“We will go to any length” to stop you, a livid fund manager roared during an investor call for Satyam Computer Services Ltd. that then-Chairman B. Ramalinga Raju had hastily arranged on Dec. 16, 2008.
Stakeholders were furious that Raju, an Indian tech legend who has been called the subcontinent’s Bill Gates, had told stock exchanges and released a press statement that his outsourcing giant was going to spend $1.6 billion to buy two construction companies owned by his family, Maytas Properties and Maytas Infra. Maytas is Satyam spelled backward and Satyam itself, ironically, means truth in Sanskrit.
On Thursday, Raju, his brother Rama Raju -- who had been Satyam’s managing director in December 2008 -- and eight others were found guilty by an Indian court on various counts of fraud in a scam in which the decision to purchase the construction companies was the last desperate attempt to cover up what has emerged as the largest fraud scandal in India’s history. Prosecutors said Raju and his cohorts vastly overstated Satyam’s assets, costing investors more than $2 billion after the truth emerged. There will be no Club Fed for Raju: He was sentenced to seven years “rigorous imprisonment.”
As shareholders and regulators closed in back in 2008, Raju quickly reversed the decision to buy the Maytas companies. And then he came clean. Raju dispatched a letter to Satyam’s board and India’s market watcher SEBI on Jan. 7, 2009, admitting to falsifying the company’s books to the tune of about $1 billion, damning himself and Satyam to the consequences of what came to be known as India’s Enron.
It’s a stunning outcome for Raju that puts him in an elite class of corporate supervillains that includes Enron’s Ken Lay, Worldcom’s Bernie Ebbers and pyramid scammer Bernard Madoff.
The company he started when he was 33 went on to become a genuine IT powerhouse with an employee strength of 53,000, listed not only in India but also in New York and serving marquee customers including ArcelorMittal, Nestlé SA, Nissan Motor Co. and FIFA World Cup.
But Satyam’s impact went well beyond its client roster. Along with peer companies Wipro, TCS and Infosys, Satyam effectively invented offshore outsourcing, a process through which Western multinationals ship routine work, including tech operations and back-office tasks, to far-flung destinations where labor costs are lower -- pennies on the dollar, in India’s case.
The politically controversial practice, which critics say has cost the U.S. millions of middle-class jobs, helped define what writer Thomas Friedman has called the Flat World. It’s a planet where labor, capital and information are instantly portable thanks to cheap, ubiquitous broadband. “Things like processing employee records can be done from anywhere,” Raju told Friedman in “The World Is Flat 3.0.”
Satyam had an enviable reputation as a strong provider of enterprise software services, and Raju himself was bestowed with many an award, including the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2007. The World Council of Corporate Governance, which in September 2008 awarded Raju its Golden Peacock Global Award for excellence in corporate governance, later withdrew the prize.
Like Riding A Tiger
Raju said in the letter, which included his resignation from the board: “What started as a marginal gap between actual operating profit and the one reflected in the books of accounts continued to grow over the years. It has attained unmanageable proportions as the size of the company operations grew significantly.”
“It was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten,” Raju said.
Thursday’s judgement by a special court of India’s Central Bureau of Investigation, in the southern city of Hyderabad, where Satyam was based, resulted in seven-year sentences to the guilty. Beyond Raju, they include two former employees of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC, Satyam’s auditors in 2008. Raju was also fined 50 million rupees (about $800,000), and he has already spent about 32 months in custody.
Some 3,000 documents were examined, and 226 witnesses called, in a trial that lasted six years, during which time Satyam, once India’s fourth-biggest IT services company, has ceased to exist.
Shortly after Raju’s bombshell in January 2009, India’s federal government stepped in, set up an interim team to oversee the company with Kiran Karnik, former president of the country’s biggest IT industry lobby, Nasscom, as chairman and including Deepak Parekh, one of India’s most respected bankers, and C. Achuthan, former member of markets regulator Securities Exchange Board of India.
The trio helmed Satyam through a fast-tracked auction that ended with Satyam being sold to Tech Mahindra Ltd., part of the $16.5 billion Mahindra Group. With Satyam integrated, Tech Mahindra became India’s fifth-largest outsourcing company.
Theories abound to explain why Raju did what he did, and why he eventually came clean. Media reports in India have often pointed to Raju’s connection to real estate, although in his letter he denies having ever taken money from Satyam to help his family’s other business interests -- until the decision to buy Maytas, that is. In man versus tiger, it’s the tiger that wins.