As the financial crisis continues to grip markets and businesses worldwide, is there any clarity as to the consequences for the sourcing sector? We hosted a roundtable debate looking at the short- and long-term impact of the turmoil on the sourcing space; our editor was joined by some of the keenest minds in sourcing to analyse the possible repercussions, the potential winners and losers – and steps industry players can take to minimise the impact on their businesses.
Senior Managing Director of Outsourcing/Shared Services & Offshoring
Research Director, BPO, Offshoring & IT Services
VP Research & Advisory Services
Managing Director, Financial Services
Brian D Smith
Partner & Managing Director, Financial Services
Dr. Thomas Tunstall
Q: Let’s kick off with the immediate future: how do you see the short-term impact of the financial crisis playing out across the outsourcing sector?
Brian Smith: I think we’ve seen we’ve seen some impact here already; people are starting to think carefully about discretionary projects, particularly in the application development space. But we’ve seen less impact on day-to-day BPO-type activity which is outsourced and offshored, I think largely because the financial crisis has had more of an impact on credit and the capital structure of organizations, and less impact at this point on operating volumes.
I think what we’re seeing is a slowdown in discretionary activity – but that will pick up again at some point as people get back to realizing their projects to execute against – and then the string of mergers that are taking place particularly here in the US as well as in Europe is obviously going to spawn a degree of activity in restructuring. I think that will impact the captive side of life; I think we’ll see more activity there. So my thought would be that we’re going to see a lull followed by a large amount of activity.
Q: To what extent do you think the mergers that have taken place have been driven directly by the crisis rather than having already been in the works?
Brian Smith: I would say most of the big mergers that have taken place here are directly related to the financial crisis. I suspect very few, if any, were even on the cards three months ago.
Tony Rawlinson: Picking up on that, I think we see the economics at the moment both disrupting and driving outsourcing. On the one hand there’s certainly a disruption in the short term, an impact on project budgets, a deferral of capital expenditure, a deferral of all but mission-critical projects especially in financial services. Conversely our view is that the credit crunch and economic downturn mean that structurally outsourcing and offshoring are even more useful strategic tools going forward.
I’d share Brian’s view that there’s going to be a short pause before the true implications of the market crystallise, and then a forceful push for cost-reduction – but also a recognition that the winners now in recessionary times are going to turn their service delivery model into something that’s a lot more flexible. I think the winners in recessionary times will already be thinking about their sourcing strategy for what comes after the recession; the flipside of flexibility in a downturn is a need to switch on as the upcurve starts again.
Q: You said a short pause: how long do you think that short pause is going to be?
Tony Rawlinson: I think it’s going to be market-specific; my sense is that the US is further through that process than the UK and continental Europe. Some institutions are still, frankly, focused on survival – I’m going to meetings with institutions that are clearly worried about their continued existence – but over the next month or so we should have a lot more clarity. The other interesting flavour of course in the US, the UK and increasingly in continental Europe is the impact of the virtual nationalization or semi-nationalization of some institutions; we see that potentially impacting the political attitude to offshoring at a time when offshoring is clearly going to help address the short-term cost objectives of some of these players. So there are some interesting forces at work here, some of them pulling in different directions, and I think all will become a lot clearer over the next few weeks.
Phil Fersht: There are some interesting discussion points here and I’m inclined to agree with them. We went out of our way to speak with 44 of the major US financial institutions over the last two or three weeks to really gauge what their short- and medium-term plans are with regards to embracing outsourcing, and naturally the short-term focus is very much on stability and understanding how the hell this is going to play out for them. Taking 20 or 30 per cent off the bottom line is a nice-to-have, but at this moment just knowing you’re going to be around is taking precedence. However, the way things seem to be moving, I think people are going to have a pretty strong idea in the next month about stability, about M&A – I think we’ll see a lot of the M&A start to happen in the next few weeks as this thing starts to settle down a bit – and then the process is going to move on towards further optimization in the back office, further means to find cost-containment and broader-scale strategies.
In addition to that, there’s definitely a change in mindset amongst the finance operations leaders in terms of embracing outsourcing as a strategic vehicle for longer-term plans to cut costs – and being perceived to do so. When we spoke to these institutions, 40 per cent of them said they were going to increase their spend and their impetus towards outsourcing in the next 6 months and only 15 per cent said they were going to decrease that. And when we break that down further, it’s the banking sector that has the strongest impetus to increase outsourcing; nearly half the banks – all the usual suspects going through this meltdown right now – said they were increasing their impetus towards outsourcing, and only 10 per cent were decreasing. When we get into other areas like insurance it’s a much more neutral effect; it’s definitely the banking sector that’s driving this.
