Wealth Issue 2017: Comeback Kids

Ritu Grover, 48, Founder, The Global Helpdesk

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‘There was a huge setback and I had a daunting task ahead,’ says Ritu Grover

Ritu Grover shifted to New Zealand in 2004 when her facility management business back home in India was flourishing, after she fell in love with the tranquillity of the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’, its breathtaking landscapes, volcanoes, natural geysers and people. In the process, she let the business she had built from scratch slide, prioritising her move to Kiwiland, her husband and daughter, above her career.

But the attraction of exotica wasn’t destined to last long. She returned to India two years later and was committed to rebuilding her business that had shrunk drastically with key clients drifting away. “There was a huge setback, and I had a daunting task ahead— foremost of all, winning back old clients who were veering away in my absence,” says Grover, who currently lives in Delhi’s Sainik Farms locality, home to many of the national capital’s affluent.

When she took charge of her business again—which by then had competitors unlike when she had started off seven years earlier— she knew it was going to be a Herculean task, especially in a market segment where customers invariably preferred reliable partners who were always just a call away. But she had been away in the Auckland countryside, vowing to live there forever. After all, a quiet life with her family was a bigger consideration than any other, she had thought.

Grover had always had a penchant for rediscovering herself in new avatars. From an Army family, she started an interior-design business as early as 1988, the very day she graduated from South Delhi Polytechnic. That was before she went to the US and Australia for higher studies. Within a decade of founding her interior- design business in her early twenties, she had reinvented herself as a pioneer: as a facility manager, which in the late 1990s was unheard of.

The evolution wasn’t smooth, but the transition was rapid. In the beginning, Grover, whose interior-design activities were mostly in Delhi, was happy to slog for days to please her customers who remained fastidious regardless. She didn’t care so long as she was respected for her work and was paid promptly. Her design business flourished as Delhi and its adjoining areas such as Gurgaon and parts of Noida underwent a construction boom. “From residential interior work, my first company [Cherry Hill] started working for corporates and entities such as ITDC, which had been expanding in tier-2 cities not far from Delhi, like Dehradun,” says the 48-year-old.

Grover began doing extremely well in that business, securing prized contracts such as one to refurbish the British Council Library ahead of the visit of the British Queen Elizabeth II in 1997. She remembers an interesting anecdote of that project. Working with a skeletal team, she had finished coordinating various elements and had left for Dharamshala to unwind. She and her husband drove all the way to the hill station when she received an SOS call from one of her assistants that everything was in disarray back at work and that she had to return immediately. Those were times when mobile phones were a luxury and landline connections were unreliable in the hills. She took a reverse turn and drove 12 hours back to Delhi and reworked everything that had gone off-plan, leaving nothing to chance. “I was much appreciated for the work, got to shake hands with the Queen and have tea with her,” Grover says with a twinkle in her eye.

The magnetism of this sector was so strong that I took the risk of rebuilding my business

After her child was born in 1998, however, she began facing problems balancing her work, which required a lot of travelling, with household demands—a major dilemma for working mothers around the world. If her mixer-grinder stopped working, it wouldn’t get repaired for months. She did not have what she calls the “gift of time” to handle such chores.

That’s when an idea hit her in a flash, a sort of a revelation, and it would entirely alter the way she did business. She started thinking about an opportunity to offer services to people like herself, who had to leave at dawn from home and could not return until midnight, and those who frequently had to spend days away at a stretch. “My bills were unpaid and certain other arrears were mounting because I worked all days of the week and was never at home,” says Grover, recalling the moment her business idea was born. “The idea just imploded in my mind,” she says. To hang a name on the business was not easy. Back in the late 1990s, ‘facility management’ was a term largely unknown except in some parts of the world. In India, it was almost non-existent, and the in-house teams handling such services within companies were often considered unprofessional and sloppy.

Almost wrapping up her interior-design business, Grover hired two untrained young boys to distribute leaflets with a list of 20 offerings to help corporates keep their employees happy. It was the year 1999, and she called her firm The Global Helpdesk (TGH). These young men were despatched to business houses along Mathura Road and Nehru Place in Delhi to bring back visiting cards of their HR executives. Grover began to randomly shoot off mails to each of them. After weeks of unsuccessful emailing, she finally got a call from an executive of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) asking if she could meet them for a chat. They met and she had her first deal.

TGH currently offers a bouquet of services to high-profile clients including TCS, which is still among her corporate clients, McKinsey, PepsiCo and so on—over 300 of them till date. TGH offers all kinds of facility management services to employees of these companies that range from getting them passports and visas to managing their insurance policies and investments; payment of bills of all types; laundry and sport events and holiday management; vehicle-related services; events management; babysitting; and so on. Such services are especially useful for companies who need to relocate employees to new townships or centres that have just been developed—from arranging gas connections to booking air tickets to organising all kinds of concierge services.

