Nanda Kumar K: A Customer-centric Visionary Technocrat

Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves – Steve Jobs

Thiruvananthapuram: The quote by the Apple guru is, perhaps, the most used one in the world now by any industry when they discuss customer engagement. Twenty-seven years ago, a young tech enthusiast from Kerala effectively deployed this idea at a time when the term customer-centricity was unheard of in these parts of the world. This homegrown entrepreneur’s quest for recalibrating and reinventing his product continuously made the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), India’s national telecom provider, adopt it as a standard for the whole country in the early 1990s. Later, he pioneered the concept of relationship-based pricing in the banking sector. Now, he is working on building an all-encompassing platform to equip his clients to adapt to the latest advancements in technology like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Big Data Analytics and Machine Learning, and to seize the opportunities being thrown open by them.

Meet Nanda Kumar Krishnan Nair (fondly known as N K), Founder and CEO of SunTec Business Solutions, a multi-million dollar company based in Thiruvananthapuram that provides customer experience orchestration solutions to businesses in financial services, digital & communications services, travel, retail and logistics worldwide. With its award winning product, Xelerate®, SunTec has impacted more than 300 million end customers till date with over 15 billon transactions through its 50-plus clients spread over 43 countries. It employs over 700 professionals directly worldwide. Besides Technopark in Thiruvananthapuram, SunTec has offices in Kochi, Chennai and Bengaluru in India, UAE, Singapore, Germany, UK and US. SunTec’s fifth office in India will come up in Mumbai soon. Launched in 1990, SunTec is now a trusted partner of the world’s leading companies like HSBC, ING, Mashreq, Maybank, Bakrie and Cable One. On September 1, 2017, Pinarayi Vijayan, Kerala Chief Minister, laid the foundation stone for SunTec Campus at Technocity in Thiruvananthapuram.

“In the early 1990s, one day I got a call from Ashok Soota who was heading Wipro at that time. He asked me if I knew one Nanda Kumar who was undertaking DoT projects in Thrissur. I said yes. Then he told me N K was giving them a run for their money. That was when I realised that N K was developing something great which was competing against Wipro. He kept his vision of developing a global product company out of Kerala intact. Another thing is he is still very hands on. He does coding even today and constantly updates his skills by attending various technology-related courses. Lot of what Indian companies are talking about doing today in terms of developing a product was something N K was doing 25 years ago. Today companies are talking about a platform which will work for multiple products – this is what he developed around two decades ago. Clearly, he has been moving ahead of the times.”

G Vijayaraghavan, Founder CEO, Technopark and Member, Board of Directors, SunTec

ENTERING THE WORLD OF IT

After completing his post graduation in Physics from Fatima Matha National College, Kollam, N K left for Chennai to prepare for CAT and joined an evening course at Brilliant Tutorials. Since he was free during the day, he joined a computer course at NIIT (National Institute of Information Technology). It had a placement service through which candidates who passed a particular examination were given jobs in the IT sector. “Thus, on January 1, 1984, I joined HCL. Later, in October 1985, I joined ER & DCI (now C-DAC) as Deputy Programmer. It was a phenomenal experience as I had the opportunity to be part of diverse projects involving Indian Railways, NIC, Kolkata Metro, Telecommunications, KSRTC and the like. I had to undertake many projects single-handedly which gave me immense confidence. Later, when ER&DCI was taken over by the Central Government, I decided to stay with Keltron as it was focussing more on customer-centric projects. But after a while, I felt like starting something on my own,” says N K, sitting at his corporate office in Thiruvananthapuram.

THE ORIGIN OF SUNTEC

For N K, entrepreneurship was inherent. His father was a business man who had been into diverse domains. However, N K was slightly hesitant. “I had just got married at that time. I was sure that leaving the job at Keltron would be considered insane. The other dilemma was whether I had to shift my base to Bengaluru or not. In that case why should not I look for opportunities abroad,” N K still remembers the conflicting thoughts that went through his mind then.

But the success of Microsoft continued to inspire N K. “I was fascinated by the stories of Microsoft. How a single product was taken to such a scale? Thus I decided if I were to do something on my own, it would be in the product line which means, creating something fundamental and keeping on adding exponential value to it. The products that I created for various clients while at ER&DCI had a repeatable deployment model. Once you solve the problem, you could reap the benefit multiple times. The learning from multiple projects would go into the same product, and in the process, it would continuously add incremental value to the customers, too. That kind of background also cemented my conviction that my focus should be on products. So, everything I did then was to fulfill that vision,” he says.

