I've been going to Banglaore twice a year now for more than a decade - 10 years of amazing change - mainly to do budgets and strategy for a software outsourcing business of which I'm a board member. This time, I took two managers from a consulting client in the UK, Travis Perkins, to investigate IT offshoring. It gave me the opportunity to find out what's going on in India's pre-eminent hub of IT and BPO (Business Process Outsourcing - a term that includes the irritating telemarketing we get from Indian call centres).
The flights from Europe and the US bringing in prospective Western clients mostly arrive in the small hours. This is fortunate for Bangalore's businesses, because if clients arrived at any other time they'd be so freaked out by the traffic, physical chaos and heat, they'd jump straight back on a plane home. At 4am you just close your eyes as your cab driver races through downtown red lights without slowing, dodging unlit auto-rickshaws, packs of street dogs, BPO vans shuttling thousands of call-centre operators around on the US 24x7 night shift. These van drivers, incidentally, used to be incentivised to do their 4am trips in the shortest possible time, until the accident death toll became astronomical.
At 4am you will do the few miles to your hotel in 20 minutes. At any other time, it might take two hours, three hours ... and you'll experience the horror of Indian city daytime gridlock, pollution clouds, honking and hooting, homicidal trucks and buses, stranded pedestrians and cows, and traffic cops looking on with little interest. Indians shrug dismissively: 'TII' - This Is India.
Early next morning you are driven through the TII experience to your Indian host's offices. From then on you could be in Silicon Valley or Milton Keynes. Outside, it's 35 Celsius and anarchy. Inside, it's cool AC, clean white walls, cubicles, the tapping of PCs, meeting-rooms with white boards, all backed up by private generators and satellite broadband. On Infosys' Electronics City campus you've got manicured grounds, golf carts and communal bicycles, and you half-expect a soggy big white ball to come bouncing over and suck you in, like in The Prisoner. Welcome to the world's IT department and back office.
I had conflicting perspectives on this visit. For the Travis Perkins managers, the idea of offshoring IT to India was new, first discussed a few months before. They ran a tight, effective IT shop, but they'd always done things in-house with a close-knit team in Northampton. From their perspective, India was an interesting but radical new thing, to be carefully tested and proven, with lots of questions and reservations.
But from my perspective, working with the software business for 10 years and knowing the industry, India was a done deal. In IT, the top Indian firms had already become mainstream global competitors, and were even starting to outpace their traditional rivals in the West. The only question was how fast and how far they would go. There is a Big Six of Indian IT global firms (see table).
What are the economics underpinning this rapid growth? Let's look first at the cost-comparison for a 'captive' operation - an in-house, fully-owned IT function in India versus one in the UK. A new engineering graduate in India, a fresher, is paid £3,000-£4,000 a year. There are no national insurance or other contributions on top of that, so that's his or her real variable cost. The median equivalent in the UK is around £25,000, plus NI and so on. So at this level, India cost is 15% of UK cost.
Fast-forward five years and that cost-difference will reduce, although it will remain significant. The Indian graduate's salary will grow at 25%+ a year, while the UK grad's cost might grow at 5%-10%. But at senior staff level, the cost difference reduces dramatically - we move into a labour market with global pricing. Hiring someone to run a 300-person India development team, with 15-20 years' experience, could cost much the same in India and the UK, at £100,000.
Then there's overhead. Some India cost is at least equal to UK cost: PCs, servers, software and communications are globally priced. Land in Bangalore is very expensive, as is building to Western office standards, with private back-up generators. On the other hand, support staff cost is much lower. Overall, overhead per engineer in India could be £4,000-£5,000 - maybe a bit lower than the UK. With a captive department, you've also got additional costs of long-haul travel.
Adding it up, setting up a captive offshore 100-person dev team might give you a 55%-60% cost-saving compared with setting up a captive team in the UK. Moreover, outside Bangalore, the costs for junior and middle engineers and for overhead might be 10%-15% cheaper.
In this model, the overhead tends to be quite fixed up to a certain scale. Below 50 heads, you would not try to do a captive; you would work with a vendor. Even with 50-100 heads, it may not be worth the hassle and risk of going captive. This kind of saving opportunity would also be available in BPO offshoring - call centres and back-office processes such as accounting and HR. Indeed, the BPO percent saving can be higher, because Indian BPO salaries don't accelerate so rapidly with seniority.