When we get a bit deeper into the actual specific areas they’re looking to get quick hits from, it’s the bread-and-butter areas of outsourcing which don’t require massive amounts of upfront transformation, where they’ve already done some educational exploration and some evaluation, and it’s areas like banking BPO, application outsourcing, and F&A BPO that are clearly those that are going to offer the lower-hanging fruit opportunities. Taking the areas like core financials, core HR, bringing them out into third-party models quickly and effectively, is where we see a lot of activity in probably the middle of Q1, Q2, Q3 next year; we’re expecting to see a big spike in contracts being signed, but we don’t think they’re going to be very large contracts, we’re expecting to see a lot of small-to-medium-size contracts as companies try and move quickly into engagements that are more workable.
The short-term areas that we’re seeing a drop-off include areas like IT infrastructure. Any IT staff augmentation projects seem to be a negative right now; anything discretionary is definitely being put on the back burner; things like HR outsourcing are definitely being put on the back burner in the near-term as companies look to have quicker, more impacting areas to move into. Then when we look at the sort of 6-to-12-month timeframe, we see a much stronger bend towards things like mortgage BPO, or even HRO coming back, and areas like staff augmentation have to come into play. When you think about Wells Fargo and Wachovia merging, that’s a ton of systems integration that has to go on. Wachovia had a very broad, well-documented BPO and ITO strategy, Wells Fargo is not traditionally a big adopter of broad outsourcing, so how are these companies going to align? Which road are they going to go down? We think outsourcing is going to be one of them.
Q: Charles, is this reflected in how your clients are approaching the crisis at the moment?
Charles Aird: I would say yes and no. I think for the traditional back office that everybody’s been talking about, the answer is yes, short-term; there’s definitely a pause, people are trying to figure out what their existence is going to be and it’s taking longer for them to make decisions. However, having said that, we do a lot of work around sourcing with clients in manufacturing, R&D, and other areas both for captive and outsourcing – and we’re not seeing a significant change for those organizations, because, as you’ll find, research shows that the US just isn’t turning out science and technology people anymore – well, I shouldn’t say that, universities are, but people are going back to India and China, to their home countries – and so we don’t have the skills in the US to do a lot of the work that needs to be done for the US economy. So outsourcing’s now embedded in organizations.
Plus we see a lot of organizations that we work with are using outsourcing as a means to penetrate markets that they haven’t been in before, particularly in developing countries; we see those things continuing. But definitely in the BPO, ITO environments – particularly over the last month or six weeks – organizations are loath to spend, so they’re looking for ways – creative ways, which I think probably helps the outsourcing service providers – to finance some of these deals, particularly the upfront part of them that deals with transition costs and may be involved with severance, consulting fees, legal fees, whatever it may be. And interestingly enough we’re seeing some private equity firms with interest in providing some of the finance for doing this transformational kind of thing. So it’s becoming a much more interesting – remembering the Chinese proverb “may you live in interesting times” – environment to work in and it probably is going to stretch a number of organizations like ours in the consultancy and advisory markets in helping our clients get over the issues that they may be having.
Tom Tunstall: I would agree with that. One thing I do want to comment on, with regard to when we would see things getting clearer, and settling out, I think a month may be too optimistic – particularly considering the fairly massive government interventions taking place right now. I think it’s more likely it’ll be a full quarter before we see clients deciding upon, or being able to strategise around, increased use of outsourcing. The analogy I’ve heard used recently is the deer in the headlights – a lot of companies, particularly financial service firms have been caught off-guard by the depth of the financial turmoil.
I think it’s likely that’s the first-order effect. The second-order effect, we’re starting to see apart from banking is a cascade into insurance as well as other types of organizations. Automotive manufacturers are under stress, and other industries are likely to be affected as well. Probably consumer non-discretionary items are going to be least impacted, and if they are it’ll take the longest to occur. Unfortunately, financial services are probably just the first-order effect. As all of you know this often creates opportunities for outsourcing suppliers.
Q: So at least a quarter of uncertainty?
Tom Tunstall: I think so. If the markets had been allowed to correct, and to assign prices to the assets, then I think we might have had a sharper downturn but it would have occurred more quickly and we would have started to see some clarity. The government involvement creates more uncertainty and will stretch the timeline out for any sort of recovery.
