It’s 10.40am on a Friday, and the staff on duty at the Trident, Gurgaon, are beginning to get suspicious of me.
I’ve been ambling about and shuffling a sheaf of papers for the past 10 minutes, circling one of the lobby’s corner sofas like a predator patrolling his territory. I’m a bit early for my breakfast meeting with N.V. Tyagarajan, the 48-year-old chief operating officer of the business process outsourcing (BPO) firm Genpact, and the staff would really appreciate it if I stopped wearing out the carpet in the interim, thank you very much.
Dressed in a crisp dark grey suit, and wheeling a suitcase, Tyagarajan is the very image of the roving executive. His handshake is firm. “Hi. I’m Tiger,” he says by way of introduction.
The story of how “Tiger” became his prefix of choice (it’s even on his visiting card) takes him back nearly 40 years. “I went to a Catholic school in Mumbai, and in (the) second grade we came out of a poetry class, having just learnt Tiger, tiger, burning bright by William Blake,” he says. The name “Tyagarajan” was proving a little too phonetically complex for his Mumbai classmates, and “Tiger” filled that gap competently. “It’s not a bad name to have in the corporate world,” he says.
On target: Tyagarajan joined GE because he wanted a career, not just a job, and became an architect of the BPO business in India. Jayachandran / Mint
It is Tyagarajan’s approach to business that has undoubtedly made the name stick. “It’s the way you attack a problem,” he says softly, carefully measuring each sentence before speaking. “Break it down into parts, think about a logical, rational, step-by-step solution—that’s the way I think about a lot of things.”
It’s an unnervingly precise mechanism for decision-making, but “unnervingly precise” is an accurate descriptor for Tyagarajan’s career, from his early days in Pond’s India to being the COO of the $1 billion (around Rs5,000 crore), 37,000-employee Genpact, which was previously called GE Capital International Services, or Gecis, and was a captive arm of General Electric.
Tyagarajan orders a “strong” masala chai. “Drink of choice?” I ask. “Not really,” he says, his wispy moustache curling as he breaks into a grin. “But I’ve had two espressos since morning, so I thought I’d take a break from coffee.”
The early proof-of-concepts for Gecis, the prototype for the Indian BPO industry, were beginning to float around in 1997-98, when Tyagarajan was working with GE Capital. He, along with other BPO pioneers Raman Roy and Pramod Bhasin, conducted pilots (“basic call centre stuff”) that became hugely successful. It excited then GE boss Jack Welch when he visited in 2000. Till 2004, Gecis remained moored to the GE port, providing BPO services only to in-house companies. Tyagarajan, meanwhile, left for the US in 2002 to work with GE Commercial Finance. He returned when Gecis became Genpact, an independent company. By then BPO had become a buzzword.
“When you’ve built a company and a concept up from scratch, you look at your job, and your career, much differently,” he says. “We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg with BPOs,” he says. “I can see myself doing this particular job for at least 20 more years.”
A student of mechanical engineering at IIT Bombay in the early 1980s, Tyagarajan homed in on his interest early. “I didn’t see myself joining the engineering cadre and designing stuff,” he says. “Commercial decisions attracted me. Working with a team attracted me.” IIM Ahmedabad followed, and in 1985, Tyagarajan landed his first job as sales manager in what was then Pond’s India. “I was very clear that I didn’t want to join brands and product management to begin with. I wanted to hit the road, and hit the ground,” he says.
Pond’s allowed him to do just that. “I loved the culture of the company. It was action-oriented, and gave far more importance to sales than to the brand. That attracted me. I’m older and wiser now, and I understand the importance of brands, but back then it was just wishy-washy stuff.”
He joined the western region office in Mumbai, and within a week was on the road in Madhya Pradesh. Talcum powder was Pond’s star performer there, commanding up to 90% of the market share in certain areas. Tyagarajan quickly settled in, dealing with salespersons, stockists and other wizened veterans of the talcum powder trade. “I spent six-and-a-half years there, and loved every second of it,” he says.
He moved to Citibank in 1991, joining its mortgage business in Chennai. After six months in sales and marketing, he decided to switch tracks to the operations side. “I thought operations was the gateway to a wider career,” he says.
Within a year, he got a chance to make that shift. “Someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘There’s a credit and collections job in the west (Mumbai). I think you should do it.’ I asked why, and they said, ‘It’s a mess. We’d like you to go and clean it up.’ That, to me, was an interesting comment to make to someone who’s never done that stuff before,” Tyagarajan says.
After this stint in Mumbai, Tyagarajan was posted to Delhi. His wife Viji, then working for ABN Amro, and their son Abhinav, who was born in 1993, stayed on in Mumbai. “Three cities, six jobs, six portfolios. Four years. Typical Citibank career in those days.”
In 1994, he left Citibank to join GE Capital, a company he’d been fascinated with since its entry into India.
“With GE, I saw the opportunity to build a 25-year career,” he says. “I actually thought this way: I could be doing credit cards one day, and aircraft engines the next. Changing jobs without changing the company.”
He joined as risk head for GE’s joint venture with HDFC Ltd, called Countrywide. When Gecis started in 1997, he moved to Delhi. “And for the second time, I moved and my wife didn’t move!” he laughs. “Viji was working at Rabobank, and she joined me only after 18 months, when she moved to Aviva.”
In those 18 months, Tyagarajan immersed himself completely in Gecis, often drowning out the mutinous protests of his team, who wished he’d “move back to Mumbai”. “I worked like crazy,” he recalls. “But those were the formative years. Our target was 3,000 people (employees), and by the time I left (for the US) in 2002, we had 12,000.”
“Work is a big part of who I am,” he says. Tyagarajan spends almost 15 days a month travelling on business, a routine that leaves him with precious little time at home. “I probably do not spend enough time at home as I should,” he says. “It’s always a challenge.” He went recently on a 10-day vacation to China with his family, but admits that his ideal holiday would be staying put.
But every workaholic has a weakness, and Tyagarajan is no exception. “I’m an unbelievably passionate follower of cricket,” he says. I ask him to describe just how big a fan he is. He replies almost immediately. “I would bunk work if there’s a good match on.”