Corporate File

SAP brings in the cavalry to move to the cloud

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on April 25, 2021

Former army man-turned-corporate chieftain Kulmeet Bawa on marshalling his troops virtually and more

Kulmeet Bawa, who was appointed president and managing director of SAP India last year, quit the Indian army around 19 years ago. But the former cavalry officer still approaches each corporate assignment like a battle. “I was in the fighting arm of the army — the armoured corps. When I moved to the corporate sector, I was very sure I had to be in the fighting arm of businesses, which I understood to be sales. The risk return is highest in the function,” he says.

Bawa, after starting off in the army, moved to Sun Microsystems, Microsoft, Adobe and Resulticks, before taking over as the India chief of the German software company in July 2020, at the peak of the pandemic.

He still has not met any of his troops at SAP face-to-face, except for a few meetings with his executive assistant. But he is unfazed. The affable ex-army man says he loves people and business and is confident he can fulfil his brief at SAP — accelerating the cloud transition of its business and helping customers adopt a digital-first mindset.

 

Bawa says he has spent a prodigious amount of time interacting with colleagues on videoconference, getting to know them and their families. The nattily dressed, fit 51-year-old also managed to build a connect with his younger colleagues through social media, especially Instagram, where he is very active.

As for the business part, his confidence stems from the fact that during his stint at Adobe, where he led the India and South Asia market, the company was moving its model entirely to cloud-based subscriptions; so he has experience. “India was the guinea pig market for Adobe in the transition to cloud, which made it open and affordable for many more customers. The Photoshop licence was crazily priced. But with cloud subscription, you could get it by paying one-fifth and also get regular updates,” he explains. “Cloud is the only way forward,” he stresses.

The other reason for his business confidence is that SAP will be turning 25 in India this year. Why that is important, he explains, is that the company has decades of incumbency in the ERP business. “We have a lot of customers in India who have been with us for over 15 years and been part of our journey.”

The son of a navy officer, he joined the National Defence Academy at the age of 16, but chose to join the army. “I had a chip on my shoulder. I felt if I joined the navy, I would be compared to my father.” His army career was going really well; he served several years in Kashmir, he was ADC to a governor, and he had cleared the exam for the Staff College in Wellington as well as a UN Mission, but suddenly decided to quit. Why, you ask him. “Because things were going too well,” is the strange reply. “Call it Sardar logic,” he says with a mischievous twinkle.

We are having this conversation at Annamaya, the spacious restaurant at Andaz hotel in Aerocity, just a few days before Delhi imposed a lockdown. Annamaya, when it started, had made a name for its artisanal, healthy, mindful food.

However, we discover, much to our sadness, that the pandemic has created havoc with the restaurant. Due to low occupancy (mostly airline crew, who get a set meal option), and zero walk-ins, it has pared its fare drastically. Given the limited options we settle for a raw mango salad, a tandoori vegetable platter for starters and a yellow dal and mixed vegetables as our main. Bawa, who confesses to a partiality for chicken — like everyone from his community, he jokes — is firm he will stick to vegetarian. The raw mango salad is refreshing and the tandoori platter flavourful. The dal is tasty, but the mixed vegetable dish indifferent. The Amaranth roti is the only sign of Annamaya’s original USP.

Bawa says he loves travelling and experimenting with cuisine wherever he goes, though always returns to simple dal as comfort food. “I used to travel to at least five countries a year – and this started from when I was 17, when I saved up and travelled on Eurorail,” he says.

Elaborating on his career, Bawa says when he quit the army after serving for 12 years, he joined ISB in Hyderabad for an MBA. On completion, there was no dearth of job offers, except, disappointingly, many were for logistics, operations, and so on — the typical assumption corporate recruiters make about former army men.

Even HUL, which made him an offer after seven rounds of interviews, wanted to post him to a tea estate. “I told them, thank you for the offer, but I will come back to you after thirty years,” he says. Though HUL changed its offer, he joined Sun Microsystems at half the pay, simply because he loved the conversation with then boss Bhaskar Pramanik, the son of an air force officer, with whom he connected instantly.

In hindsight it was a great decision. Bawa says, despite having no tech background whatsoever, he enjoyed selling software.

Though he may have experience selling cloud subscription, Bawa points out that SAP’s clients are quite different from Adobe’s. They sell to over 26 different industries. Moreover, while at Adobe they were talking to chief information officers and chief marketing officers, at SAP, since they are selling mission critical software, it is often the top leadership who get involved in the buying decisions, he says.

In 2019, the Waldorf-headquartered SAP had announced plans of restructuring globally after some signs of weakness in business. But those days seem past now.

Recently, SAP celebrated a big win when Google announced it was migrating its internal financial software from Oracle. The news sent SAP’s stock price soaring four per cent. “Usually companies don’t like to fiddle with such critical software, so this was very big,” says Bawa. “There are other big wins, too, here in India, but I can tell you about them only a few months later.”

At SAP, he has three priorities. First is, of course, to accelerate the shift to the cloud. This is on two fronts — the digital core through ‘Rise with SAP’, and the other through its cloud LoB (lines of business) acquisitions. In core ERP, which is the back-office part, SAP has enjoyed marketshare leadership. But now, with all the acquisitions in recent years (Emarsys, Signavio, Qualtrics and many more), the company is able to offer a holistic solution.

“The back office was always with us. Now with cloud acquisitions the front office is also with us. Actually if you look at our portfolio, it’s the most holistic portfolio. We have got everything,” he says.

The second priority is to ramp up MSME (micro, small and medium enterprises) engagement. “The SME build-out is super-critical for our country also, as it provides an impetus to the economy,” he says.

Already, of SAP’s 13,000 customers, 80 per cent is MSME. Bawa says that shortly before he joined, the company had rolled out a Global Bharat programme to help MSMEs navigate the pandemic. E-commerce solution Ariba Discovery, employee experience offering Qualtrics and learning solution Litmos were given free to small businesses.

He says the company also rolled out a Bharat ERP pack, specifically made for SMEs, and on cloud, priced at ₹3,999.

The other priority for Bawa, he says, is to focus on the customer success piece. “We want to help customers become super successful, help them simplify and build agility, all the while keeping sustainability high on the radar.”

The pandemic, which has accelerated digital transformation, has undoubtedly led to business growth for SAP India. “We just won ‘market unit of the quarter’ and a host of other awards as the best performing country in Asia Pacific-Japan,” shares a delighted Bawa.

Ask Bawa about his hobbies and he lists reading and movies. During the pandemic, he started baking with his younger daughter and watched indulgently as his older daughter started her own skin care business. Passionately interested in start-ups, he is an angel investor in his personal capacity. Ask him about his leadership style and he scoffs, though.

In the army, nobody asks you to define leadership — it is hard to do so when you are asking people to lay down their lives. “It’s all from the heart and about teamwork and people,” he says, simply.

Published on April 25, 2021

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