Ajit Isaac, Chairman, Managing Director & CEO, Quess Corp, has used a combination of organic growth and friendly acquisitions to build a company with a market cap of over Rs. 11,000 crore within a span of 10 years.
While I waited to meet Ajit Isaac, Chairman, Managing Director & CEO, Quess Corp at its headquarters in Bangalore, I stumbled upon his image on the first page of ET Panache, the lifestyle supplement of Economic Times. The article that caught my eye was titled “If I weren’t a CEO….” and one of the CEOs who had responded was Isaac. He had said, “If I weren’t an entrepreneur, I’d be exploring the world of white wines in New Zealand.”
As I began my interview with the leader, I asked him the same question; If you weren’t an entrepreneur…and before I could finish, Isaac responded: “The reality is I wouldn’t have it any other way. The experience of investing some capital, hiring people and building a business is so gratifying that you’re consumed by it. It is time very well spent and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“For me and almost every good entrepreneur, the business is everything; It is not a second choice. You need to have the belief and the discipline. You may have to take some tough calls, but that’s part of the game,” he adds.
Today, Quess Corp employs close to 200,000 people to serve 1700+ clients across 9 countries. In FY 2016-17, the company brought in revenues of Rs. 4,157 crore, clocking a growth of 21 per cent compared to FY 2015-16. Its EBITDA grew to Rs. 223 crore, a growth of over 47 per cent compared to the previous fiscal and PAT margins saw healthy growth as well.
Quess Corp, which is a leading business services provider, is a collection of over 21 businesses across four key verticals – People & Services, Global Technology Solutions, Integrated Facility Management & Industrials. In the last 7 years, the company has completed 17 acquisitions, and each of these businesses have scaled up rapidly, while at the same time used technology to bring in cost efficiency to operations.
When asked about the best lesson he’s learnt through the last 10 years, Isaac went on to explain what he calls the ‘Model of 3Cs’ that has been at the core of his decision-making armoury. “Through the process of founding a company, maturing it and scaling it, I would say there are three elements that are crucial. One, raise the right amount of cash. There are several people who’ve had to stop mid-way because they ran out of cash. Two, the aspect of delivering to customers. For this, you need to have the right business model, optimal pricing, quality product and service. And, the third element is colleagues – the people aspect of your business. I’d say the three Cs are crucial to any business.”
Isaac was drafted in as founder and CEO of Quess Corp (then called Ikya Human Capital) in 2007 by a PE fund that had invested in the company. Thanks to the recession, it was a time when hiring was slowing down and the market for a new HR services company was shaky. At the time, Ikya was burning close to Rs. 1 crore every month and Isaac was given the task of turning things around.
I’ve seen the way Mr. Prem Watsa works and it has truly inspired our approach. For him, relationships are extremely important; He adopts a very decentralized approach and is fundamentally decisive by nature. All the decision-making is fact-based and all these approaches came in very handy during our IPO
– Isaac on his investor & role model, Prem Watsa of Fairfax Holdings
By his own admission, Isaac’s first 90 days at the company was about damage control – closing down loss-making divisions, shutting down offices and scaling down operations. “The mandate was to turn cash positive,” says Isaac.
By 2008, the company rejigged its business activities to focus only on staffing, thanks to the experience of the leadership team in this field.
In 2009, the company made its first acquisition, that of Avon, the facilities management company and in 2010 it acquired Magna Infotech, the IT Staff Augmentation provider. With these two acquisitions the company transitioned from being a pure-play HR services company to becoming a business services platform. By 2010, the company was cash positive and Isaac believes the company was very comfortable having an acquisitive mind set. Isaac believes that Quess was very good in a couple of aspects right from the early days; One, in identifying good assets and taking a business to the next level and two, in getting the execution absolutely right.
At a broader level, Isaac embraces a highly de-centralised approach to decision-making. “Each of the businesses is run by a President. In this office, we focus on only three things – capital allocation, goal setting and performance review, and leadership development.” There is also a shared services centre to manage functions like payroll, accounts payables and receivables, on-boarding, technology and marketing communications.
The scale up phase
From an acquisitions standpoint, the leader is convinced that friendly acquisitions are crucial – backing a management team and giving them a platform to scale the business further. Till date, Quess has made acquisitions across a range of sizes – from a million dollars to US $100 million. Going forward, the company is scouting around for acquisitions in the US $10 million size and a few smaller acquisitions to fulfil the digital roadmap.
