In March 1995, over lunch, Joanne (Grady Huskey), a diplomat's wife told her Chennai-based friend Ranjini Manian how difficult it was for a foreigner to adjust to the new surroundings, new culture and new food habits that India offered.
"Joanne told me that there are relocation services and cross-cultural companies in the West, and India would need such services because the world was coming to India. Then she asked me, why don't you start something like that?" reminisced Ranjini.
Ranjini, who has more than a smattering knowledge of French, Japanese and Spanish, considered the idea of starting a relocation service in India a bright one. After all, she had been helping out her non-Indian friends out of personal interest.
"Indians as a race are very hospitable and welcoming. And Joanne spoke of the days I helped her out as a friend when she was feeling down in the new surroundings. She said the help I gave her was needed by every westerner who came to India. So my inspiration to do something for the expats is Joanne."
That was the beginning and Ranjini soon became an entrepreneur. She is the founder-director of Global Adjustments.
Birth of India's first relocation service
The first thing the two ladies decided was to give the venture a 'workable' name. So they grabbed a piece of paper (it's still with Ranjini) and jotted down names that they thought would suit a relocation service.
Finally they zeroed in on 'Global Adjustments.' The next step was to find a suitable place for their venture. Without a second thought, Ranjini decided to use her vacant flat, in one of the residential localities of Chennai, as the office of Global Adjustments.
"At that time, it didn't strike us that it was a great location with the Park Sheraton nearby and above all, this was south Chennai!"
Ranjini remembers that they did the "most foolish thing" after that. They went to the most expensive place and bought the stationery for their office. Ranjini had some spare furniture and Joanne had a word processor. And Global Adjustments was born.
The most important thing an entrepreneur has to follow is to keep all the windows open, says Ranjini. . . "so that the antenna was always open and I was looking for something new or different to do all the time. Though I loved the idea put forth by Joanne, I knew what I was going to do was a pioneering effort. At that time, there was not a single company in India that offered relocation services."
Was it easy for her?
"No, it was not easy because many people wondered why they should pay for the services that any other Indian would be offering for free. Many Indians also asked me how I would convert this into 'business'?"
"Our culture says Atithi Devo Bhava (a guest is like God). Anyway, we do need to look after our guests, they argued. There was a little resistance from the local community as well as the small existing expat community to corporatising hospitality."
Ranjini admits that it was the press in Chennai that gave her the much needed publicity free of cost. "Within two weeks of our launch, we were on the front pages of The Hindu. It said culture shocks of expats coming to India would be eased by Global Adjustments. So being in the news was one way the message was spread. We also spoke to various consulates about what we were doing."
Then they decided to arrange a seminar called 'The Taste of Madras' for the expatriate community in Chennai. It was free for everyone. Experts from various fields spoke at the function -- S Muthiah talked on history, Anita Ratnam on dance, Nandita Krishna on Hinduism, and Ramesh Krishnan on sports. Yes, Ranjini had the advantage of knowing all these experts personally. "That is why they all came to talk to the expats. That is why we had an easy starting point."
After the seminar, an American named Barry Brown who was staying in a hotel signed up as the first client of Global Adjustments. In fact, the company he worked for -- Air Touch International -- also signed up. At that time, the company was planning to bring cell phones to India by tying up with the RPG Group.
"We welcomed Barry Brown to India, helped him choose a place to live in, schools where to educate his children, to choose a hospital, et cetera, et cetera. However, in the end, Barry Brown didn't come to stay in India. But the American who came after Barry Brown became our real first client."
Dealing with the first clients was comparatively easy, said Ranjini. "It was very easy because they came with no expectations. But now it is more difficult because we have been in the business for the last 11 years. Naturally our clients expect very high level of service from us. But in those days, even a little help was appreciated."
The first major corporate client of Global Adjustments was Ford. Sixty to eighty families of Ford executives became their clients way back in the 1990s and relocation training modules were designed specifically for them.
"An American may be more friendly and open but he has very little knowledge of India. On the other hand, a British will have more knowledge of India, yet they face the same relocation problems," Ranjini remarked.