So far, our full cost per engineer is £17k for an India captive against £42k for a UK captive. But we need to run through a few more numbers to see the full range of options and cost comparisons.
If you hired an Indian IT firm for a 100% India-based team, you'd pay £24k per head average across a junior and senior team mix, including all overhead charges. But 100% offshore would be unusual. All Indian firms use an offshore/onsite mix: typically, one onsite engineer (working with the client in the UK) for every three offshore engineers (working remotely in India). Their average onshore rates in the UK are £70k per head. So a '3-off:1-on' ratio gives an average cost of £36k.
The last bit of the cost equation is what you would have paid, before the India offshoring option developed, to an Accenture, EDS or IBM, for an onshore-based external IT service. That's the most expensive number, £80k-£100k.
Looking at these numbers, you can see why most large Western software and hardware businesses - such as Microsoft, Cisco, HP and Dell - have set up their own captives in India. They are saving a big chunk of cost (£17k per head vs £24k). And, for them, IT is a core competence.
Indian firms can address concerns about captives by offering a 'Build-Operate-Transfer' (BOT) service. Aditi Technologies did this recently for a US software firm: it set up a facility and development team for the client, ran it as a third-party service for three years, then did a 12-month managed handover, transferring it to captive status.
In contrast, most large non-IT (but IT-intensive) businesses, such as financial services, telecoms and e-commerce, have remained content to outsource IT to the Indian Big Six, viewing this as a saving compared with using in-house UK staff or using Accenture UK. Their approach to BPO is more mixed, using both outsourcing and setting up of captives. Compared with IT, BPO operations are easier to set up and manage, and global productivity standards are easier to measure and achieve.
Apart from competing with large-scale captives, Indian firms are in a strong position. Compared with adding extra IT staff in-house in the UK, they can offer a 15%-plus saving per head even with a 1-in-3 onsite staffing. More importantly, they can provide rapid-response variable capacity to ramp teams up and down; a depth of skills and process quality often better than the previous UK in-house process; and a higher overall IT productivity, so that real output is 30%-40% cheaper than UK in-house alternatives.
Lastly, compared with their traditional US-based IT services competitors, the Indian firms have clearly had a winning proposition, going on the numbers looked at earlier. Their success recalls Japanese manufacturing exports in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, GE and Philips dismissed low-cost Japanese competition in consumer electronics as cheap plastic transistor radios - until they realised that Sony had become the consumer benchmark for quality.
In the Noughties, IBM, Accenture et al are trying to respond faster to India. IBM now has 53,000 people in India, 15% of its global workforce, the largest number outside the US. It recently held its annual investor day in Bangalore, to show Wall Street analysts that 'places like India do not simply mean cheap labour'. Accenture, which five years ago had nobody in India, now has 35,000 out of its 145,000 staff there - next year this will rise to 50,000, 35% of the global total. EDS recently bought Mphasis, a large second-tier Indian IT firm, acquiring 11,000 India staff. Last February, CapGemini acquired Kanbay with 6,000 India staff, and CSC recently bought Covansys for $1.3 billion, at a stroke doubling its India workforce to 14,000.
The legacy firms have to respond aggressively, but are finding it tough - as Infosys boss Nandan Nilekani argues (see overleaf). The Indian firms' model is, he says, 'deeply disruptive': US-based firms have to wrestle with legacy organisations, cost structures and reward systems. For example, Accenture's global sales, general & administrative overhead is $23k per employee; the SG&A cost for Infosys is $7.3k. Accenture has cut its SG&A cost by 5% in the past year, but Infosys has cut its own by 12%.
But could anything slow the growth of India IT Inc? A global reversal in the growing demand for IT resources? A sudden backlash against offshoring - for cost or quality reasons? Could India be replaced by another major offshore location?
The short answer is no, no and no. A few captive offshorers have withdrawn recently - Apple pulled out of Bangalore because of high costs, and TSB brought call centres back to the UK. But these are exceptions, against the tide. Cost-savings will be large for many years to come, even with rupee appreciation and Indian wage escalation. There is no viable alternative to India as a high-volume source of English-speaking intellectual capacity. Even a potential nuclear clash with Pakistan has been factored in and hedged against, with global disaster-recovery centres set up outside India.
