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Group CEO, Quess Corporation | Nov 19 to current


Quess Corp is India’s leading business services provider and the country’s largest employer in the private sector with over 333,000 employees. 


Senior Partner, McKinsey & Company | 1999 to 2019


Suraj joined McKinsey in Mumbai, directly out of IIMA. He moved to Brussels in 2004, where he eventually became the first Asian to be elected a McKinsey Partner on continental Europe.


In 2008, Suraj moved to South Africa to establish McKinsey’s regional TMT practice, eventually serving Africa’s leading companies and governments across 20+ countries. Suraj’s work in Africa included helping a multi-national operator capture scale from its global operations, helping a large media player develop a regional sales footprint, and developing a national broadband strategy for a large country.


Suraj led the turnaround of McKinsey’s practice in Manila from 2014 to 2018, where his work included helping top conglomerates develop and implement digital strategies, counselling family-owned businesses, helping government think through how to drive ICT in the economy, and supporting the Philippine government in post-Typhoon Yolanda recovery. 


When was the last time you were on campus?


It must be 15 years ago, I think. I was really hoping to come for the award ceremony, but it was not to be. 


Being from the 1999 batch, you would have the 25th reunion in a couple of years. We would love to have you back at that time.


I hope for the same! 


What does the YAAA and recognition mean to you?


It’s tremendous. The news of the award came in April last year, when the lockdown had been freshly imposed, a time when I the luxury to be a bit reflective. Recognitions such as this flow from a series of opportunities that life brings along. I am grateful to life. And I’m grateful to the Institute for recognising me, even though there are many unsung heroes who deserve the accolade more than me. 


From a McKinsey veteran to Group CEO, Quess Corporation. How has the transition been?


It’s an interesting question because I spent 20 years at McKinsey. I love the Firm and if you cut me even now, I bleed blue! Being a part of the Firm and also having the opportunity to be a partner to the Firm for a decade was a tremendous experience. But I hit a point where I felt the question for me was ‘Do I spend the next 20 years doing the same thing or do I try something else with a new learning curve?’. This is how I began my quest for something new where I could have more direct impact on the world. I feel strongly about 3 areas in particular – education, healthcare, and blue collared labour. So, when the Quess opportunity came along, I felt it to be ‘too good to be true’ and jumped head in. 


How has it been so far, especially in terms of the specific measures you have taken or will undertake to place Quess qualitatively in a much better position than before?


I think the better way to ask this is ‘What will we do?’, because it takes a village to grow a child, and a team to grow a company. We have a great team. 


I formally took over as CEO one week into the lockdown and, on reflection, Covid-19 has further sharpened our priorities while accelerating our execution. The pandemic scenario created a burning platform for us through the need for dramatic cost reductions through automation, digitization and workforce tooling. It gave us a real impetus to make sure we were being extremely agile, cutting through layers and digitizing as much as possible, leading to 20% indirect cost saving in a span of two months. On the customer end, and being India’s largest employer, we had to upgrade our practices very quickly and this helped us in introducing new services to the market. 


Quess has a very active acquisition strategy. What makes inorganic such an attractive preferred growth strategy for Quess and is this an integral component of your strategy for the foreseeable future? 


Acquisitions are an important part of the corporate toolkit. Quess has had an acquisitive strategy in the past, and this has been central to build the strongest platform in the country that offers such a breadth of services. With the platform now largely built out, our focus is on ensuring that we fully digest the existing acquisitions and grow the cash flow generation every year. Acquisitions could happen from time to time, though. For example, we recently invested into Taskmo, a digital task execution platform.


How do you manage the integration of such diverse portfolio businesses?


Some of it boils down to corporate philosophy. Our philosophy is that if you have acquired a company, you want to keep the entrepreneurism and the specialness of that company, and not integrate too much. 


With the pressure of improving operating cash flow and delivery, we are sure you have to contend with culture as well.


Yes, and no. You buy a company because it provides a service or a product that you don’t currently offer. Sometimes, providing that service requires it to have a different culture. For example, if you consider, which is an Internet products company with a different cadence from a typical services company. You want to make sure that you build a specific culture, which is product-centric. So, it is imperative to have different cultures across the company. 