Clients after ten years
Today, after ten years, Global Adjustments has more than 1,000 clients from 70 nationalities. The list among others include Alliance Francaise, Alcatel Development Centre, Bank of Tokyo, BMW, British Council, Deutsch Bank, Ernst & Young, Fenner, Ford India Ltd, GEC Alsthom, France, the German Consulate, Hewlett Packard, Lufthansa, Nokia, Panasonic, Sansui, Shell, Singapore Consulate, Toshiba, Japan, US Consulate, Van Melle, Holland, and World Bank.
From two employees in 1996, the company has grown to have 35 people. Other than Chennai, they also have branches in Gurgaon and Bangalore. Regional consultants are there in Pune, Trivandrum, Mumbai and Hyderabad.
Perception of India in the last ten years
India, points out Ranjini, has gained respect in the minds of westerners now. And this is not because of its cultural background and heritage but "because of the advancement in the field of technology. It is visible now. I see people coming here after doing their homework and with a more open mind. They tell us, please teach us what we should and shouldn't do. Earlier it used to be, 'This is how I am used to, and I want it this way.' Now, it is more like, how can I adapt and integrate. How can I manage an Indian team? We teach a programme on how to manage an Indian team and most westerners take that course. They also take time and effort to understand India."
Along the way, Global Adjustments started a course for Indians to understand the westerners too. That was when the dot-com boom had started and a lot of Indians were moving to western countries. They also had plenty of doubts in their mind. Global Adjustments trained people to go and live in different locations. There were thousands of Indians who took training from Ranjini's team to learn to live in different parts of the world.
After the dot-com bust, it is now the call centres that are asking for training.
The turning point for Global Adjustments was in 2004, according to Ranjini. "We called ourselves a company that offered relocation services. We thought, are we really that? We are actually a cross-cultural company in an integrated way. So, today we call ourselves, India focussed, integrated cross-cultural training and destination services company."
Real estate division
Other than the relocation services, Global Adjustments also has a real estate division now that advices Indians where to invest if they want to rent out homes to expatriates. "We tell them where to buy, how to build and how to do up the homes, etc to suit the taste of the expatriates. We also train them on how to work with other cultures. We do a lot of communication training. We also offer customer service programmes, office etiquettes and protocol programmes."
The company also offers a round- the- clock telephone and e-mail helpline for all their clients throughout their stay in India.
The only magazine for expats
It was a comment from an expatriate that made Ranjini think of starting a magazine. "She told me, Madras is so boring. So, we started off as a calendar of events in Chennai. I told all the exapts, 'I will keep you occupied all the 30 days. Don't tell me the city is boring.' Then, they asked me, 'There is an exhibition at Poompuhar on Ganesh Chaturthi. What's that?' So, we started publishing articles on what's Ganesh Chathurthi, etc. Slowly, our magazine, At A Glance: Understanding India, became a cultural guide to all the expatriates, and ours is the only cultural magazine for expatriates in India."
The proudest moment for Ranjini was receiving a letter from President A P J Abdul Kalam appreciating what she is doing for the nation through the magazine.
The most cherished comment was when an expatriate said it was like a lifeline for them. Another person told her while leaving India that she had collected 4 years of the magazine and was taking them back to her country.
Ranjini says not a single expatriate leaves India smiling; "They are always sad and crying because they are leaving India. Many tell me it is a 'wrenching moment' for them. It is the warmth of the people that touches them."
Ranjini says she has understood India better by teaching foreigners about India. "We didn't know the India that we needed to explain. For example, I didn't know how to explain why we had a dot (bindi) on the forehead. Finding answers to such questions have made us more penetrative of our own culture. It made it easier for me to answer many questions because I was brought up in the vedic culture.
"This work has made me more sensitive and aware as a person, what I am doing and where I am going. It is like retracing my own origin. It has enriched me as an Indian and certainly as a person."
"These last ten years have been a journey of constant learning, relearning and un-learning for me personally and for all of us at Global Adjustments! The journey as an entrepreneur has been exciting as well as challenging."
The reason for her success? "I was at the right place at the right time."