The major real constraint on growth is the supply and training of engineering graduates - who need to combine technical skills and functional English. The India Big Six alone will need more than 100,000 new graduate recruits in 2007. Infosys is hiring at a net rate of over 2,000 a month. Total industry demand is probably over 300,000 a year and growing at 30%-40% a year, in line with export revenues.
Supply is hard to pin down, but by any measure it will be hard to keep up with demand - certainly in quality, if not in (notional) quantity. Some reports claim that India already produces more than 300,000 engineering graduates a year and that this number will soon go up to 500,000, then a million. But it includes output from 'graduate schools' that would not pass a five-minute Ofsted GCSE inspection. A Duke University analysis in 2005 challenged the Indian (and Chinese) engineering graduate figures, saying the real usable number was only 25%-50% of the figure quoted. For reference, the elite and world-renowned IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) - whose alumni include Rajat Gupta of McKinsey and Arun Sarin of Vodafone - produce less than 5,000 graduates a year.
So Indian IT firms themselves have to invest in bringing a raw labour supply up to global market standards fast. Infosys has built what it thinks is the world's largest residential university, the Infosys Learning Institute (ILI) at Mysore, 70 miles from Bangalore, with 13,000 student rooms and huge capacity in lecture halls, training centres and recreational and visitor facilities. (Nervous parents are encouraged to stay overnight and see that their far-from-home offspring are in a safe and respectable environment - albeit unisex and multi-cultural.)
I stayed at ILI one weekend and it resembled The Prisoner's Portmeirion even more than Electronics City does. Each fresher goes through a four-month induction programme, covering project processes and team interaction as well as technical skills.
Induction training is not the only challenge. Given 40%-plus growth rates and the fact that most recruiting is at graduate level, nearly two-thirds of the billable engineer pool - those who could be working on your projects - are in their early twenties with less than three years' work experience. Getting quality results out of this young workforce needs tight project management and continuous investment in training.
If Indian IT firms can maintain quality in the face of these supply and training challenges, it will be a heroic achievement. They are certainly putting in the effort and the investment.
So far, we've been talking about the India of globally competitive private businesses. This India, with Bangalore its front-runner, is leading the charge that is lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, consigning the old low 'Hindu growth rate' to history. Meanwhile, the other India that matters, the India of an incompetent and corrupt state, has been doing its best to drag Indians back down. This is what lies behind the pitiful infrastructure in Bangalore, the exploitation of farmers selling their only land assets for a pittance in the middle of a property-value explosion, the routine harassment and ripping off of the 90% of Indians who live at what business strategy guru CK Prahalad calls the BOP, the Bottom of the Pyramid - under $3k a year income, just below where global call-centre salaries kick in.
On this Bangalore trip I read a fantastic book on modern India: Edward Luce's In Spite Of The Gods, (Little, Brown, 2006). Luce was the FT's South Asia bureau chief in New Delhi from 2001 to 2005. Much of his book is a passionate tirade against the Indian state, which is 'never absent from your life, except when you actually need it', a public sector where 'instead of servants - civil or otherwise - you have masters'. He says: 'The gap between the state's rhetoric and its actions is vast ... In the name of the poor, a few million public-sector workers veto labour law reform that could bring 500 million Indians into formal economy jobs.'
I can't do justice to this topic in a short business article, but here's one factoid, for flavour. In Delhi, there are 500,000 'autos' (auto-rickshaws, like tuk-tuks in Thailand) but only 100,000 official auto licences. No-one expects those 400,000 unlicensed autos to go away. Their main purpose is to provide regular cash 'fines' for the traffic cops. (Prahalad argues that businesses need to start recognising that the BOP can be very profitable. India's traffic cops figured that out years ago.)
Once you focus on this aspect of India you see the Bangalore experience in a different light. The traffic chaos can seem quite entertaining, until you realise what it represents. Just after World War II, Bangalore was India's 'Garden City', a bucolic retirement paradise with 500,000 people and 100 cars. Today, it has a population of more than 6 million and 100,000 cars, but the road system has hardly changed.
