The Man who thought Big

Left to right: Woody Brittain, yours truly and Jim Schiro outside Oberoi Grand, Calcutta

A Movable Feast

About this column:

Ernest Hemingway wrote a memoir about his life as a struggling writer in Paris. The notebook containing the memoirs was published as a book by his wife after his death.

The title “A Movable Feast” was inspired by a letter he wrote to a friend: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast”.

In this column I intend to write about first hand experiences with people I have been lucky to meet and work with. People who have made a dramatic impact on the business world and on my life.)

Jim Schiro

The first time I met him was at his favourite restaurant in New York called Bruno’s. It was a traditional Italian fine dining on the border of Upper East Side and Midtown East. He had booked a private dining area which could be accessed through a winding staircase. This was 1996 and my host was Jim Schiro, the CEO of Price Waterhouse (PW) in the U.S.A. Along with him was his virtual # 2, Woody Brittain, an African -American and a MBA from Harvard Business School.

What we discussed that evening was to change forever the firm I worked for and dramatically impact the IT scenario in Calcutta. Jim Schiro had visited the Salt Lake Electronic Complex in Calcutta, where we had set up a small software factory in the mid-1990s. The “factory” was created with the objective of working for global clients of Price Waterhouse through dedicated communication links.

We had realized that the US was the largest market for Indian software companies and in the pantheon of gods in the world of PW, the US senior partner i.e. Jim was the most powerful. Our senior partner Satyabrata Ghosh had initial discussions with him that led to the dinner meeting.

Woody was a consulting partner. He had a razor-sharp mind and he understood the nuts and bolts of the IT business very well. Jim was a visionary and could think big and act bold. He quickly gauged that I was a little intimidated about conversing with a senior person like him and put me at ease by talking about his own background.

He was of Italo-Albanian heritage from Sicily. He had finely chiselled features, dark hair brushed backward, bright eyes and a great sense of humour. He informed me that Bruno’s was his lucky restaurant and he always dined there when he was launching a new initiative. He said the owner of the restaurant Bruno Selimaj was also born in Albania but I cannot recall if he said he was related to him.

He expressed great surprise when I ordered a steak for the main course while he chose the red wine that would go with it.

“Do you Indians eat beef?” he asked me directly.

I told him that most Indians who are Hindus do not eat beef but I learnt to enjoy a good steak while I was working with PW in Australia where I lived for a while. Relieved, both Jim and Woody ordered steaks.

Jim directly went to the point. His proposal was to sign a cooperation agreement with the consulting practice of the US firm. As a result of this agreement, PW India would second IT professionals to the US firm to work on on-site projects creating a dollar revenue stream for the Indian firm. In addition, the Indian professionals will be trained in the cutting edge technologies both in the US and in India. PW US and PW India would market their services together leveraging the rate arbitrage to offer an unbeatable value proposition to the US clients. The US firm would also co-invest in scaling up our software factory in Calcutta so that we could break away from the pack of our competitors. In addition, he said, I would become a member of the MALT. I did not have the foggiest idea what that was.

Woody used to live in Washington D.C. at the time and he was staying at the same hotel as me in New York. He offered me a ride. In the car I asked Woody,

“What on earth is MALT? Is it some kind of a whisky and cigar club?”

Woody laughed and said, “Oh no! MALT is a great honour. It stands for Member of the Americas Leadership Team.” So I would be the only Indian among Chiefs!

I think it was on 6th November 1996 that Jim brought his small team to India. I remember the date because he said it was his wife Tommy’s birthday and he would have to do a lot of explaining when he went back. Led by him, the US negotiating team comprised Woody Brittain, Ranjit Advani -a consulting partner from the Washington D.C. office and Dennis Nally, his young Chief-of -Staff. Many years later Nally became the CEO of PricewaterhouseCooper’s global organization.

After tough negotiations with the Indian side which was ably led by Satyabrata Ghosh, the deal was struck and the cooperation started in right earnest. PW’s competitors were either part of the Asia Pacific configuration or part of Europe Middle-East Asia (EMEA). Eyebrows were raised and jokes cracked about PW India being a part the Americas, a continent separated by several time-zones, oceans and land masses. However, we were on to an idea whose time had come: geography was becoming history.

Our practices were scaling up rapidly and our facilities in Salt Lake Electronic Complex were expanding when a dramatic event happened. In September 1997 Jim Schiro announced that Price Waterhouse was going to merge with Coopers & Lybrand forming a $12 billion professional services firm toppling the then # 1 firm Andersen Worldwide from its pedestal and creating a huge distance of $2 billion of revenue with the nearest competitor. After much debate, the two sides agreed on the name PricwaterhouseCoopers. Jim from PW became its CEO and Nick Moore from Coopers became the Chairman.

The merger became effective on July 1, 1998. I met him in late 1997 when I went to attend a meeting. Again it was a dinner at Bruno’s. I asked him, “How did the merger idea come about? I am curious to know, who made the first call?” He rolled up his eyes and said in a conspiratorial tone, “I did. I invited Nick Moore right here at Bruno’s for dinner and I told him this was our last opportunity of creating the largest professional services firm on earth and to put an unbridgeable distance between us and the competition”.

They say all revolutions devour their children and so it was with Jim Schiro. He left the firm before completing his term. Eventually he went on to run a much larger company. He became the CEO of Zurich Financial Services in Switzerland. The last message he wrote to my Facebook inbox was an invitation to have a meal with him when I was in New York next. That never happened. On August 13 2014 he died of multiple myeloma. Bruno’s I am told does not exist anymore, it has been modernized and is now called Club A Steakhouse.

Jim Schiro’s lived the motto he gave to PwC during his tenure : change the world.