BOTH of my parents worked when I was growing up, which was rare in India at that time. They taught me the biggest lesson I learned as a young man: how to work with people. I learned by their example how to deal with co-workers in a way that is real and natural. No one should see you as arrogant or artificial, no matter their level.
I finished my undergraduate and M.B.A. degrees in India and left for San Francisco to work for . I arrived on my 21st birthday. It was the era of the flower children and probably the most exhilarating time of my life. I still own a home there. I worked for the bank in the United States, in India and in nine other countries in Asia. In those days you didn’t jump jobs every few years.
After 26 years with the bank, I decided to retire. I told my wife, an executive recruiter, that I was going to return to India and play golf. She said, “We’ll see.” Six months later, she found me a job to get me out of her hair.
I worked at Ernst & Young for two years and left to start EXL with Rohit Kapoor, a colleague from Bank of America. Recently, I became chairman and he moved up to C.E.O. from chief operating officer. Rohit is about 15 years younger than I am. We manage by consensus. I’ve never said, “I’m older; I’m more experienced.” Succession has been very easy, which is usually not the case.
Most company founders tend to stick fast to their jobs. But that makes other people think, “There’s no future for me; why should I stay?” I realized that this should not happen if our company is to grow. You have to move on and let those younger than you take a more active role.
Our headquarters are in New York, but our operations are in India and the Philippines. I spend half time traveling the globe and the other half in India.
Traditionally, outsourcing has involved call-center and routine, noncritical transactions. The offshore outsourcing industry has evolved and now provides more sophisticated operations.
We have leapfrogged into core operations of the banking and insurance industries, among others. For example, in the property and casualty areas, we issue policies and handle claims. We also consult on risk management, process change and pricing and marketing models.
Our company went through some difficult times. When we started in 1999, Gary Wendt, the former chairman and C.E.O. of GE Capital Services, joined us as our chairman. We were a pioneer in setting up shop as a third-party service provider in India, which was a huge risk. We couldn’t find funding, and Gary helped us find it. When he became chairman and C.E.O. of Conseco and tried to direct a turnaround there, he decided to outsource work to India.
To achieve that, Conseco bought EXL in 2001. A year later, Conseco filed for bankruptcy. A majority of our revenue came from the Conseco operations, so we lost our major client and most of our revenue and had no way to pay our employees. It was then when we, along with Oak Hill Capital Partners and FTVentures, bought EXL back, found new clients and never fired a single employee. That has helped our image in the marketplace, particularly with potential employees.
The differentiator between a good C.E.O. and an average one is the ability to lead. Employees have to see you follow through on what you say needs to be done. In our business, it’s the hours we work. When you’re in India, you start in the afternoon and work late into the night. If you’re in the United States, you work both American and Indian hours. You’re showing employees, “If I can do it, you can do it.” Even more critical is setting an example regarding the company’s values. You have to live them every single day.