, we were 40 minutes late. But Raman Roy was about 25 minutes late for a drink with us because of those terrible traffic snarls anyway! We shook hands, a trifle embarassed about the delay but he understood our plight — if only there was a way to outsource those jams, he may well have been the man to home in on it!

After all the founder chairman and MD of Quatrro BPO Solutions is regarded by many as the father of the Indian BPO movement. The fact that he has 33 degrees under his belt can be very intimidating, but his warm, affable manner — and propensity to breaks into Punjabi and Hindi patois every now and then — soon puts everyone he meets, including us, at ease. So, reassured that evening that we hadn't kept him waiting too long, we grabbed a corner table at the Polo lounge in what seemed like a busy day in the watering hole.

Raman, as he prefers to be called, is a self confessed single malt freak and as he ordered a Cardhu we idly wondered that if he were to put the initials of all his degrees (CA, cost accountancy, CFA, CS, a host of other finance and accounting related degrees, diplomas and a few IT related accomplishments) against his name, the letters would fill much of his business card! He's taken 108 professional examinations over a four-year period after graduating with a degree in commerce from Delhi University's Shri Ram College of Commerce!

That's quite unlike the qualifications of the over-500,000 people who handle an array of transactions processes and calls across BPOs, a sector he pioneered. Many of them are still undergraduates. But for the young Raman, son of a wealthy Lahore-based businessman who lost everything in partition, education was the only salvation and a passport to a job with a multinational. "A job in an MNC was my ultimate goal," he recounts.

RSM McGladrey’s captive accounting unit caters to accounting, tax, consulting requirements of the mid-market segments which includes law firms, hospitality players, food chains, auto ancilliaries, stores, NGOs and others. Quatrro, plans to grow the 200 people RSM Gladrey team in the US, rather than shift some of the operations to India. "We plan to grow the business significantly and there is no move to reduce the numbers in the US,’’ said Roy.

But the colourful, 50-year-old Raman wears many other interesting hats: as an auditor, consultant, business leader and an entrepreneur all rolled in one. And yes, even a teacher as well now, with occasional invitations to give lectures on outsourcing at Harvard, MIT et al. Much before the outsourcing phenomenon created a new hypergrowth sector, Raman cut his teeth as an auditor — those number-crunchers who are treated with kid gloves by the corporati! Among auditors Raman stood out for his curiosity, keen desire to learn and a burning ambition to work with an MNC.

"I started under Vinod Mehta at VK Mehta & Co and learnt the secret sauce of auditing -- it's not the vouchers you are looking at but the process. Later, I honed the process and felt that life is all about processes. This has stood me in good stead," says Raman, even as he admires the heavy bottomed glass with his favourite Speyside malt. But that was in the early 1980s; the next leap was to join TCS as a consultant. A stint with AF Ferguson followed quickly and that is where Raman learnt not only about tax but also what makes a company great.

When he completed his CA exams, he had six job offers. Ferguson's appeared to be the least exciting — a princely Rs 25,002 annual pay packet, and it wasn't an MNC! "I loved the culture at Ferguson and owe a lot to it for what it taught me. I took those learning at all the places I have worked and even at Quatrro. That includes a culture of trust, competitiveness and professionalism," says Raman in hindsight, relaxed in a navy blue blazer and clearly enjoying a mellow Cardhu.

By the way, the man loves to experiment with various single malts, citing Laphroaig Cask strength for its smoky, peaty flavour. It seems the only labels he's conscious about are when they are on Scotch bottles for he says "I'm not a brands person and not particular about what I drive or wear."

So true to type Raman drives a Honda Accord and a Toyota Corolla. Reverting to his career reminiscences, Raman recounts that bowed to his mentor Mehta's advice on joining AF Ferguson and hasn't regretted it. ``I had an argument with him in Punjabi. I told him one of my ambitions was to make lot of money and he was asking me to take the least paying offer. But I respected my mentors' advice and once there I knew why he had asked me to join the place — besides a great culture it offers great learning opportunity," recalls Raman in chaste Punjabi even as he switches his single malt. This time it's a 12-year-old Macallan — which like a true aficionado he prefers to have his single malts with a "splash" of water.