Charles Aird: Until the credit crisis sorts itself out a lot of clients just aren’t able to get financing for operating capital, so we see clients just hanging onto their cash because of that kind of issue.
Phil Fersht: I think the election plays into this a little as well, in terms of who gets in; are there going to be any immediate strategies on bringing work back onshore? I think that’s another factor.
Katherine Kawamoto: I think what we’re seeing is that some decisions are starting to stall, particularly in areas related to outsourcing, and if companies are going to go forward with an outsourcing operation they’re proceeding very cautiously and are really waiting for the dust to settle. We’re hearing that budgets are starting to be looked at with more scrutiny and are starting to be reduced for the coming year, so some of the projects that people had anticipated rolling out in the first quarter are now on hold; that could be problematic for a number of the companies that we work with.
Q: Looking a bit further ahead, what do you think will be the impact on the sourcing industry over the next few years? Do we think this is going to lead to a general reorganization of sourcing providers?
Phil Fersht: I think for some of the up-and-coming Indian providers I think this might have come a little bit sooner than they’d wished. Yes, it’s creating a ton of opportunity, but the bigger question is: when the world’s in crisis, and companies are looking to find relationships that can take them to the next level – or that can get them out of this mess – are they willing to take a risk on a provider that doesn’t have a lot of experience. So I think that this might have come a little sooner than some of the providers may have wanted, whereas it may create an opportunity for some of the incumbents to cement their positions so they can ride out the storm and consolidate further. I think we’ll see some really step up and be successful; I think others will drop away quite quickly.
We’ll also see a move towards the ability to augment application development work with BPO, for example. Providers who can really prove that they’ve got their act together bringing together systems architects, business process analysts and application development people to work across broader business goals are really going to be more successful in the long term; those providers that are pure-play process or pure-play IT need to think very seriously about how they’re going to develop their solutions in the coming years.
Tony Rawlinson: I think it’s going to be quite situational. On the one hand firms like TCS – who’ve recently done what I take to be a very attractive deal to buy Citi’s BPO banking operations in India – clearly have a strategy to acquire service lines and scale up, and I think they’ll be successful. There’re clearly signs at the moment that it’s a buyer’s market, and some of the activity we will see will be more selective sales of captive operations – or if not that, certainly selective outsourcing of captive back office processes. I think conversely what we’ll also see emerging will be providers that continue to specialize. Some of the big Indian KPO players will not want to scale up. They won’t want to be reliant on having to make large capital investments. They’ll stick to their knitting. I think service providers with a clear strategy will be those that are successful.
To pick up on the point a minute ago, I think I’d agree too that actually it’s not so much the new deal activity that’s pivotal for a lot of these providers: it’s going to be extending, restructuring, realigning their existing outsourcing relationships with clients, in order to grow revenue for them but also to address client needs. We see a continuation – certainly in financial services – of center-led strategies to outsourcing being successful but conversely there are still a lot of institutions out there that are behaving quite dysfunctionally, at business-unit level or geography level, and those sort of buyers are still a real headache for providers to deal with.
Brian Smith: One observation I would make is that we’ve seen a lot of people looking at moving away from India over the last few months, and starting to look at different locations, and I suspect that this will cause some reconsideration of that because there will be – at least in the sort term – some capability in India that may not have been there previously as things slow down a bit, and this may cause people to stop looking elsewhere. In that sense, for the Indian provider community, this may not be as bad a thing as maybe could be construed.
Charles Aird: I agree with that. I think that the Indian market is not as attractive as it was before, but then I don’t consider a TCS or an Infosys to be an Indian company any more; they’re just as global as IBM as Accenture, and they’ve diversified very successfully into Eastern Europe and China and South America and places like that. But one of the things we’ve seen, just before this hit – and I wonder what the impact is going to be – is that we’ve found clients more comfortable with setting up captives in remote areas, in Eastern Europe, in China, in India, wherever, because of some perceived dissatisfaction with service providers. Service providers are getting spread really thin in their delivery teams. We’re all going for similar skill-sets, whether it’s a major service provider, one of the advisory firms like us and our competitors, or a client with its performance management and governance – and so the thing with service providers is that clients think they’re not getting out of the deals what they expected to, and start to think about going more into the captive environment. So it’ll be interesting to see over the next few months if that continues as a trend – and some of our research has shown that a lot of people are going to more captive – or if they will leverage the financing that I mentioned earlier through service providers to go the outsourcing route.