The state government of Karnataka, the state that includes Bangalore, should be focusing on how to give the city a functioning infrastructure and better schools producing English- and Hindi-speaking students for the IT and BPO recruiting machines. But it spends its time telling state schools to preserve local culture by teaching in the local Kannada language (which most IT workers here don't understand), dragging out decisions on new airports and roads until the politicians have got their property scams locked down, and changing Bangalore's name to its old Kannada form, Bengalooru.
On my recent trip I had a personal brush with the everyday minor corruption. At Aditi we decided to do a traditional Hindi ceremony to welcome a bunch of new engineering recruits, about 20 freshers. We arranged an early-morning surprise welcome party on their first day, with a pandit doing blessings, an auspicious fire, tikka red dots on the forehead, garlands and red hats, and a traditional drumming band. We also arranged for a huge bull elephant to turn up, a temple elephant from Kerala, the nearest place we could get one, which meant a 300-mile overnight trip to Bangalore. (You can see a two-minute video of this event on YouTube - search under Video for 'The Aditi Welcome'.)
The state nobbled us three times on this little welcome party. We hung a 'Welcome to Aditi' banner over the front door and someone from the local council called in to try to fine us £100 for not having a banner permit. Our elephant cost us £500, of which £250 was bribes paid at every state border on the way to and from Kerala because 'elephant transportation papers not in order'. And, later, some of our engineers were bringing in two crates of beer for an after-work drink when they were spotted by local cops, who pursued them into the office saying they needed a beer permit, confiscated the beer and tried to take our rooftop canteen staff down to the police station for a quick kicking - we jumped into the van with them, so they gave up and let us all out.
Like most Indian IT and BPO businesses, Aditi makes a public point of committing to paying no bribes and to being totally above board in corporate ethics, governance and finances. Infosys has set new standards at the global level for governance and accounting transparency. The state protests that it looks after the interests of the poor and disenfranchised - but it is the globally competitive, market-driven IT and BPO businesses that are really transforming the Indian people's prospects, giving them the chance to leapfrog out of poverty in one or two generations (see panel, p53). Luce argues that the Indian state is getting worse, not better - that the money now being made in private businesses is increasing the greed of public-sector workers, so there is even more scamming and ripping off; the level of incompetence is (amazingly) increasing; and the average citizen is even less civic-minded. Several people I work with in Bangalore would agree.
I hope that pessimism isn't right - and there are data points to support a more optimistic position. The new Bangalore airport is finally being built, as are a ring road and a high-speed toll road to Mysore. Elsewhere in India, the Delhi metro is a shining beacon of new infrastructure, and the Golden Quadrilateral - a 4,000-kilometre interstate highway linking Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Madras and Kolkata - looks to be on schedule for completion next year.
And citizens can change behaviour. I found myself in gridlock at midday in the city centre, and it slowly dawned on me that no-one was hooting, no-one was jumping the red light, and no-one was trying to drive over the central divider. Ten years ago - even five years ago - that would have seemed an impossibility.
From an Indian perspective, we should rightly conclude in optimistic tones. The rate at which India's IT and BPO export success is pulling tens of millions out of poverty is phenomenal. Indian IT firms have already become full-on leading-edge global competitors. The Travis Perkins guys were very impressed and are now deciding which Indian offshoring partner to work with. The Aditi budget looks good for a 40%-plus revenue and profit growth this year.
Then, at the weekend, we cycled out of Bangalore in the cool early morning, under gulmohar trees flowering bright red, through orange-earth Indian villages and the Grover vineyards (another Indian success story), stopping to suck the best mangoes - the small, sour Raspuri variety being just in season - catching the blue flash of a kingfisher on the river, grateful for globalisation.
OUTPACING WESTERN RIVALS - THE BIG SIX IN INDIAN IT
Latest annual Apr 07 Apr 07, market value
Revenue Op Revenue Employees dollars per head x
dollars bn margin growth bn dollars k revenue
TCS (Tata) 4.3 26% 41% 89,000 36 404 8.4
Wipro 3.5 20% 41% 68,000 24 353 6.9
Infosys 3.1 28% 44% 72,000 30 417 9.7
Satyam 1.5 21% 32% 29,000 8 276 5.3
Cognizant 1.4 18% 60% 38,000 13 342 9.3
HCL 1.3 20% 44% 40,000 10 250 7.7
Total Avg Avg Total Total Avg Avg
15.1 23% 43% 336,000 121 360 8.0
In sales and revenue per head, India's Top Six IT firms look like minnows compared with their top US-based global rivals. But their four-year revenue growth is 38%, vs 6% for Accenture, EDS and CSC combined; and profit margin is 23% (vs 7%). So their equity value is already more than twice that of Accenture + EDS + CSC, as is their market value per employee ($360k vs $156k), and they are closing in on IBM's figure of $421k per head.
