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Striking out on his own
Bipin Chandran | May 10, 2003
Is software star Phaneesh Murthy about to stage a comeback? His new firm Primentor has just brokered a $60 million software outsourcing deal between a leading multinational and an Indian firm.
And rumours in the software services marketplace speak of many deals that are on the verge of being struck.
But Murthy, who resigned from Infosys in 2002, after a former employee filed a sexual harassment against him and the company, is learning how to adjust to an entirely new lifestyle. The phone is still ringing off the hook and the emails are pouring in.
But unlike before, he does have time for a quick game of golf during the weekend.
That isn't the only change at the Murthy household in Fremont, California. Murthy like all software stars, says that he didn't see enough of his children during frenetic and unpredictable working days at Infosys.
Now he starts work at 6.00 am but takes a few minutes off to get the two children ready for school. In the evening he plays with the children before returning to work till late at night.
What's more, he's extremely clear that Primentor isn't a budding Infosys. In fact, it has only two employees -- Murthy and wife Jaya. In this partnership, Jaya does the research and background work and Murthy is the consummate dealmaker.
And the staff strength isn't about to increase even if it strikes plenty of deals. "We are a two-person operation. It's an organisation that doesn't need to be scaled up," says Murthy.
Primentor is keeping Murthy more than busy. During his days as the chief dealmaker at Infosys and its public face in the US, he made a huge network of contacts both in the industry and outside.
Today he is leveraging those contacts and seeing if deals can be struck. He still travels extensively, and -- oddly enough for a hi-tech person -- doesn't believe in videoconferences beyond a point.
Says Murthy: "Most meetings are in person, hence the crazy travel schedule. It is always nice to study body language and see how people are responding to different ideas."
Even at home base he's constantly on the move. Murthy says that he averages around 2-3 meetings daily and he's in touch with other people through a never-ending series of phone calls. "I still work long hours," says Murthy.
Murthy, like all the other top Infoscions, is probably rich enough to retire tomorrow if he so desired. Like many other software millionaires, he's clearly aiming to be a serial entrepreneur of sorts. And he is upset about the fall in value of Infosys shares.
Says Murthy: "I still have shares in Infosys and unfortunately I lost a large chunk of my net worth in the recent crash. I am as disappointed and confused over what to do with my Infosys shares as the next man is."
Nevertheless, the pressure has come down by several notches. "I do not now have to worry about managing 2,500 to 3,000 people. And I do not have to explain to people why someone got $50 less that the other person.
"But there is a flip side to it also. When you are in a big organisation, you can ask some one to undertake a research or study, but here you need to do everything yourself," he says.
Murthy has been through many ups and downs and tough times even when he was in Infosys. He joined the company in 1992 when it was a $2 million midget that didn't feature on the radar of any US company.
Murthy joined in the key job as senior marketing manager in the US. Before that he had graduated from IIM, Ahmedabad and gone to work at Sonata Software which, at that time, was a bigger name than Infosys.
Infosys wasn't sure whether its bold efforts to market globally would succeed and India was an unknown commodity in the global outsourcing market.
As Murthy puts it, "The company was looking at a new market which it thought was a huge opportunity but was not sure how to do it." It was a risky challenge for him too. "My fate also depended on it. The understanding was that if the exercise failed they would get me back and put me in a senior position in India."
Murthy's initial years were spent selling India and not just Infosys. The pitch revolved around the benefits of moving work to India as companies would be able to remotely manage work from India using satellite links.
"India did not exist in the arena of many of the US corporate when it came to software outsourcing. We had to sensitise US companies about that. That was the first challenge," he says.
In this effort, he used industry forums to develop contacts with US majors. He also used the wide Indian network which was establishing itself in the software business. "I used various industry forums for developing the India brand.
Besides, there were the Indian contacts in various companies which helped me to develop such contacts established at industry forms," he says.
In 1995 Murthy was promoted to head of sales and in 1996 to head the worldwide sales. He was later appointed in 1999 to the Infosys board and also headed the company's strategic investment group.
"Though the beginning was tough, I developed confidence about undertaking work in India in the later stages. Some of the success stories and the way projects coming our way were also turning points," he said.
Murthy's strong deal making capabilities and project execution capabilities paid rich dividends.
There were lighter moments during all this. Once they were sitting across the table at GE and discussing a $230,000 deal. Murthy remarked in Hindi to a colleague that he would be ready to settle for $200,000.
It turned out that the GE negotiator had worked for many years in Delhi and understood Hindi. As a result he hung tough and wouldn't pay more than $200,000.
The software rumour mill says that Murthy is fully booked for the next two years. But he says this only means that he prefers to work on one or two assignments at a time.
"Each engagement takes a lot of time to do a quality job and I cannot do too many engagements at one time. My philosophy is to work on one or two engagements at a time. This way, I can focus on the engagements, add value and contribute in a way in which both the client and I feel good," he explains.
At 39, Murthy is certainly too young to retire. But it remains to be seen whether he can pull in a steady stream of multi-million dollar deals at a time when the industry is going through a worse patch than ever before.