Tony Rawlinson: From an EquaTerra research perspective we’ve certainly seen signs of a slowdown in the trend to captives. I think we’re beginning to see now – depending on the market and the proposition of the provider – certainly a growing maturity and range of some service provider offerings, and I think I’d expect to see the credit crunch at least make financial institutions and other organizations reassess whether they want to be in the captive game, and certainly in some circumstances – as the Citi example has shown – to focus on core businesses and leverage the growing capability of some of these providers to pick up commodity services, whilst at the same time assessing which of the processes that are in their captives right now give them competitive differentiation, and making sure they hold onto those.
Brian Smith: Tony raises some good points there; we just did some benchmarking of captives in India and observed that the smaller captives – even the medium-sized captives – are not as efficient as third parties; it’s only the bigger ones that can achieve that degree of efficiency, and it tends to be the bigger ones which get sold, as we’ve seen happening twice recently. My sense is that I do agree that people do want to have captives, but sometimes the economics don’t support that decision and sometimes it’s more a politically or risk-driven decision.
Phil Fersht: We definitely don’t see a move back towards captives at all at AMR; it’s been much more of a shift away from that strategy, particularly for captives smaller than 150, 200 staff that are very challenging to run, very costly, and where in many cases the cost per transaction or the cost of managing staff has spiralled out of control. The other issue is finding providers that actually want to invest and buy them. You look at the financial services space right now and the cost per transaction or trade is through the roof at the moment – because you can’t lay off staff very easily in India, it’s very complex to do that – and at the same time these companies want to be more flexible. They want to have a more flexible infrastructure that can allow for future divestitures, and the common thinking is that an outsourced model allows for more flexibility in the future. We’ll see a few selective strategic acquisitions like TCS-Citi, and we may see Lehman and a few of the other captives get snapped up, but I don’t think this is going to be a broad trend. I just don’t think there’s enough appetite to buy all these captive centers. We’re going to see a lot of them being slowly phased out and merged into outsourcing operations. That’s the way we see things right now.
Q: Are you saying that – without wishing to be too melodramatic – we might witness the slow death of the captive?
Phil Fersht: I think unless you’re a big-brand, well-resourced organization where you want to invest in having high-quality processes running offshore – and a lot of the captives now are very high-quality, they do very good work, they’re just expensive – in a down-market or volatile market it goes against the model of being predictive and being nimble. I think we’ll always have specialist areas remaining within certain captive operations, but I think it’s going to be more in areas like engineering than in back-office, data-analytics, areas like that where we’re getting a proven model. Offshore companies are very good at doing this stuff: it doesn’t make sense to keep it all in-house.
Charles Aird: I would agree with that. When I say “captive” I go back to my definition of sourcing which includes manufacturing, engineering, R&D, and so on, and a lot of the time we see our clients going as captives into China, India, etc, in manufacturing and R&D because again they’re not able to find resources in the US, whereas they’re not as likely to do that in IT or accounting or the F&A processes that are not core to their operations.
Phil Fersht: We were talking with some clients the other day, and a lot of them have reduced budgets for next year in things like IT, and now have no choice but to look at outsourcing models that work for them; anything that is bread-and-butter like core HR, core financials, they’re looking at moving out now, and actually taking industry-specific areas that give them the value-add, that are client-facing, and consolidating that stuff in-house. That’s really where things are moving and I think we’ll see a heavy move towards non-core, non-mission-critical support operations being moved into the outsourced model; I think this economic crisis is just going to accelerate and expedite that process.
Tom Tunstall: I would agree with that. Captives represent something of an opportunity, either as an acquisition candidate, or as a way to put together a creative deal to help clients move to more of a variable cost model.
Tony Rawlinson: The only other thing I’d add – and it’s been a thread running through our conversation anyway – is that a lot of clients have very complex sourcing maps, multi-sourcing, multi-provider landscapes. Some of them have not traditionally been very good at managing these landscapes. So in an era when we’re all agreeing there’s going to be greater pace to selectively offshore and selectively outsource more, the skills that are going to be fundamental to success are going to be around governance and managing these multi-source landscapes. So there’s certainly going to be a need for us in the advisory community to play our part in equipping clients to successfully make that trip.
(This article continues with “Roundtable: Sourcing in the Face of a Financial Crisis (Part 2) also on EzineArticles.)