Mahindra Satyam boss says we're no Enron - exclusive interview

The accounting fraud that shook Satyam was never going to cause the company to fold like Enron, because of its inherent value, says newly installed CEO CP Gurnani.

The accounting fraud that shook Satyam was never going to cause the company to fold like Enron, because of its inherent value, says newly installed CEO CP Gurnani.

Satyam's fraud, which was revealed in January, is often labelled India's Enron, after the US energy firm that collapsed in 2001 following a huge accounting fraud.

But the boss of the renamed Mahindra Satyam says Satyam's position, after its chairman admitted to cooking the books for several years, was completely different.

The disappearance of Enron, which folded within months of the fraud scandal being revealed, leaving its shareholders billions out of pocket, led to the creation of corporate governance legislation Sarbanes-Oxley.

Sarbanes-Oxley set new standards in how businesses are managed. Satyam's fraud has changed corporate India, but Satyam is still around, although not at full speed, says Gurnani.

Company value

He says the main differences between the Enron and Satyam scandals were that very few people were involved in the Satyam fraud and the company's real value was its workers. Satyam's solid relationships with customers was another key reason that it would not fold.

The fraud threw Satyam into disarray. It needed money to pay workers and to continue to operate. Customer and employee confidence was also reduced.

The true extent of the fraud at Satyam will not become clear until the company publishes its financial position in December or January.

When the fraud was revealed, the Indian government quickly removed the existing board and appointed a new board to stabilise the company and find new investors.

Back on track

Tech Mahindra bought Satyam in April.

Gurnani says there was an element of risk for Tech Mahindra in investing in Satyam, but he says it was a risk worth taking. "Nobody ever built a business by sitting watching the waves. You have to get in the water and cross to the other side."

But there are no more sharks in the Satyam waters, he adds. "The people responsible for the fraud are in prison where they should be."

Satyam lost some very prominent customers, including State Farm Insurance and Coca-Cola, after the scandal. But Gurnani says they left because they saw Satyam as a risk, not because they doubted its competency. "The reason they split from us had nothing to do with our business capability; it was the perceived risk of the governance and financial stability of Satyam."

The company lost no customers in Europe. It is now running a programme aimed at getting lost customers back, known as Win Back. "We are winning customers, but we want to win big deals again because this will be a reaffirmation of confidence."

The company is focusing on four key customer vertical markets: banking and financial services; public sector; retail (including consumer goods); and digital convergence. The company will no longer focus on customers in the telecoms sector to avoid overlap with parent Tech Mahindra.

Gurnani says Satyam is safe now, but still has work to do to regain momentum after the shock of the fraud. "We are out of the woods. There was an accident, but the bus is on the road again - although not at full speed," he says.

Innovation government

Gurnani says the Indian government got its handling of Satyam right, post-scandal - in contrast to how UK and US governments have dealt with collapsing banks. The Indian government's approach was innovative, he says.

For example, Northern Rock, which became state-owned in 2007, reported losses of £750m in the first six months of 2009. Lloyds TSB and RBS, which have each received billions in bail-out funds, are also losing billions. Lloyds TSB reported a loss of £4bn this week.

In contrast, Barclays and HSBC, neither of which received money from the government, reported £2.98bn and £1.97bn profits respectively for the first six months of this year.

"The Indian government did not put any money into Satyam. It got rid of the board and replaced it with a new board to attract investors. The bail-outs by UK and US governments do not put the onus on restructuring and do not bring in the same vigour," Gurnani concludes.

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