Western Union, the $3 billion (about Rs12,000 crore) US money transfer company, is nestled in the heart of Mumbai’s financial district. I walk past manicured lawns, into one of the area’s indistinguishable float glass behemoths and into the office, where pillars are plastered with maps of London, Sydney and Rome among other cities. But as Anil Kapur, the company’s 41-year-old chief executive, weaves his way through the pillars—the maps on which end in graphics of the Sydney Opera House, Westminster Abbey, et cetera—and sits down to chat, it becomes clear that he has built his business around places that don’t figure on these maps.
Instead, the New York Stock Exchange-listed company has tapped India’s growing migrant population by selling its money transfer services from Bathinda in Punjab to Gorakhpur in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Karimnagar in Andhra Pradesh. While Western Union’s business has grown, thanks to India’s fabled software engineers, Kapur says the company also saw that there is more migration happening from the small towns, where job opportunities have not kept pace with the glittering India story.
Bit o’ this, bit o’ that: Kapur maintains a balance between his city life and work visits to remote villages. (Jayachandran / Mint)
“As you go down to rural pockets, you will find that wherever there is huge unemployment, initially people used to migrate to cities. Now they find that there are not enough opportunities in the cities, so they have started going abroad,” he says. It is no wonder then that the clipped accented Kapur spends at least half his time visiting these places.
Kapur, who worked as a banker in the US and Dubai for about eight years, seems an unlikely choice to drive such an initiative. Although he looks and dresses like a banker, his job is hardly that. But travelling through the country is the highlight of his work life, he says. Having grown up as an army kid and lived the migrant life through graduate school and work, this seems to have been as much a personal journey for Kapur as professional.
More than 750,000 Indians move abroad every year, he says, and most of them maintain families back home. All of this means that India gets more remittances from abroad than any other country. Around $26.9 billion came into India in 2006 (Western Union forecasts around $30 billion in remittances for 2007), up from around $11 billion when he came back from heading Western Union’s Dubai operations in 2001. Sitting in what must be the most unlikely place for a Business Lounge , his wood-panelled boardroom, I ask Kapur about being at a great vantage point to see Indian migrants and through them, the country’s dramatic transformation and its dark underbelly.
A lot has changed since he came back to work at Western Union here. India was then somewhere in the Top 10 countries for receiving remittances, behind China and Mexico. Now India’s 25 million non-resident citizens, compared with China’s 40 million, send back more money. Also, Indians who traditionally went around regulatory restrictions by sending money through informal channels, such as stuffing their or friends’ pockets with cash to take back home, now increasingly use either bank transfers or wire transfers.
While amounts have gone up (the average amount remitted has remained around $400-$450 over the last few years, which is above the global average of $350), the changing job and educational profiles of migrants has meant that maximum remittances now come from North America, where Indians work as bankers and engineers, apart from being porters, taxi drivers or store owners, rather than the traditionally high remittances that came from the Gulf, where Indian workers power the regions’ booming construction industry and provide basic services.
“While California’s software programmers may use Western Union to send money to their sisters for rakhi or their families for Diwali and use bank transfers for the rest, blue-collar workers in the Gulf may use it for household expenses, to send kids to school and buy things like a mobile phone or (a) scooter,” says Kapur, adding most migrants ideally want to return home after 8-10 years of living abroad and that he sees signs of people starting businesses or investing in local communities after they return.
Kapur himself returned from the US, where he went to business school, to work in India before going to work for Grindlays Bank in Dubai. “I always saw opportunity here,” he says. “Besides, it can be hard and lonely if you don’t have family with you,” he says, probably echoing the sentiment of many of his customers.
It is probably insights such as these which helped Kapur realize that it were the families back home, and not the workers abroad, who would lead the shift from hawala transactions to wire transfers. Now, Western Union’s advertising is done almost exclusively in regional languages and small towns, where families who get the money reside, rather than on television or around Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla complex, where its office is.
So, Western Union teams do thousands of local language skits across small towns and villages in India. In Tamil, Telugu or Malayalam, actors enact stories of how a family member may have sent the money from abroad through someone he thought he knew but who never gave the whole amount or turned out be a criminal. These stories always strike a chord because villagers have often gone through experiences such as this, Kapur says.
The local postmaster is always on hand to lend credibility in these parts where he is better known than the 157-year-old American company. “I’ve seen that if someone wants to get their daughter married, they ask the postmaster about the character of a boy,” he says, underscoring the trust their tie-up with India Post gives, apart from helping extend their network from 3,000 to 50,000 outlets (the last one opened at an SBI branch in Delhi on 7 January). Some of their customers still travel 15km to reach an outlet, and one of the company’s challenges is to fix that.
Kapur straddles his dual life with ease. My chat with him spills over two coffees and two milk teas—one with a minder and one without, one in the corporate boardroom and the other at a hotel coffee shop, one about Western Union’s spreading reach in rural India and the other about the Doon School and US-educated Kapur’s own journey into it.
Kapur, who is away visiting his outlets for at least half the month, says he had never been to a village before coming into his current job. Now, he says it is the best part of the job and talks of visiting villages from the thickly forested one in Andhra Pradesh’s Karimnagar district to the one in Bihar’s Siwan district. All of this is balanced with golf, squash at the club and playing Kenny Rogers songs on the guitar for his two daughters—Nikita, 10, and Tanya, 5, who he shows me grinning from the screen of his N-70 Nokia cellphone.
His favourite memory from his travels is an old woman he met in Punjab’s Kapurthala district who said Western Union meant that her son now had to talk to her, even if it was just to give the numerical code to collect her money transfer.
Born: 6 February 1967 (Dehradun)
Education: B Com (Honours), Hansraj College, University of Delhi; MBA (finance and marketing), University of Connecticut, USA
Work Profile: Fleet Street Bank, ANZ Grindlays Bank, Mashreq Bank (Dubai), Western Union (Dubai and India)
Interests: Playing squash, golf, and the guitar