For 20 years, Amrendra Kumar, 43, lived in Moscow where he built a business of supplying steel pipes to the oil and gas industry. In 2007 he reckoned it was time to be a part of the India growth saga, which had reached near-climactic levels. That his two sons - 10 and 12 - would get a better education was the clincher for the non-resident Indian (NRI) to return to local shores. Today, Kumar is in Dubai with his family. His plush bungalow in Gurgaon has been vacant and the business shuttered for a year now.
Kumar represents a Brazilian firm and has the responsibility to grow the Russia market. "I shuttle between Dubai and Russia. Since our company has plans to expand to Africa, Dubai is a good base," he says. The numerous opportunities to build infrastructure coupled with corporate India's aggressive growth plans, which all resulted in a buoyant job market, had lured a rash of executives and entrepreneurs of Indian origin back to the country.
Even in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008, as the western world sank into a recession, India appeared to be relatively sheltered from the storm. Today, those NRIs who thought it safe and wise to return to their roots are disillusioned. And it's not just because economic growth has retreated from near double-digit levels; prospects suddenly beginning to look brighter elsewhere coupled with the sheer difficulty of doing business and getting a move on in India are making many pack their bags and move back - or anywhere else where the grass is greener.
In June 2011, ET Magazine had written on "The return of the NRI". Today, two of the four executives profiled in that feature have moved base to the US. "The flight of capital from the stock market is being accompanied by the flight of human capital. India is no longer the magnet for attracting global talent it once was," says Vikram Bhardwaj, president and CEO of Redileon Partners Inc, an executive search firm. Bhardwaj himself moved to Detroit, US in 2012 to grow the business there.
"Being in the business of constantly monitoring the ebb and flow of talent, we could gradually sense the centre of gravity shifting back to the US and that prompted me to 'lift, shift and fix' myself to our offices in North America," he says. Today he has 24 employees in the US and 16 in India. Three years back, the situation was just the reverse - four in the US and 30 in India.
The Tide has Turned
India is no longer a hot destination for top global talent. "Earlier, people wanted to relocate to India. Today, there is a higher degree of hesitancy," says Rajeev Vasudeva, managing partner, Egon Zehnder International, an executive search firm. There are many reasons behind this reverse movement.
"When people came to India, they returned with lots of expectations," says K Sudarshan, managing partner (India), EMA Partners International. Many of those expectations were unrealistic. India was always a difficult country to live and work in. But the sizzling India story meant that they ignored - or overlooked - many of those cracks that they should have noticed before making their career moves.
Two, many executives signed up job contracts when the dollar was pegged at `45-50. And typically, these are two to four-year contracts. With the rupee substantially depreciating, many have taken a significant hit on their incomes in dollar terms. Three, getting globe-trotting executives on board had almost become fashionable among Indian entrepreneurs when the Indian economy was at its growth peak. Many of these entrepreneurs had not put in place systems and processes that these MNC executives were used to.
This has resulted in significant disappointment for many of these executives who struggled to successfully handle their portfolio in India. Four, perhaps the most important, India no longer looks as attractive a market to build careers. The developed world looks better as the economies there recover. It helps that they offer a better standard of living and a more evolved corporate life - reasons that have perennially attracted Indians to these markets.
Pressing the Exit Button
Who are the first to press the exit buttons? Broadly, there are three categories of Indians who moved to India during the boom years. The first are the MNC executives who were sent by the headquarters to grow the India business. The second variety is those who worked overseas for a long period and then quit their companies to get a job with Indian firms.
And the third category is of entrepreneurs like Kumar who relocated to India in the hope of building a business. Pankaj Tibrewal, 44, came to India in 2008 just when the global economic crisis was playing out. India was still red hot. And he was also charmed by the charismatic Indian entrepreneurs and their intuitive management style. It seemed different from the structured analytical fact-based decision-making most MNCs do.