They say fortune favours the brave. In 1990, while toying with the idea of setting up a technology park in the Capital, Kerala Government came out with an Entrepreneur Development Scheme. An interesting initiative wherein employees of Keltron, who had completed five years in the company, were allowed to take five-year leave to pursue entrepreneurship. N K was one among two employees of Keltron who found an opportunity in it. “The Government was then keen to support entrepreneurship development in Kerala. Since chances of people coming from outside to set up companies at Technopark appeared remote, they wanted to support local people to start something on their own. The scheme was taken out after a short while,” he adds. Thus in1990, SunTec was born. His idea was to start taking up sub-contracts and execute it by himself. Initially, he decided not to invest money for an office and machinery.

THE TURNING POINT

The first major project that SunTec got was to develop a billing system for the Kerala Circle of DoT. “I sub-contracted the work from Transmatic Systems in Thiruvananthapuram, which along with Wipro, bagged the contract. Apart from token advance, I was given a computer and a space at DoT, Thrissur to do work. Hence, with zero capital, I was able to begin the business. I could not afford to hire anybody in the beginning. After three months, I hired one person as software development and deployment had to happen simultaneously. The mandate was to produce bills within three months. In September 1991, we produced the bill which marked the first phase of it. Our work was much appreciated but DoT decided to continue with both vendors. We were given additional projects in Kottayam and Ernakulam. Other circles like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka also expressed interest. In the meantime, we widened the scope of the product by including more features in it even though we were not paid for that. That was the catch.

Though it was owned by DoT, I was enhancing the capability of product because I wanted it to be distinct. After some time, DoT decided to evaluate the products to identify one as part of standardisation of billing software across the country. Our product got the highest mark and that’s how SunTec’s software became nation’s standard for billing. It was called Computerised Telecom Revenue Accounting System or C-TRA. Internally, DoT referred to it as Thrissur Billing Package. But we had no exclusivity. Consequently, other vendors were asked to upgrade their product to match with ours,” he says.

Later, DoT went for national level bidding. “The vendors were supposed to supply hardware, install them and implement the project. Our business model then was to partner with hardware vendors and undertake software installation on their behalf. Whenever DoT invited bids for software deployment alone, we bid directly. Altogether, we worked for DoT in around 200 sites across the country,” he says.

SUNTEC GOING GLOBAL

Once the Indian telecom market got exhausted, SunTec started looking beyond boundaries. This was the era when world over governments were opening up telecom sector for private investment. “Since I have never travelled outside, I had no idea about how to visualise what kind of capabilities they would require. In those days, every bit of knowledge or awareness about something was a phenomenal differentiator.”

Hearing the Indian telecom story, Unisys in Singapore approached SunTec seeking its service to set up a billing system. “I came to know only later that Unisys was bidding for Pakistan Telecom. Eventually, we lost the bid for obvious reasons. However, we had the opportunity to go through the RFP and got a fair understanding of the deliverables in international market,” he says.

‘‘SunTec helped us implement one of the most successful loyalty programmes in the Middle Eastern region. This has worked very well for us in terms of revenue as well as increasing customer engagement and loyalty. The SunTec product roadmap is aligned to what Mashreq Bank wants to do going forward and I’m confident this will empower the bank to have more productive, accurate and targeted campaigns towards our customers.’’

– Thasherif Sait, Vice President, Customer Loyalty, Mashreq Bank

In the meantime, SunTec conceptualised and developed its own product – Telecom Billing Managements System (TBMS). Sometime in 1996, SunTec got a lead that a telecom operator in Malaysia, who had set up the wireless network, required billing software. “When they went out to procure billing software, they realised that a typical deployment would take 12 to 18 months. That means, the operator could not bill during that period and it had to survive without any income. I contacted the CTO of the company, who was a New Zealander. He asked if we had done this outside India. I said no. That conversation ended there,” he says.

The billing software, says N K, is one among several aspects of telecom operations. “But it is very critical. Imagine a soap manufacturer. The chemical composition of all soaps is the same. You differentiate them at the end in terms of its colour, fragrance and packaging. The capability to do that makes the difference. The billing system is equivalent to that. The companies were very particular that they picked proven players. So, they always did due diligence while choosing a vendor,” he says.

N K again reached out to the company. “I told the CTO that SunTec could deliver the software very quickly. Then he asked me what you mean by quick. I told him that we did the project in India within six months and that could be used as the yardstick. I assured him to complete the work in 30 to 40 days. Then the CEO, CTO and CFO came down to Kochi for discussion. They also had a conversation with officials of DoT in Thrissur. Though they gave us 45 days I could produce the first bill within 30 days,” N K adds.