It was not always an easy ride for the Jalandhar-born Grover. The HR and admin staff she met during the first few years couldn’t understand what exactly she was offering. Some of them even laughed off the idea of availing facility management services for a fee. “We have been doing it for donkey’s years,” they bragged.

But companies such as TCS that were relocating staff to newly developed suburbs in Gurgaon and Noida understood the benefits. Facility management comprises two components: hard services and soft. The hard ones include electrical services, IT, power backup, technical services, LPG supply, sewage treatments plants and almost everything about a project that ‘people don’t see’. Soft services— for which even hotels sign up—include everything from cleaning to furniture procurement that ‘people see’. TGH, which offers integrated services with a full-time staff of more than 400 and about 1,200 freelancers, is a leader of sorts in the segment of soft services, all of which are now entirely automated.

We are devising new methods to spur the next lines of growth and stay ahead of the competition

Facility management is a fast-growing business. According to a September 2016 report by Marketsandmarkets.com, the size of the global facility management market is estimated to grow from $28.9 billion last year to nearly $56.7 billion over the next five years, at a compound annual growth rate of 14.4 per cent, with cloud-based platforms, compliance needs, and changing work cultures leading this expansion. The local market, in which TGH enjoyed a first-mover advantage until Grover shifted based to New Zealand, is expected to grow at a rate of around 17 per cent till 2020 and touch $19.4 billion by 2020, according to an estimate by Global Infrastructure Facilities and Project Managers Association.

Despite the vacuum that her two-year stint abroad created in the business, Grover says, her company has grown 300 per cent from 2006 till date. That was the year she re-entered the business with a vengeance to rebuild sagging fortunes. Her company, which earns revenues of Rs 80-100 crore a year, plans to work closely with the Government and expand aggressively to tier-2, tier-3 and tier-4 cities such as Ludhiana, Bhubaneswar, Indore and so on, signing up clients in new territories. As of now, the company is present in seven cities: Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai, Pune and Kolkata.

Grover’s two-year-hiatus is a chapter in her personal life she is tight-lipped about and perhaps wants to forget; instead, she prefers talking about her business interests. During that period, Grover made only 5-6 trips to India and realised that the business was declining. By the time the slide reaching worrying proportions, she was back in the country to revitalise her company, now close to 20 years old. As luck would have it, she proved to be a rainmaker for the business she founded and continues to steer. Her list of clients is colourful: besides her first two clients McKinsey and TCS, she also has on board hundreds more multinationals including PepsiCo, Deloitte, Huawei, L&T Infotech, General Electric, HSBC, Microsoft, Wipro, Airtel, Schneider, KPMG, Ericsson, PWC, Ernst & Young, and Vodafone. In a business where profit margins are typically 18-19 per cent, Grover expects the small-town foray to boost earnings in a big way.

Grover concedes that lately foreign players such as Jones Lang LaSalle Inc and CBRE Group have been offering her company stiff competition, thanks to their global reach and experience. “But then we are devising new methods to spur the next lines of growth and stay ahead of the competition, especially in our core business where we are the market leader in India: soft facility management,” says Grover, who is a keen golfer and rally driver; she has won various rallies in north India.

TGH has designed in-house software on its own that allows clients to tick items off an extensive menu of services, with varying costs based on the urgency of the situation. The same-day delivery of a package from one company site to another, for instance, may cost Rs 400, but if it is scheduled for two to four days later, it could be as low as Rs 50. Clients are billed at the end of a mutually agreed-upon period, and the software is customised for each client depending on actual needs. “Our business model is based on economies of scale,” explains Grover, who has even helped foreign multinational employees get driving licences issued.

“The biggest advantage of hiring a concierge services company is that they are a one-stop shop for all our demands and grievances. Most often we have had smooth working relations with them and they provide really good services. They spare us a lot of headaches and that in turn helps employees focus on their jobs better. These days no company can run their operations without their help. [Facility management] is an industry that has come to stay,” says a senior IBM executive based in Bengaluru. “It is also a sort of recession-proof segment. Even if companies want to shift to cheaper locations, they are needed,” he adds.

For Grover though, it was a dream come true in many ways. She started her business to cater to people like herself who are short of time trying to meet both home and work commitments. Her company even provides services that help working parents in distress. She narrates the story of a husband who was at his wits’ end because his wife had left for work, leaving her keys inside the house and their daughter was to arrive shortly from school. He himself could not go home due to an important meeting. His admin team reached out to TGH. By the time the child arrived, Grover’s people were waiting for her with a sealed package: the home key picked up from her father’s workplace.

“The magnetism of this business was so [strong] that I took the risk of rebuilding my business 11 years ago. I took a great risk. And I am proud of what I have been able to do,” states Grover, a self- confessed disciplinarian like her army officer father and a stickler for perfection like her horticulturist mother. Like a consummate rally driver, Grover’s single- minded focus now is on the next major expansion move. The twists and turns are just part of an exhilarating journey.

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