Thirteen Years on the Inside: A Perspective on India

General Electric (J@M€S/Flickr)
General Electric (J@M€S/Flickr)

Over the past thirteen years, Scott Bayman has advanced General Electric’s business in India and has seen firsthand its transformation, the orchestration of drastic economic reforms, and adherence to the principles of liberalization. Scott Bayman is a corporate officer of the General Electric Company and president and chief executive officer of GE - India.

In Asia Society's CEO Forum, Scott Bayman addressed the topic "Thirteen Years on the Inside: A Perspective on India." He gave an interview to Alfonso Cortes and Flora Zhang after his speech.


Among the various firms you’ve worked with, it seems that most of your time has been spent with GE. What is it about the company that has appealed to you and has retained your loyalty?

Well, I think first and foremost, it’s the people and the quality of my colleagues. Frequently when you talk to people who have left GE, the thing they say that they miss the most are the people. And we really are, a lot of us, good friends. The other thing they say is that it’s the number of good people at GE. I could look back at other places I’ve worked and I can find someone that’s every bit as good as anyone in GE, but there just aren't as many of them.

How much of your assignment to India was part of your company’s strategy, and how much of it was your personal choice?

It was all company strategy. I had always wanted an international assignment, but to be quite honest, India was not even on the list. Back then, when you said international, you meant London, Paris, Brussels—you certainly didn't mean India.

Did it meet or exceed your expectations?

It has exceeded my expectations in a way, but not necessarily from a business stand point. I was pretty sure we’d be successful there. We had a lot of commitment from the right kinds of people here, including Jack Welsh. But what exceeded my expectations were how the country and the people there embraced us and made us feel welcome, and the fact that we’ve really established India as our home. When we say we’re going home, that’s what we mean. Zachary [my son] called me in April and said, I want to come home for Christmas this year, and he meant Delhi, so that’s home.

What are some of the key decisions you have made in the past that seemed counter-intuitive at the time but turned out to be right?

Well, I think just going to India when we did was pretty counter-intuitive, and as I mentioned [in my presentation earlier], we were the first to do software and business processing and engineering. We gave credibility to software. BPO wasn’t even there, but in a way we created that industry.

What are some of the challenges that you’ve had working so remotely from headquarters here in the US?

Well, the time zone is probably the biggest issue, and that’s just the hours you have to communicate. You also have almost no face to face communication [with headquarters], so you just don’t walk down the hall to talk to your boss. It’s always a little more formal than it is when you're all in the same building.

Over the thirteen years you’ve been in India, has GE become more GE or more Indian?

In a way we really created the business, so I would say that we’re more GE than we are Indian.

With India’s economic success has come the challenge of excessive turnover and retaining staff. How has GE approached this issue with its own employees?

We conduct compensation and benefits surveys a couple of times a year to try to make sure that we’re where we want to be, and with lots of training through GE, people can move ahead. I think one of the things that we can offer people in India is not necessarily a fast track to the top, but we can offer them some variety. So, if you're in one business and you want a change of scenery, you can get into another business. I think we have some advantages. I’d say there is a certain cache to working for GE in India. We’re highly regarded as the world’s most admired company. I think people are proud to say they work for us, and their parents are proud. I bump into some people every once in a while, parents of people who work for us, and they couldn't be prouder that their son or daughter is working for a company like GE and GE in particular. But it’s a huge issue, the turnover. I don’t see it slowing down, frankly.

You mentioned infrastructure in your speech, and it’s often cited as one of the major breaks in India’s development. Do you think that the government and private sector cooperation is sufficient to tackle this challenge? What do you foresee in the next few years?

I think it has to be sufficient, because if they don’t get together to do this, it’s not going to get done. I think that if they can get together and start to lay the regulatory frameworks in place and get things going, I think there’s going to be a lot of money to invest. Once you get the structure right, I think funding is going to be the last of the worries.

China has been aggressive in its search for resources overseas, and India has been a little bit more conservative in its approach. How do you see this impacting foreign investment in multi-nationals in India, like GE?

Well, I think that China has attracted a lot more foreign direct investment than India probably for a couple of reasons. One, China can make infrastructure happen very quickly, so they can get a lot of money in it that way. I think China had a bigger need for funding when they started. When China started its reforms it really was very dependent on foreign direct investment. India is less dependent on foreign direct investment. Companies can raise money there locally, they’ve got money locally, so I think that’s had some of the impact on it. And I’d say just overall the fact that infrastructure hasn’t moved as fast is what attracts a lot of the money.

And what do you see will be GE’s largest challenges over the next five years?

I think it’s continuing to attract and retain the kind of talent that we need to fulfill the plans we have. Another would be our ability to localize more quickly than we have in the past, whether it’s component manufacturing, assembly, full manufacturing, local risk decision making, and just the whole notion of localizing.

And looking over your career, you’ve witnessed a lot of economic and technological changes. What type of advice would you give to the next generation of business leaders in India and the U.S.?

Well, I think the next generation of business leaders needs to have two focuses: one is growth and the other is the environment, because you're not going to survive unless you're growing. I mention the environment because I think you're either going to be penalized for being a polluter, there’s opportunity for products and services to be made, so you can create businesses around the environment, and then the social responsibility issue. I think investors, the public, they're not going to tolerate people who are not good environmental citizens. And I think the developed world also needs to recognize that it’s got to set the pace, because you can't expect that the developing world is going to fall in as quickly, they’ve got some catch up to do. One of the answers that people in the developing world say, well look, you guys got where you did, you polluted, now don’t tell us that we’ve got to just get to these stringent standards overnight.

And for an American executive going to India, what would you tell him or her before they go?

Practice patience and persistence.

Good words to live by.

Interview conducted by Alfonso Cortes, Senior Program Officer, U.S. Business Programs, and Flora Zhang, Producer, New Media.