Romil Bahl: How I made a fortune in the recovery position

The Business Interview: Companies and governments lose millions to errors and fraud, but Sean Farrell meets a man who helps them get their money back
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Procurement isn't a concept to get the pulse racing. But in a world of tightened purse strings, weeding out waste in the supply chain is near the top of many businesses' priorities for getting through the economic gloom. Only last week, Lloyds Banking Group and Thorntons made tougher procurement major planks of their turnaround plans. And in its attempt to rein in spending, the Government has turned its attention to inefficiency in its supply chain.

Any business trend creates an opportunity for someone in the right place, and that man appears to be Romil Bahl, the chief executive of PRGX Global.

The US company is far from a household name in this country, but it boasts 37 of the top 50 retailers as clients, including Asda's owner, the giant Walmart.

Mr Bahl is reluctant to identify other clients – Walmart accounts for more than 10 per cent of revenues and so has to be named – but he says they include many of Britain's biggest retailers.

PRGX's core business is recovery audit – trawling a company's data to find overpayments and errors that can be recovered from suppliers. Retailers are the biggest customers because they have the most complex supply chains with millions of offers and transactions every year.

"It's amazing that 99.9 per cent of the time they get it right. We help them with the 0.1 per cent, so if you're a £50bn retailer 'We will find you £50m a year' is the promise."

The other promise is: "We will put real dollars on your bottom line or you're not paying us."

On average, Atlanta, Georgia-based PRGX takes a 20 per cent payment on what it recovers, though this varies according to the complexity of the work.

It has also spotted millions of overspend for the Government. Last month, Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, said pilots launched last year at the Department of Transport and the Home Office had already saved £12m.

Mr Bahl says: "The minister didn't do us a favour in not mentioning our name but we are the provider on both of those [projects]."

So how big is this new opportunity to work for the British Government?

"The minister talked about a quarter of a billion for 2009/10 to review and that might be a bit conservative. It's probably smart to be conservative because it may not all be auditable."

Mr Bahl moved around frequently because his father was a colonel in the Indian army. He spent some of his youth at school in England and his father studied for his master's at Cranfield University.

After leaving the army, his father set up in business advising companies keen to launch in India's newly booming economy and he remains one of Mr Bahl's main influences.

Back in the US, two pieces of law have played into PRGX's hands, Mr Bahl says. First, the Obama healthcare legislation required all government spending in this area to go through a recovery audit. That is a $1trn (£625bn) business in the only sector that ranks alongside retail for complexity, he says.

Then there is another $1trn of business from the Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act.

"Any agency that spends over $1m – and that is just about every one – has to have recovery audit every three years," Mr Bahl says, adding that the UK is not that far behind in requiring checks on a similar scale.

The recession has been fairly kind to PRGX, Mr Bahl says, listing "headwinds" and "tailwinds".

Clients have been willing to try ideas that they thought were too risky before "and now they are saying what else can you guys do for us?" he says. Mr Bahl has tapped into this demand by setting up his client advisory board – a forum for his biggest clients to tell PRGX what services or products they would like the company to produce for them.

Recently, Mr Bahl has added fraud detection and performance advice to the PRGX's services to mine the "treasure trove" of client data.

But Mr Bahl says the big idea at the moment is shared services – outsourcing backroom functions such as invoice processing to save money.

"It is just exploding right now. Across Europe I must have met a dozen CEOs and CFOs and every single one of them has shared services on their agenda."

That may not bode well for the jobs market, but despite all the gloom on the high street and the thousands of UK retail jobs cut or threatened in the last two weeks, Mr Bahl insists the underlying climate is improving.

"We are still in the doldrums in the spirit of it's darkest before the dawn, but we can see things getting better." The number of transactions is up and more deals are going on, he says.

Mr Bahl compares the data he has from each client to the information supermarkets have amassed about customers from their loyalty cards.

After six straight quarters of growth, Mr Bahl says: "We are in a fabulous spot. We are sitting on this business-to-business data and frankly nobody else is doing it."

Things have not always been plain sailing. When Mr Bahl took over in 2009, PRGX was, in his words, "an orphan stock" with an under-invested business that had been whittled down to its retail base. Clients and employees were leaving because they doubted the company's future.

After arriving from the technology giant Infosys, he cleared out most of the management and set about getting the different bits of the business working together to sell more services like other professional services firms.

However, he insists PRGX is not like other consulting firms who throw lots of young employees at a customers' HQ and leave them there for months before coming up with a plan and a hefty price.

"The world doesn't need another consultancy. I'm a recovering consultant so you will have to forgive my slight bias. I wanted to get a real job."

The CV: Romil Bahl

* Born in Nainital, India, in 1968 into a military family. Attends a "very British" private school, the Lawrence School in Sanawar, Himachal Pradesh

* Graduates in engineering from Calcutta's Directorate of Marine Engineering and Technology and gains a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Texas at Austin

* Starts career at Deloitte Consulting in 1992 and stays for three years

* From 1995 to 2002 he rises through the ranks at consultant AT Kearney

* After two years at EDS, including leading its global consulting business, he joins Infosys in 2004. Co-founded Infosys Consulting and led global systems integration business unit

* Joins PRGX in January 2009 and sets out on turnaround plan to forge a unified business that can capitalise on the company's data-mining abilities