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The man behind GE's India success
Bhupesh Bhandari | May 29, 2007
As he prepares to leave the business he set up 14 years ago, GE's India head reflects on his hits and misses and shares his plans to return soon.
India was nowhere on Scott Bayman's radar screen. Having worked with General Electric for six years in the United States, he had indicated some time in 1993 that he would be game for an overseas stint, hoping to spend some time in Paris, London or Brussels. Instead, Jack Welch sent him to India for three years. Bayman stayed on for 14 years and will be retiring from the company at the end of this month.
"Jack had great instincts," says Bayman, dressed in a red T-shirt and looking relaxed. The bliss of a coming holiday is unmistakable in the body language. We are at San Gimignano at The Imperial in the capital. We had earlier agreed to meet at Daniell's Tavern over some spicy Indian food. But when I called to book a table, I was told the restaurant opened only for dinner. So Bayman settled for Italian fare.
Jack Welch first came to India in the late-1980s at the invitation of Kushal Pal Singh of DLF, who took him to meet Rajiv Gandhi, Sam Pitroda and Montek Singh Ahluwalia. He was impressed with what he saw, especially taken in by the skills of Indians. That is when he decided to invest in India. It was for Bayman to build a business from scratch in a country about which he knew nothing.
Help came from friends like Singh. "He remains my informal advisor, confidante and mentor," says Bayman, sipping a red wine of 1983 vintage. The dozen-odd GE companies operating in the country will end the year with a turnover of $2.8 billion.
Bayman admits that GE's business in India has picked up only in the last three-four years, before which it was stagnating at around $500 million per annum. By 2010, GE hopes its India business to improve to $8 billion - 16 per cent of the projected turnover of $50 billion from the emerging markets.
Be that as it may, I remind Bayman that at least one of his plans for India never took off - to have a bank in the country. Bayman says talks are still going on with the Reserve Bank of India. I leave it at that. On his part, Bayman ranks the failure of GE's joint venture with the Godrej family, Godrej GE Appliances, as his biggest failure in India.
"It was our mistake. While everybody in business knew about GE, the consumers didn't know the GE brand. The cost of building the brand didn't make sense. Our products were not suited for India," Bayman says. As he launches on his lettuce salad, the words of a common friend start ringing in my ears: "He is not a bullshitter and talks straight."
"It was the saddest day of my career," Bayman adds. What must have hurt more is that before coming to India, Bayman was in-charge for worldwide marketing and product management at GE Appliances.
On the positive side, Bayman can take credit for starting the BPO movement in the country with Genpact (now Gecis) in 1997. "At that time, unemployment in the United States was zero. And we also got savings by starting operations in India," Bayman says, adding: "Had there been a BPO industry in India at that time, we wouldn't have started the company."
GE subsequently sold 60 per cent in the venture to private equity investors once it realised it wasn't its core business. "It is good we sold to private equity; that way, the company has been able to preserve the GE culture," he says. When I ask him the obvious question, Bayman admits that he did have several offers from Indian businessmen to buy out the BPO outfit.
Bayman's biggest achievement in India, observers say, was to extricate GE from the Dabhol mess. GE had got the contract to supply turbines for Enron's ill-fated Dabhol project and had, therefore, taken a 10 per cent stake in the company. Once Enron imploded, GE's investments were in danger. But Bayman was able to get the money back, though after two years.
"This couldn't have happened in another country, we wouldn't have got a penny back," says Bayman, having moved on to a salami pizza, while I negotiate a baked fillet of fish served with mashed potatoes. GE, he adds, was able to get back almost the entire $115 million it had invested in the project.
Having come out of Dabhol unscathed, Bayman's reputation in the capital's power circles as an expert in government relations grew manifold. "Jack Welch sold India to the world. GE has been a good friend of India in Washington during tough times," he says.
When I ask him to elaborate, he adds: "After the nuclear tests, we worked to get some sanctions against India lifted. We talked with Senators and Congressmen for the inclusion of India in the nuclear club. I am as much an insider as any expat."
He lobbied successfully for Boeing to bag the multi-billion order for passenger aircraft from Air-India - GE makes the engines - and was working equally hard to bag the Indian Air Force order for 128 fighter jets for American firms.
Naturally, Indian companies want Bayman on their board. He has already joined the Crompton Greaves board and says he has a few more offers. "I will come to India four to five times every year to attend board meetings and play golf with my friends," he says.
I next draw Bayman's attention to GE CEO Jeff Immelt's recent statement that after GE Plastic's divestment to Sabic, no other business would be sold. Jack Welch had laid down the rule that GE should get out of any business in which it was not number one or number two. So, is "Neutron" Jack's imprint on GE over?
"We are less hung up about number one and number two now," Bayman says, adding: "What matters is that we are in businesses and countries that will provide double digit growth in the long run."
And India is one of these countries. It is evident that India has left a deep impression on him - his eyes light up whenever he talks about the country and its people. "The sights and smells are boggling," he says, adding: "In contrast, the United States is generic and vanilla." Bayman has been spotted in crowded Delhi markets like Lajpat Nagar selecting curtains for his home.
When he first came to India, Bayman says he found India to be self-centric. Now, he finds the country more outward looking. "But the core values of family and compassion are still there in the people," he says.
Still, Bayman leaves for the United States next month, where he will alternate between Chicago and Florida. "Go where the sun is: Chicago in summer and Florida in the winters," he lets out his retirement plans.
Both of us decide to skip dessert.
Photograph: Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images