THE DUTCH GATEWAY

Though its Pakistan project did not materialise, Unisys took SunTec as their partner, paving the way for SunTec to scale new heights. “However, something unexpected happened. From 1996 to 1998, we participated in around 20 bids globally but we could win none. Even if we were technically qualified, ultimately when it came to brand evaluation, we lost. Our limited exposure outside India cost us dear. Finally, we decided to change our strategy. We offered the clients that we will prove our capability before signing the order at the evaluation stage itself at our own expense. We did that during a pitch in Hungary in Europe. And they were all thrilled. Again, we lost as the competitor was powerful enough to cancel the bid itself to walk away with the deal,” N K says.

However, it opened up another opportunity for SunTec. One of the evaluators for the Hungary bid was a top official from Logica, a multinational IT and management consultancy company in Europe. “He asked me if we could do the work for its project in Holland as the existing vendor failed to deliver. If we could implement the process very quickly, they were ready to replace the existing vendor. We finished the work in 30 days. The evaluation was tough as the company actually got the other vendor to vet it. It marked our entry into Europe and the company became the reference for us. Within two years, we got about 14 clients in Europe,” he says.

RELATIONSHIP-BASED PRICING (RBP)

During the dot-com boom (a period of phenomenal growth in the use and adaptation of the internet by businesses and consumers which started in the late ’90s) telecom sector witnessed the evolution of a lot of new products. “We needed to upgrade our system very fast. One thing I realised was that the telecom companies were trying to put in place a customer-centric pricing strategy. I thought why should we limit it to telecom alone. We could very well use it in any other industry. That’s how we came up with this concept called RBP. Thus we converted our product into a platform to suit the requirements of different sectors. Thus TBMS became Transaction Business Management System (TBMS later got rebranded as Xelerate in 2013). As telecom industry’s growth became stagnant, we moved into banking. We were the pioneers in that space. There was no such thing called RBP in that sector. It was a completely new concept. ING was the first client followed by Lloyds Bank in UK, HSBC, ICICI Bank and Citibank in the US,” he says.

So what is RBP? “Let me explain it from the banking perspective. Suppose you have been maintaining an account in one bank for many years. But when you go for a mortgage some other banks may offer you a cheaper rate. The question is if other banks can offer cheaper rate why can’t your bank do the same despite you being a customer for long? Your bank knows all kind of transactions that you make, and if they really want, they can clearly assess your financial health. But did they use that while making decisions? The answer was no. RBP involves the process in which the system finds out answers for the bank so that it can be as customer-centric as possible,” he explains.

PRODUCT MINDSET

SunTec is now investing heavily on a new platform which can meet the challenges posed by the current transformations happening in the telecom, banking and retail sectors as a result of the advent of AI, Big Data Analytics and Machine Learning technologies. “We are getting ready with a platform which will equip our clients to meet the challenges posed by all these transformations. Our organisation’s DNA would completely transform into a kind of product mindset. Let’s take the example of a cat and a tiger. Both of them got 95 per cent of their DNA same. The variations are there only in a few characteristics. Analysing and understanding that difference is what product mindset is all about. Customers are asking for variants of one product. Each time I can either create a cat or a tiger. The success of a truly product company lies in understanding that insight and programming for it. Nature has done it that way. If you can mimic it, you may get a dynamic solution. At this moment, we are regrouping, refocussing and getting that capability first and then trying to grow faster. A significant chunk of my investment goes for R&D. I had even spent more than 50 per cent of the budget for research. Initially, the whole R&D set up was at Technopark. To attract more talent, we expanded it to Bengaluru and now I have a person in Silicon Valley, too,” he says.

FUNDING GROWTH

As SunTec became successful and got noticed globally, they were approached by Warburg Pincus, the American Private Equity firm, offering capital in 2000. “Their idea was to create total software solutions for telecom companies since they were investing heavily in the sector. They gave SunTec a phenomenal valuation. I could have retired then with the kind of money they offered, to be honest. We were not even a million-dollar company then. Till that time, we were completely organic. There was no external funding at all. At the same time, the Singapore-based Schroder also approached us. They committed $6 million, the largest investment received by an IT company in Kerala then. We had the right to draw the fund in three installments. I took four million because that’s when the financial downturn happened. They were with us for about eight years. Later, we bought back the stakes on certain percentage return and they exited in 2008,” he said.

Currently, 60 per cent of SunTec’s business comes from the banking sector followed by telecom with 35 per cent. Other sectors, including travel, constitute the remaining five per cent. Had SunTec continued the growth, it would have been a billion-dollar company back in 2010. However, due to the global financial meltdown, SunTec’s major clients perished. “These external factors have dampened our growth. We were also slightly ahead of the market need. We may not reach the billion dollar club by 2020. But we would see exponential growth in the coming three to four years as the market is truly becoming digital. We had planned IPO twice earlier. On both occasions it did not work out. Within the next three to five years, it is a possibility. That’s my current thought process. PE could come in at any point of time and then lead to an IPO. In today’s terms, once PE comes in, they would stitch multiple companies together. I have also invested in companies which will be converging with our business. These are in Kerala, San Francisco and LA. All are in pureplay technologies. In the future, we may not own all these companies. We can have a partner ecosystem also, he adds.

