Consistency around India is a challenge: Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox


Ursula Burns, 54, is perhaps the only African-American woman CEO to lead an S&P 500 company today. As the CEO of Xerox, Burns has transformed the company from what was a verb to a company which earns almost 55% of its $22.4-billion revenues from IT and BPO services. When Burns joined Xerox in 1980 as a mechanical engineering summer intern, the company was the leader in the global photocopying market. Burns was named CEO in July 2009 and shortly after, made the largest acquisition in Xerox history — the $6.4-billion purchase of Affiliated Computer Services. Burns is on a three-day trip to India, where she held three town hall meetings and met several CEOs of technology firms in Bangalore. She spoke to ET. Edited Excerpts:

Xerox till the late 1990s was used more as a verb than a company. You have transformed it from a company that made photo-copying machines to a product and IT services firm that now earns almost 55% of its revenues from IT Services and BPO. Do you see the needle moving faster in favour of new businesses in the coming years?

Xerox has transformed itself from a product company to a product and services company and 55% of our revenues now come from services, like document outsourcing businesses which are big for our technology business, BPO and IT Services.

The largest part of our services business is BPO. The reason why I differentiate this is because India is known for its IT outsourcing services business. The largest business that we are engaged in is what we call business process outsourcing.

What I expect to happen in next five years or so is our business mix will continue to shift more and more toward IT services and BPO and that will comprise two-thirds of our revenue.

With a strong dollar, do you see opportunities to grow in emerging economies like India?

Acquisitions around the world are made due to financial considerations. So, whenever a currency moves in such a way, making an acquisition becomes more attractive. In India if there are acquisition candidates that are attractive we'll buy them. Acquisitions in services are a key part of our strategies, particularly for our global expansion.

Three days are too short to gauge the market, but do you sense a mood of despondency in India?

My sense and mood of economy is that a lot of people are speaking about slowdown in growth in developing economies. India is the most relevant because we are in India. The slowdown is definitely being felt in the mood and in actuality. It's a kind of connected reality. So, the slowdown in growth is real.

But sitting outside of India, the slowdown in growth still means growing and I participate in economies around the world that are not growing (laughs). So, I look at a place like India and some of the CEOs say, 'my god the economy is not growing as fast, and I say that's true but at least it is growing'. It depends where you're sitting.

I think the traditional developing economies — the BRIC or BRIM — Brazil, Russia, India, China and Mexico are still economies that are growing and, so, still ripe for opportunities. From my perspective it is ok. But yes, the mood is a little less joyous than before. But the market is not all that bad.

Do you see India as a market with high and predictable risk or high and unpredictable risk?

Consistency around India is a challenge. India is not a country with one market. India is a series of markets and states. It is more challengeable. We have to do business in them.

What do you see in India — growth or chaos?

I see growth for sure in India. And with some growth some chaos. With very high growth we have to take some risks from the investment standpoint. We have to make some predictions, and predictions are opposite of surety. With heightened growth comes some levels of chaos.

You've had three town hall meetings in India in the last three days. Are worries and aspirations in India very different from what you get to hear in the US?

I have town hall meetings in the US and I'll have a town hall meeting in Belgium next week. One of the great things is that people actually come to contribute. It's important that I explain where and how they can contribute. I see no difference here than anywhere around the world.

Regarding the new US Immigration Bill, how do you balance the pressures from US administration, your shareholders and the Indian government?

I work with governments around the world. We make it clear what is good for our business. And to make it clear what the impact and ramifications of some of their proposals are going to be on my company.

Fortunately, I am not a politician and so I can't vote and I don't lobby. What I do is to make the leaders clear as to what is best for my company and my industry and then do the best for the company. I think we need fair, balance, transparent and relatively consistent rules and then we can play well in them.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced so far?

The biggest challenge for business leaders is making correct choices and doing the right things. For me, it is choosing the right places to play. The second is transforming a culture, which could be the country culture, the company culture or an individual culture.

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, recently banned people from working from home. This has upset many working mothers? What's your view on this?

Situations drive decisions and my company's situation doesn't require me to say anything banning someone from where they work from. There are clear roles in our company. So, if you are a manufacturing line person then working from home doesn't make sense. Situations drive such views. I don't know what Marissa Mayer did exactly but if it is taken out of context then it sounds totally ridiculous. I got to believe that this was taken out of context. She had a reason for doing what she did and that reason was not for making any overarching statement for all companies who employ people.

From our company's perspective, fortunately, I don't have to make those kind of proclamations, because people work from where it is appropriate, wherever they happen to be. There are some jobs you can do from home.

For us it is just being practical.

Recently, when Steve Ballmer announced his plans to resign, the markets cheered. Clearly, they seemed happy to see his back. For a CEO, when is a good time to resign?

CEOs resign when the internal dynamics of the company and the external dynamics of the company actually come together to say it is appropriate. When the internal dynamics ask you whether you have a replacement. I think the transition from CEOships have also become cartoonish.

When you say the markets cheered, I don't think it is as simple as it seems. I think he and the board had to make certain decisions on when it is time to leave and I guess he did that. When it's time for me to leave, I think the same set of combinations have to happen. And it will happen for all CEOs.