"There is a lot of difference in the way an organisation behaves when the economy is growing at 2-3% and when it is growing in high double digits," says Tibrewal.
He joined Kishore Biyani's Future Group in India. His family with two children relocated and his wife now works in India. In January 2012, he quit Future Group as it was going through restructuring and took up another job in the media industry. In October, he finally decided to set up his own business.
"I was an entrepreneur for seven years before taking up a corporate job. I wanted to give it a try again," Tibrewal says. Now busy with his start-up, Tibrewal has opted to set up base in the region most conducive for them: Silicon Valley. While his family is still here, he shuttles between the US and India.
INDIA SOJOURN: A Canadian citizen, he came to India in 2007 when KPMG wanted to build its human capital practice
THE EXIT: Moved back to Canada early this year
REASON: Shermon's job is done with a 60-member team in place; for KPMG an executive on a dollar salary when business has slowed down makes little sense "There is no other place like Silicon Valley," he says. "A start-up needs an ecosystem. The Valley has it." That may not be a bad reason for moving out, but those exiting India because they feel the growth story is over may well be making a knee-jerk call. If the sheer hype around India was a reason to return, it was a wrong one; and similarly if the overdone despondency is a trigger to bail out it's also a hasty one to have pressed.
India may still lack some basic infrastructure - from quality universities to roads, highways and ports - but then somebody has to build them. And it's the creation of this infrastructure that will boost economic growth and help India achieve its potential of becoming the world's second-largest economy after China by 2050 (as Goldman Sachs had famously projected).
Perhaps if not sooner, then later. Says Ranjini Manian, founder, Global Adjustments, a company that helps expats settle down in India: "India has the potential and you need to be patient," she says.
The Dollar Gang
But it's not sheer disillusionment with the India story that's responsible for the exodus. For some, their work in this region is done. In 2007, Ganesh Shermon, 53, took up a job with KPMG India and shifted base from Canada. His family stayed back as his son was in school then and his wife had a business to manage in Canada. Shermon was hired by KPMG India to build the human capital practice. With corporate India reeling under serious talent management issues from attrition to productivity, KPMG saw a strong business case to build that practice.
During his stint, Shermon helped set up a 60-member team. Along with Shermon, KPMG India brought in the likes of Sanjay Thakkar, from the UK for the M&A practice, and Kumar Parakala from Australia in the technology practice. Their Indian roots, global experience and deep understanding of specific verticals made them critical pillars on which KPMG was hoping to grow the India business. Understandably, many of these executives were here on dollar salaries.
Amrendra Kumar, 43
INDIA SOJOURN: After working in Russia for 20 years, he moved to India in 2007
THE EXIT: Shifted to Dubai last year where he handles the Russia business of a Brazilian firm
REASON: Business of retailing iron rebars didn't meet growth projections
Today, the need for such expensive global executives has gone down substantially. Also, KPMG itself has built local teams for these practices, which work out more cost-effective - and which would have been the objective the firm began with. As a result, many of the Indians brought in to build these teams have now served their purpose and have relocated elsewhere on the KPMG global footprint. Then there are some like Vikram Sheel Kumar, 37, who moved to India primarily driven by personal reasons.
The opportunities that India offered at that time made the decision to move lot easier. Kumar, a Harvard graduate, was born in the US and mostly lived and studied there while shuttling back and forth between the two countries. In 2007, he moved to India to be closer to his ailing father and manage his business. While here, he seeded a start-up. After his father passed away, Kumar shifted base back to Boston from where he manages his start-up Dimagi Inc, a public health informatics company focused on HIV/AIDS, maternal and child healthcare; Kumar figured he would be able to manage the business better from the US.
Perhaps some day when there's more political and policy clarity, inflation and the rupee depreciation are tamed, and economic growth begins its upward curve, Kumar along with others on the exit bandwagon will once again make a beeline for India. After all, there are many like Global Adjustments' Manian who believe that instead of asking "why India" a better question still is "why not India".