FUTURE CHALLENGES

“The very basic thing about humans is that our aspirations and capacities are boundless. I am trying to climb a mountain. Once I reach there, my aspiration would be to climb the next big one. Can this be construed as greed? No, it is the very basic nature of universe. People are not able to visualise the kind of disruption that would come that is going to revamp the way in which the business is conducted world over. In the next five to 10 years, every physical work will become automated. Within the next two decades, the world will be faced with singularity, a stage where artificial intelligence would overtake human intelligence. Definitely, there will be a problem in the short term. It may change the basic existence of human society. Today you cannot exist without you earning livelihood. Imagine, that’s getting replaced by a universal basic income. It might completely create a possibility you had never ever thought of. For instance, with much free time at their disposal, people may decide to travel extensively, thereby causing the travel industry to flourish like anything. Similarly, the nature of job may undergo sea change. Driver-less cars prompting a role-change for drivers as travel guides may be a good example of this. With driving becoming a stress free experience, people may gradually utilise that time and effort to engage in productive works. Hence, as an entrepreneur the future looks really challenging. We are equipping ourselves to ride any wave that’s going to come our way.’’

Despite his hectic schedule, N K has never stopped learning. He still does coding and stays constantly updated with latest technological advancements. “Continuous learning helps hone your skills. While reviewing a product architecture, if I need to add value I should know it equally well or better than its architects. Maybe I lack a certain level of knowledge on a particular platform. But I work very closely with our technical team today and even challenge them often,” he says.

Its association with a reputed venture capital firm has helped SunTec establish a thorough professional set up. Every year, it produces a balance sheet exactly like a listed company and engages KPMG for doing this. According to N K, big deals always require complete financial as well as organisational due diligence. “Every function has to contribute significantly by itself. I travel almost 200 days in a year and there is no scope for micro management. I am virtually connected, do most meeting through video conferencing. Depending upon the nature of the client, I will have to chip in at a particular stage. Of late, my involvement at the front-facing function is very limited. My role is mostly confined to shaping the future course,” he says. Other members of SunTec’s Board of Directors are Deepak Calian Vaidya, Asha Nanda Kumar and G Vijayaraghavan.

THE CHANGE I WANT TO SEE

‘‘Make the entire education relevant to today’s job market. If Kerala can do that one thing, it will be phenomenal; one decision by the Government that there will be continuous review of syllabus every year. The business environment is going to change drastically. Algorithm is going to rule the world tomorrow,’’ he says.

Rising by lifting others

The CSR activities at SunTec are led by SNEHA (Sustainable Nurturing of society through Education and Health Actions), an employee-driven group. The management matches each rupee that is donated by its employees to SNEHA. Some of the activities of SNEHA include providing scholarships for deserving children, supporting orphanages and old age homes, funding sanitation activities in tribal areas, conducting cancer detection camps for women in the poorer strata of society and the like.

Looking back, N K says he has enjoyed each and every day of his 27-year-long entrepreneurial journey. “That’s my advice to all those startup ventures coming up here. Don’t get carried away by the fantasy of valuations. It is only an outcome of what you achieve. You should be very convinced about your business model, sustain it and enjoy the journey,” he says. For him, starting a global product company from Kerala was a burning desire. “I could have run this company from anywhere in the world. But, I wanted to make a social impact here,” he adds.

Asked about succession planning, N K says: “If you truly have to live up to your potential, you have to live everyday like your last day. That’s the mindset you should have. I believe there is no meaning in creating any kind of dependency. I am not putting any pressure on both my kids who have done business studies. My son is studying in Boston University and daughter is doing a course in University of Texas in Austin. I have given them the freedom to do whatever they love to do. In this field, you can run a business only if you are functionally good. Otherwise, you should sit as an investor. Professional capabilities alone make one eligible to lead the company.”

N K’s basic nature is intensely inquisitive. Whatever he does, he would like to have a fair understanding about it. As a leader, he strongly believes in influencing people rather than giving instructions. “I always try to guide my employees wherever possible. Excitement comes from seeing them achieve success. My role is to mentor and make people see the possibilities that I see. I try to make them understand the potential of that opportunity and work on that,” says N K, who is a pious practitioner of yoga and meditation.

“How best you can manage your mind defines how successful you are in leading others. That’s when I thought of practising yoga and meditation. I do it thrice a day – an hour in the morning and a 15-minute-long session each before lunch and in the evening,” N K signs off.