Article: Institutional Building: Sumer Datta


Institutional Building: Sumer Datta

It is critical that one is honest about what one is good at and what one lacks, and fills the gap with the right strategic partnerships

His first two employees were people with no HR backgroundbut had great attitude - an apprentice working at The Tajand a rally driver


The journey of this eccentric, enthusiastic yet patient listener saw its share of bumpy rides when he walked away from the desirable job of a management accountant at Escorts in 1989. Hardly 5 years into his comfortable life of an 8:30am to 4:30pm job, Sumer Datta was impatient and anxious to seek a more challenging life and ventured out to look for alternatives. With the help of his HR colleagues at Escorts then, he was able to find access to the best of recruitment consultants, hoping they would help him find his answers. But much to his surprise, Sumer returned distraught at the horrid state of recruitment firms in India then, when he realized none really had the capability or inclination to help his cause. Sleeping over his unfortunate experience, the opportunity to make things right dawned upon Sumer and he decided to resign from his cushy job at Escorts the next morning to start his own recruitment company.

And what exactly did he know about recruitment then – nothing! A finance graduate who had joined Escorts as his first job after b-school, Sumer did not understand HR nor had any experience in the field. But it was enough that he understood the essence of ‘hiring right’ and making the right ‘job fit’ that companies and prospective candidates were struggling with in the absence of a better alternative. So he quit his job, with nothing but five hundred rupees in his pocket. Reminiscing the very early days, Sumer recalls, “I had no idea what I had done, but I knew I wanted to become India’s best recruitment consultant and it took me long to get that slap on my face because nobody would entertain me at first.”

With no background or reference, Sumer went cold-calling to companies which continued for 2 years and he had not closed any business. Operating out of a friend’s office space which was a 50 square feet room, big enough only to hold a table and chair, life was a struggle. It stretched until the end of the second year when Sumer got his first break when a friend asked him to find a stenographer and that became his first billing at a mere Rs.1250. And by the end of the third year, Sumer had done business worth only about one and a half lakh – it was a slow and dragging start but a great learning as Sumer affirms.

But Noble House, the name inspired from the book of James Clavell, was fortunate that its existence coincided with the liberalization in India which was beginning towards the end of 1989. For the first time, the Indian market was opening up to foreign investors and there was an array of global companies seeing their way in to open office in India. Companies like AT&T, Motorola, HP, etc. began setting up their India-entry offices in India with a country manager and a secretary. While the more settled and larger recruitment consultants got swayed by their complacency of being market leaders then, Sumer did everything in his might to convince these global companies to let him help. He religiously visited the AT&T office for the next 2 and a half years, befriended the Country Manager’s secretary, even ran errands for her until one day she got Sumer that 5 minute meeting with the Country Manager himself. At first, as expected, Sumer was turned down, for he had no experience or expertise to prove he could find the right people for AT&T. But then, his persistence and commitment brought him the first deal from AT&T 9 months later, to do two jobs - find a business development manager for India, and a telecom specialist in this particular category. Sumer gave his heart and soul to it, and found the two people for AT&T and this became his first big placement since he walked away from Escorts 3 and a half years ago, and then there was no looking back.

AT&T led to Motorola, Motorola to HP, and HP to Xerox and in 30 months, Noble House had effectively beaten all recruitment consultants and climbed the ladder to the top. Until this point, Sumer was a one man army; he was as much the office boy as he was the business manager. He hired his first employee when he had gone for a meeting to The Taj in Mumbai. An apprentice who was working as a temp staff at The Taj then was serving him, and his great attitude and friendly behavior convinced Sumer that he would do well in the business. In fact, perhaps it was Sumer’s unique approach to people for their attitude and nature that helped him build the right team. The second employee was a girl who was a car rallyist married to someone who was obsessed with cars - F3, F2 and F1. And none of them had a HR background, but they were convinced they would have fun working together and that seemed to work for Sumer. And while Sumer went to the market, his two employees managed the backend, meeting candidates and building database.

Business soared because they were willing to stretch and work for 25 hours a day if required to serve cross-geography and cross-time zone demands and that saw huge number of jobs coming into Noble House with every global company entering the country. But the search business was time-intensive and having worked with companies like Xerox, Motorola and HP, towards the end of the fourth year, Sumer began to get anxious as he did not see any further scope for development and learning in the business. Around the time, often, clients would ask them to find out salaries of other players in the industry and this led Sumer to realize the potential demand for compensation benchmarking in the country. So, Sumer approached Bilt, Xerox, AT&T, HP, Motorola, GlaxoSmithKline, HCL, DCM, Escorts and Raymonds - the ten who’s who in HR to explore what they thought of the idea of doing a compensation benchmarking. While they all were excited, none had any money to fund the idea. But Sumer saw a potential and so in 1991, with a five member team, the ‘Corporate Personnel Club’ was formed and the first compensation benchmarking report was typed on the borrowed resource at the AT&T office. Being a finance person, he was able to present HR data with pie charts and histograms, which was a revelation for the HR community at the time and the idea clicked. In the second year, membership rose to 20 and then grew to 120 by the fourth year. By the year 1995, and a team size of 14 employees, Noble House began to see revenue of about 10-12 lakh.