Isaac adds, “A lot of people ask me what is your acquisition strategy? My strategy is a simple one – wait for my phone to ring. We predominantly know what kind of companies we’d like to add to our portfolio. For example, we’ve a robust security services brand, but may not have an asset in electronic security systems. Or, for that matter, we may have a wonderful set of brands in facilities management, but we may want to acquire a pest control company. Of course, I am quoting these as examples.”
From an organized growth perspective, Isaac and his team have a thumb rule they try to adopt: Grow at 4 times the GDP. So, the aspiration is to grow at 20 per cent every year organically and layer this with inorganic growth.
On the acquisitions front, there are some fundamental approaches that are followed. Quess has not sold any companies it has acquired so far; The company will not invest in regulatory arbitrage and an acquisition is made primarily for cash flows. “We look for adjacencies within our 4 key verticals. If a company comes in with a good asset, we’re happy to look at it,” says Isaac.
Prem Watsa-backed Fairfax Holdings has been a crucial partner in this scale up journey of Quess Corp. In addition to capital, the relationship has also brought in a lot of trust in the brand and that has worked well for the firm. Isaac considers Watsa to be a role model and mentor; “I’ve seen the way Mr. Prem Watsa works and it has truly inspired our approach. For him, relationships are extremely important; He adopts a very decentralized approach and is fundamentally decisive by nature. All the decision-making is fact-based and all these approaches came in very handy during our IPO,” explains Isaac.
Each of the businesses is run by a President. In this office, we focus on only three things – capital allocation, goal setting and performance review, and leadership development.
Isaac on his decentralized approach to decision-making
Isaac believes that operating a private and public company are very different from each other. “The way you respond to a situation, reporting and transparency and expectation management are all extremely crucial for a public company. We need to have internal processes to be able to add predictability to our revenues,” adds Isaac.
Prior to the IPO, Quess Corp worked on upgrading it processes – internal and external. “During our IPO, it was important to clearly communicate our guiding principles and also explain the mind set and approach of the people behind the company,” says Isaac. For a company like Quess, there were advantages to going public; As a public company, one can pay by stock for acquisitions, entice better quality assets to acquire, and also attract high quality talent and clients. “Once you become public, you start believing that you are building an institution of permanence. And, that can make a big difference to how you approach situations,” believes Isaac.
In July 2016, Quess Corp listed at Rs 500, a 58 per cent premium against its issue price of Rs 317 per share on the National Stock Exchange. On the Bombay Stock Exchange, the stock opened at Rs 499 and over 1.4 million shares were traded on both the stock exchanges on day-1 of listing. The Rs. 400 crore IPO had a wonderful response, with the issue getting subscribed 144 times, among the highest for an Indian IPO. As of late October 2017, the company has a market cap of little over Rs. 11,000 crore.
The future roadmap
Going forward, one new vertical Quess plans to add to its repertoire is Government services including public infrastructure management, smart city services, health services, etc. The company is also sprucing up its digital roadmap, exploring digitization of multiple processes, IoT for industrials and enhancing efficiency using digitization.
Of course, the roadmap also includes organic growth of all key businesses, potential acquisitions across verticals and even potentially launching new, home-grown businesses.
As we draw this interview to a close, Isaac believes that there is one aspect that will remain crucial in the next phase of Quess Corp. “It is our ability to keep our culture intact, attract valuable, competent people, and ensure speed and agility in taking action.” I ask if that’ll be a challenge with over 2 lakh people, but pat comes the response. “It is about breaking it down and decentralizing,” he wraps up.
Key Verticals at Quess Corp
Note: Numbers as per Quess Corp’s FY2016-17 annual report
People & Services
- Crossed a landmark of 1,00,000 associates in general staffing (in October 2016), closing the year with a headcount of over 1,10,000.
- 16,000 students trained and up-skilled across 66 training centres in India.
- Delivered 4 Million packages for major e-commerce players in 2017 – One package every two seconds across the 15 cities
Global Technology Solutions
- Market leaders in IT Staffing in India and Singapore with more than 10,000 technology professionals engaged at marquee IT firms.
- Quess’ Insurance platform processes P&C policies worth over $3 Bn in annual premium.
Integrated Facility Management Services
- Manage 2 world-class airports, 17 hospitals (~10,000 beds) and 6 universities.
- Catering business serves 5 Million meals per month
- Run critical processes behind 3,750 MW of power, 22 MTPA of Steel and 7 MTPA of non-ferrous metals.
- Help maintain 21,000 telecom towers; instrumental in the roll out of 4G in India
- Managed 2 Mn electrical meters in the past year
Financial Highlights FY 2016-17
21% Y-o-Y Growth
47% Y-o-Y Growth
40% Y-o-Y Growth
Cash Flow from Operations
Free Cash FlowLeadership Quess Corp Ajit Isaac