Given his predilection for malts, we can't help but ask if he goes on the Scotch whisky trail. "I haven't had the time," he laughs. "Anyway, holiday destinations are entirely dependant on the kids. When they were younger (his daughters are now 16 and 11) it was places like Disneyland. Now, sometimes it's cruises. The best thing about a cruise is that there's no cellphone network in the middle of the ocean. It offers a great break from work and bonding with the family!"

Confiding that Mehta has been one of the primary influences on his work life (the others being GE's Jack Welch and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi) he goes back to the fact that despite Ferguson being a great place, his MNC dream was as yet unfulfilled. So he saved up for another degree, this time an MBA. Friends dissuaded him saying "Roy, you are a thermometer, you already have so many degrees,"' he chuckles.

But that venture made him learn an important lesson - not to chase an MBA degree as it may make him unemployable at companies — with so many degrees to boot. Academics would then be the only option and he knew that it didn't pay as much. That was the end of his fetish for degrees! Patience finally paid off when after setting up SRF Finance, he got a call from Tony Singh of Amex, inviting him to come on board.

The job fit his aspirations though the role left much to be desired. He says he agreed to meet Singh as he had been promised a lunch meeting at a five star hotel. "A free five star lunch was rare those days," he jokes now but back then he took out his best suit and drove off on his Yezdi bike for the appointment. "Instead, Tony gave me a s****y lunch at his office, but by the time it got to the dessert, I desperately wanted the job!"

The Amex auditors had said that the balance sheet needed to be cleaned up and though he did not know who had recomended him for the post, he was brought on board for that as CFO and head of technology of Amex India. The challenge got him hooked.'

Without getting too carried away about finally being in an MNC he got down to business. The level of automation at Amex — just one electronic typewriter — shocked Raman and he soon began computerizing the office, getting a sanction to buy Amex India its first computer: an HCL BusyBee machine. Interestingly, he would report for work a good hour before office timings, just to hone his computer skills!

Raman spearheaded the automation of the travel processes Amex was doing in India and was duly acknowledged for his feat in the shape of a worldwide Amex quality award in the US. That meant staying at the famous Waldorf Astoria in New York. "I wanted to take my wife along, but she couldn't come along as she was expecting our first child," he says.

Having proved himself at the Amex travel division, the company wanted him to help launch Amex cards too, this time as COO. "I didn't want to handle operations and I met Tony beside his cream Premier Padmini at a parking lot at KG Marg in central Delhi to cry off but ended up reluctantly accepting the job," Raman says. "Looking back if that had not happened, BPOs would not have happened in India! This job for the first time exposed me to the accounts reconciliation process for Amex."

Soon after, GE snapped him up from Amex to start a call centre (at Amex it was only transaction processing), something that had not happened before. At the time, VSNL laughed at the concept and GE honchos in the US including Jack Welch wondered whether it could actually be done out of India. An advice from a joint secretary at the science & technology ministry emphasising job creation and forex earnings via call centers in his presentation finally convinced VSNL to give him a chance.

Then GE gave him $100,000 in 1998 to prove that global call centers could work in India. If not, "you will be fired," was the diktat. The first GE call centre, called GECIS had 21 people. "About 18 of them are VPs," he points out. That's history now, but there was no looking back for Raman. And with Spectramind, the call centre he founded, Raman became a pioneer in the new business, shifting jobs around the world, doing customer care and other tasks remotely on the phone.

As a pioneer in the industry, it wasn't surprising that big IT companies soon came a-calling to buy the call centre. Raman sold the centre to Wipro and was soon on to his fourth venture — Quatrro (meaning fourth in Latin; and the double R stand for his initials). An umbrella BPO company with several other BPOs under it, Quatrro has already done six deals.

That includes the recent buyout of one of the global top five accounting firm RSM McGladrey's captive accounting unit. "There's lots more to be done - a few more this year. We have so far just touched the tip of the iceberg in telling the world what Indians can do. Quatrro further demonstrates that India is an obvious choice for global outsourcing," says Raman. We couldn't agree more.

The traffic outside was still chaotic when we had our last drinks and headed home — the Olympic Torch was by then being taken to the airport to fly out of India. Used to negotiating chaos, Raman got into his Toyota Corolla with a smile. We bid adieu with the promise of hearing and telling more about the BPO man who still puts in 18-hours a day to take Quatrro and the Indian BPO story to newer milestones.

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