In 1994, Hewitt approached Noble House, and Sumer had never heard of Hewitt back then, asking for a one-hour call from someone in New York. Hewitt was looking for someone to do a job pricing assignment and Sumer grabbed the opportunity at Rs.3000 per job pricing, for 2 jobs. And since Hewitt was happy with the work, they continued to work together on many more assignments without ever knowing the client name. Until one day, Noble House had a visitor from Hewitt Singapore who wanted to discuss a new project and this time they would disclose the client name to Noble House. Thus, Noble House landed itself with its first big project to set up the HR office for Climate Control (a Ford Motor Company) on behalf of Hewitt. And this was the turning point when Noble House entered the HR consulting space in its true sense. Back in 1994, for the first time, Noble House began operating like a true consulting firm putting processes and systems in place to calculate man-hours spent on the project.

The huge success of the Ford project led to another huge assignment – Caltex, which also came through Hewitt. Sumer attributes their spring board leap to their sheer hard work coupled with a lot of luck of being at the right place at the right time. By this time then, Noble House had nurtured a great team of 22-24 employees, earning revenue of around 35 lakh.

The great synergy between Hewitt and Noble House led to their joint venture in 1996, and Sumer became instrumental in bringing in the first of the four top HR consulting companies into India. The JV brought about huge changes in the way Noble House operated though the culture and the values remained the same. Hewitt’s value system was very similar to that of Noble House – and both worked on a culture of ‘never say no’, ‘customer is God’ and ‘you never close your office’ approach. The associates were so driven by the ‘never say no’ and ‘customer is God’ approach that in 1996, there was a time when Sumer even had to lock the office on weekends to dissuade associates from working. The culture was such that associates enjoyed their work and it did not matter if they stayed on all night to finish a report. As Sumer explained, he would specially hire people who were mad and wanted to have fun. People partied and came back to finish work. And for the first 11 years, Hewitt did not have a HR policy for its own associates. And Hewitt Associates had grown to 55 employees with offices in Mumbai and Bangalore, and revenue of around 60-70 lakh.

In 1999, they integrated and Hewitt held 100% stakes in India while Sumer took on the role of being their Global Partner. The youngest partner in the Hewitt Network, Sumer became the only case in Hewitt mergers and acquisitions, where this partner that they married never left the company. He wanted the best for his associates, and as part of the merger, he negotiated for number of man-days of training for his people, number of offices to be opened in the next 12 months, the square feet area for each office space, and investment in technology. For Sumer, it was critical to build an institution which was a brand to reckon with, and so this merger made absolute sense to him.

Through his journey, Sumer has been driven by only one thing – his customers, internal and external. So, when Levi’s came into India and opened shop in Bangalore, Sumer decided to open office in Bangalore simply because that is what his client wanted.

And similarly, seeing the increasing need of its clients, somewhere between the JV and the 100% merger, Hewitt began to enter many more consulting areas including organizational effectiveness, job evaluation, engagement, etc. Soon after the merger, Sumer began to realize the HR function in companies was not really focusing on areas that they should and instead were wasting time on administrative work. Since Hewitt was already big in outsourcing in the US, he saw the potential for Hewitt Associates India to take away the payroll administration work from the HR function in companies. Though the HR heads then did not welcome this at first, because they felt it would take away their power in the organization, CEOs were certainly happy to find a more efficient and cost effective way of carrying out mundane administrative work. And in 3 years, Hewitt became the largest HRO company in the country with about 100 people in consulting and 45 odd people in outsourcing. Around the same time in 2002, Sumer also started coaxing his CEO in the US to set up off-shoring in India. But being a mid-western orthodox conservative company, where they found it impossible to let go of work from Chicago to New York itself, off-shoring work to India was absolutely impossible. It took a lot of convincing from Sumer to make them see the huge potential until they got convinced that India should be the off-shoring hub. And today, there are 10,000 employees only in that practice in India.

In 2006, when India outsourcing was looking good, Sumer was made the Regional Head for Asia Pacific region when he convinced the Board of the huge opportunity in the Asia Pac region. As part of the growth strategy, Hewitt bought India Life in Bangalore. That followed a series of acquisitions, mergers and JVs in Singapore and China which laid the backbone of the largest off-shoring business in Asia Pac.

In 2007, Sumer decided to quit only because he felt that Hewitt was no more in the building phase and he found it difficult to carry on with a maintenance job. Though it would have been a haven for him to retire from Hewitt, the absence of challenge in the job once again made Sumer very anxious.

Sumer attributes the success of his entrepreneurial journey to the great partnership he had and of being in the market ahead of its time. To create a successful business, it is critical that one is honest about what one is good at and what one lacks, and so the right strategic partnerships are important.

Post Hewitt, Sumer is out again to chase his next entrepreneurial agenda of setting up retirement homes in India. And this time again, Sumer’s venture Aamoksh One Eighty, has found its partner in One Eighty, a Seattle based company which is one of the top companies in the globe in this space. They share a 50-50 JV with One Eighty which runs 44 centers in North America in this business and have been in the business for over 30 years.

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Topics: C-Suite, Entrepreneurship, #HRIndustry, #PersonalJourney

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