TCS is biggest on revenue and headcount, but Infosys leads the top three on margin, growth and valuation multiples. Cognizant is getting attention with its 60% sales growth. Our very own Computacenter, meanwhile, has seen revenue drop over the past four years, operating profit halve, and a flat stock price.
Which would you rather be: a Western competitor with lots of revenue per head but almost no revenue growth, low margins and a flat stock price; or one of the Indian IT firms? The Top Six should overtake IBM in aggregate equity value and in value per employee in the next year or two.
Any of the top three Indian firms could individually overtake IBM in equity value in less than 10 years - and that would have been thought incredible only a few years ago.
THE GLOBALISATION LEAPFROG - A PERSONAL STORY
When I'm in Bangalore, I stay with Pradeep Singh, CEO of Aditi Technologies, who lives in Seattle but comes to India several times a year to work with his 400-strong engineering team. Pradeep's household has a live-in housekeeper family: Ashok and his wife and son. Ashok does the driving and household maintenance and most of the cooking - his Keralan fish curry with roti is fantastic. He has been with Singh for 12 years.
Ashok comes from a farming family in a village in Orissa, a rural state on India's north-east coast. His parents rented two to three acres. Cash income was $300 p.a., less than $1 a day. They were better off than some - regular food, a water pump, and electricity two hours a day. Five years ago, their home was washed away in a flood. They were fortunate with their Bangalore connection - it was re-built with a whip-round by Aditi staff.
Ashok had left home at 13 to work in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), as servant of a prominent business family. A child in the family had the name Ashok, so he had to change his name to Bharat to avoid confusion. His annual compensation package was $300 cash, two white shirts and trousers, a tube of toothpaste and a bar of soap.
Ashok's annual pay with Singh is $1,500 cash, plus all family food and lodging and $400 school fees for his son Ranjit. The school fees are a big investment in the next generation - it's a lot of money for India. Ashok's big cash expense is the $300 he sends back to his family in Orissa.
He grew up speaking Oria, the Orissa language. In Kolkata he spoke Bengali. Travelling with his boss, he learned Hindi and Nepalese; in Bangalore, Kannada; and from looking after overseas visitors like me he's OK in English. That's six languages!
His son Ranjit is 12. In linguistics, he's keeping up the family standard: fluent Oria and Kannada and (from school) very good Hindi and English. He has got his PC in the back room. Ask him what he wants to be, and the answer is emphatic: 'Programmer!' As a fresher at Infosys he would start on $6,000 a year, and if very successful he could be on $30,000 in his thirties.
There is the globalisation leapfrog: from $300 to $30,000 in two generations.
NANDAN NILEKANI, FORMER EXECUTIVE CHAIRMAN, INFOSYS
Nandan Nilekani stepped down early this year as Infosys CEO, a position he'd held since 2002. He was listed as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2006, and was Forbes Businessman of the Year for 2007. Nilekani was one of the founders of the company in 1981.
The first 10 years were slow progress. Then there was the Indian economic liberalisation in 1991. Before then, for example, if you did an IPO, a government bureaucrat in Delhi called the Controller of Capital Issues set the price for you. This was abolished in 1992 and the whole economy opened up.
That was a big opportunity for us, but it was also a challenge. We knew we had to up our game, because soon we'd be competing with IBM and the global players. We thought about packing it in, but then we chose to go for it, the all-out route - we decided to go for the magnification of the company.
Technology and communications cost was in our favour, getting cheaper and better, and the global wire was clearly coming. Technology, customers and the environment came together as an opportunity. We weren't alone in seeing that, but the point is that we saw it and we did something about it.
In 1992 we started building our first campus, Electronics City in Bangalore, to Silicon Valley standards and we IPO'd in 1993 to give us capital to invest. It was India's first real IPO. We were a tiny business at that time. It had taken us roughly 13 years from start-up to get to $3 million in revenue; now it has taken us another 13 years to get to $3 billion.