I think, what needs to be defined relentlessly is the irreducible core that defines Quess as a company. For example, you want to make sure that the finance, legal, compliance backbone is single across the company, so that, from a governance perspective, there is uniformity. Further, you need to define what are the few things that really matter, like you want to make sure every business has thought through what excellent customer service means, as at Quess, we want to be known for excellent customer service. In that sense, one needs to ensure that every business has a tight operating cadence, digitization, high metabolic rate and high growth rate. In my experience, what gets measured, gets done. Also, consistency of communication is absolutely central to building the right culture in any company.


Which areas do you see the maximum potential for growth in the foreseeable future?


We outsource a wide range of processes (mostly requiring grey collar labour) from our clients, and deliver them with superior productivity and flexibility. I am a big believer in the future of the Indian productivity game in this space, considering two factors. I think one is that the level of formalization in India is comparatively low versus developed peers. Also, even within formalized space, if you look at the penetration of outsourcing, it is less than half the way in comparison to the developed economies. So, the outsourcing journey has a long way to go, if we look at the tailwinds of formalization plus outsourcing. 


Historically in India, we have viewed the grey collared segment as cheap labour. Those times are changing. For example, if you look at a security guard in Bangalore, his minimum wage is about the same as an engineer who is just starting his career. It is good that the wages have improved, but this also brings in the demand of being more productive that would require a higher grade of mechanization and supervision. This is what I am excited to see, as the market size grows up to 10 times in the coming years. 


What are the specific actions that Quess is taking to take advantage of all of the changes that you see?


One of the things we’re trying to do is to digitize our hire-to-retire process, which covers everything from sourcing talent to interviewing to onboarding to payrolling and then compliance management – also making it more scalable. We have already got some of the best-in-class tools. Our regtech is the best in the country through a subsidiary called Simpliance. We have also got one of the best recruitment platforms for blue-collar jobs which has been used by 300 odd external customers already.


Secondly, we are investing in better workforce management. For example, we own India’s most widely used workforce management application in the grey-collar space. Currently, more than 200,000 of our employees use this application each month for functions like attendance, managing rostering, access benefits, and more. We are also starting to digitize their workflows, to manage their work remotely, help them to be more productive and also train them for the future. 


Over and above, as a B2B player, making sure that our sales engines are fully firing, looking at our go-to-market, always strengthening that and investing there, including building a cross-sell capability across our service lines is a priority. 


How would you describe your journey so far? 


There have been many times in my career when I thought that all that was left for me was to resign and retire! And yet, here I am today, so far from where I began! In my experience, life is not linear and I have been blessed to have my hard work pay off. 


Having said that, there have been many moments in life when I have reflected on what I was doing, why was I doing it, and a lot of emotions followed. This self-reflection pops up every couple of years, and I feel the secret of success is to figure out how to leverage those moments for the better, whether by doubling down to see the current episode out or pivoting to something different. I think having this compass and self-awareness is important, and tuning that awareness over time is really the key.


When not working, what are the little things that you enjoy doing the most? How do you relate yourself to music and please tell us about your huge vinyl records collection?


I have stopped buying new vinyl records because I have realised that I should first finish listening to those that I have! 


I enjoy photography, particularly wildlife and landscape. Unfortunately, in the last year, I haven’t done enough. But typically I try to travel each year for a week, to a place that has zero mobile connectivity and just take photographs. This experience really recharges me. 


Another thing that I love doing, being a Mangalorean and vegetarian, is to cook traditional Mangalorean recipes. I also cook pretty decent Italian. So, on Sundays, we sometimes cook pasta from scratch with my sons.


What pointers would you like to give to the new batches at IIMA, specifically related to consulting?


Consulting is a wonderful career, as it gives you an insight into so many angles of business and problems that sharpen and structure the mind. I am grateful to have spent so many years in consulting and highly recommend the experience. 


Beyond that, I would say that when I was on campus, I was often driven by anxiety around my future and success in life. Success was narrowly defined. It almost felt that your life will end with your placement. But, in reality, life is only starting with placement. 


One should be driven not from a place of anxiety, but from the place of curiosity. What defines your happiness, and what would make you feel like you are having an impact in the world? If you are able to figure this out, have the courage to follow it, and you will be successful – regardless of whether you win accolades or have pots of money. 

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