It is a warm sunny day in late September in New York, and at an event of Indian and Wall Street power-hitters at the city’s Grand Hyatt hotel, Cisco chief John Chambers is working the audience the way only American chief executives can. He has jumped off the stage long back, and is pacing between the tables, speaking of Cisco, technology, and the importance of being India (and being in India) in 2007. And, oh yes, he seems to have forsaken all other punctuation marks in favour of the word Wim.
Wim, of course, is Wim Elfrink, the 55-year-old Dutchman who is the company’s chief globalization officer based in Bangalore. He is also on the company’s board. But it is his elevation to a punctuation mark that drives home, to this writer, the importance of being Wim Elfrink, and provides the perfect penny-drops moment to a story that began roughly 24 hours before Chambers’ presentation.
That story was set in the Grand Hyatt too, where Elfrink was staying (he didn’t have time to meet at any other venue), and it happened around a working lunch at Elfrink’s suite of rooms.
There’s one of Elfrink’s assistants, Sharan Varma, working in a corner. Varma and her family moved to Bangalore recently — she is one among the 20 key executives who moved to India when Cisco decided that if it wanted to be truly global, it had better be in India, and be in India in a really meaningful way.
Think positive: Cisco is planning more hubs.
Elfrink was, in many ways, the ideal choice to do this for several reasons.
One, as is evident from the punctuation marks in Chambers’ speech, he is very close to Cisco’s CEO (and someone heading an operation such as the one Elfrink does in Bangalore had better be).
Two, the man has been around.
As he uses his fork to move a meagre helping of chicken salad around his plate, Elfrink rattles off names of all the cities/continents where he has either lived, or worked, or both: “London, Australia, Brussels, Netherlands, US, France.”
And three, Elfrink (let’s just call him Wim, shall we—single syllable names are so much easier on the eye and tongue) has just the right attitude to work in a place such as India, where things can be very different from what executives at his level are used to elsewhere.
“I don’t want to try and copy my life there (here in India),” says Wim.
And in many ways, the man has almost become Indian. While he and his wife Kate—she breezes into the suite, introduces herself and moves into an inner room—are in New York, his father-in-law and mother-in-law are in Bangalore, keeping an eye on the children.
That is as Indian as it gets.
In 2006, when Cisco decided to make India its hub for the East, it realized, says Wim, that it needed to do something other than just put down a development centre in the country (and if that brings to mind the image of a group of suits standing around a map and, Monopoly-like, putting down a development centre and a marketing office there, it won’t be too far off the mark).
“It needed a new business model,” says Wim. “Something out of the box.”
Wim lists all things that make India attractive to a company such as Cisco.
“Free market economy.”
And some interesting economic questions: “Can a country go from being predominantly driven by agriculture to services?”
For the record, he doesn’t know the answer, but thinks that there is an opportunity in the question itself.
A few other companies have come to the same conclusion, but this writer doesn’t know of any other multinational that has a key member of its executive team, a member of the board, working out of India.
As globalized as companies may be, it isn’t easy to be based in India and participate in the decision making process in London, New York or, in Cisco’s and Wim’s case, San Jose, California.
Wim says this is possible because of several factors: Cisco’s commitment to globalization and its realization that being truly global could well mean working as a sum of several equal parts.
And it’s possible because of a Star Trek-like holographic conferencing technology (called telepresence) that the company is pushing. Telepresence isn’t exactly new—it has been around for a couple of years, and is essentially videoconferencing on steroids—but Cisco is pushing the technology hard now.
Apart from one in his office, Wim has another telepresence kit at home.
It helps, he says.
“I participate in all decisions, and (I still) head global services.”
“India,” he adds, “is our second head office.”
Cisco “really wants to be a global company,” he says. “And you can’t rule the world out of one place.”
The Indian “globalization” centre or hub, Wim lets on, is the first of what could eventually be “three, four, five hubs across the world.”
I have by now moved on from my salad to a chicken sandwich, and Wim is having some more salad. It’s strictly room-service fare (which isn’t surprising because it is room service).
Food is one of the things the Elfrink family has had to adjust to in India. Much like the families of the 20 executives who moved to India have had to. And much like most expatriates moving to India have to.
“Where do you get fish?” pipes up Varma, looking up from a pile of paperwork.
Wim lets on that his family shops at Metro, and I promise Varma that I will put my modest reportorial skills to use and find out the best place to buy fish in India.
There are other things people who move to India have to get used to.
“The fundamentals of daily living are different,” says Wim. “But we moved here in a very positive mood.”
He recalls that his mother-in-law, who now loves India, had not been happy when he told her the family was moving to India. She wanted to know what he had done “to deserve this”.
Now, he says, the family—the extended family—is happy, and he himself is “learning how to be a global executive”.
He travels a week a month around India and the region, is hooked to telepresence—he even interviews job candidates over it—and has a schedule that looks good—in New Delhi and New York.
On a typical day, he has breakfast with the family, goes to work a little distance away for a few hours, comes back home in the afternoon to spend time with the children and then, around evening, logs on to his telepresence kit and starts working out of home.
“I don’t go to the office to work,” he says. “I go to office to meet people.”
And between the time he works and spends time with his children, or maintains a telepresence in San Jose, playing Commander Riker to Chambers’ Captain Pickard, Wim runs.
“I have run 42 marathons,” he says.
Given the pace of India’s growth and what Cisco is trying to do here, this stint here could well be the 43rd.
P.S: In late October, Chambers visited the country (New Delhi and Bangalore) and continued where he left off in New York about the importance of India (and Wim). In an email interview with Mint shortly before his visit, he said that within the company there was “great confidence in Wim’s ability to lead both Cisco services and the region.”
Name: Wim Elfrink
Born: 12 April 1952 (Rotterdam, Netherlands)
Education: Bachelor of Engineering, Institute of Technology, Rotterdam; Bachelor of Business Administration, Erasmus University, Rotterdam
Work Profile: Worked for Digital Equipment Corp., Hewlett Packard, Rank Xerox and Olivetti in various roles before joining Cisco in 1997
Likes: Running. Has run 42 marathons
Is Convinced: That a global executive can never have an 8 to 5 job