Our second big inflection point was the huge surge in demand between 1997 and 2001 from a combination of Y2K, the dot.com boom and US telecoms deregulation. There was a massive acceleration in US demand for tech spending, and a big local supply shortfall. We doubled our revenue two years running, from $100m in 1999 to $400m in 2001.
Then we had to deal with boom-and-bust. From 2002, we had to make a strong productivity play, deliver value for money - which we've done. We've moved up another level: that $400m in 2001 will be $4bn-plus in 2007-08.
Will our non-Indian-based competitors be able to re-engineer their businesses? Well, there will probably be one or two legacy survivors, like IBM or Accenture, but the new business model - our business model - is deeply disruptive. It is better, faster, cheaper, more reliable ...
Our legacy competitors spent 10 years pooh-poohing it, and came to embrace it only very reluctantly. Now they're trying to catch up. But rebalancing global cost and workforce is very traumatic, and so is learning how to do projects across geographic boundaries. We really have a global delivery model. The legacy firms still have very strong country and regional P&Ls, so they don't work so well towards common goals.
We are sitting on a mega-trend, the globalisation of services because of technology. The offshore/onsite business model will become a given - in 10 years everyone will want to look like us. So we have so much room to grow in our current core business, to grow share and grow with global demand.
TWO WEEKS IN BANGALORE - APRIL 23-MAY 5 2007
(Snippets from Deccan Herald, The Times of India, Indian Express and The Economic Times)
- Corporate India's first-quarter 2007 results are out: revenues are up 31%, profits up 61%, operating margin is 25%, even excluding IT businesses ...
- The India IT Big 6 to add 100,000 new jobs in India in 2008
- Post-merger Barclays-ABN Amro would move over 10,000 jobs to India
- IBM is cutting 1,300 jobs in the US in IT and other services
- CSC Index acquires Covansys for $1.3bn, doubling its India workforce to 14,000
- A Jaipur magistrate ordered the arrest of Richard Gere for kissing Shilpa Shetty: "a sexually erotic indecent act in full public view. Shilpa offers no resistance!"
- Woman burns herself to death due to dowry harassment by parents-in-law
- Bangalore has the worst rate of disfiguring acid attacks on women
- Morals Policeman 1: Hey! Look at that man kissing that woman!
- Morals Policeman 2: He's not kissing her - he's only killing her.
- Morals Policeman 1: Oh, that's alright then.
- DubayamanII cartoon, Times International
- IKEA has established an office in India and might enter in 2009. Tesco, Wal-Mart and Kingfisher are eyeing up the market
- Mahadeva sells vegetables from a pushcart. He makes $4 a day, "the minimum you need to survive in Bangalore". He thinks he will be able to compete with modern retail stores
- The KPO (Knowledge Processing Outsourcing) industry is growing at 35%-40% a year by offshoring tasks like market research, analytics and patent filing
- India just became a trillion-dollar economy as the rupee hit a nine-year high, close to 40 to the dollar, although it is still only about 40% the size of UK or China
- 33% of urban households now have fridges, up from 12% 10 years ago. In rural areas ownership is 4%
- AOL has designated India as its global HQ for all operations outside the US. India will also host the company's R&D and knowledge centres
- Having established its globalisation centre in India, Cisco is setting up a new technology centre of excellence in Bangalore. After the US, India is Cisco's largest R&D base. Cisco has a long-term plan to shift 20% of its top global executives to India
- Bharti Airtel, India's number one mobile company, doubles Q4 net profit year-on-year, and announces that its 2007 capital expenditure will be $3.5bn. India is the world's fastest-growing mobile market, adding 7m new subscribers a month.Penetration is still only 15%
- Global private equity groups TPG and CVC are allocating $1bn each for future India investments
- Saturday's rainfall was the second-highest ever in Bangalore, 6cm in one hour. Shop owner Lakshmi died, she was swept away in a storm water drain
- In a massive about-turn, a local council in Karnataka has been ISO-certified by a German agency. A few years ago it was described as "totally in a state of inertia with no hope of a good future"
- Bangalore City Traffic Police poster slogan: Don't give up hope!