Ajay Ayyappan – EXL
With every challenge there can be opportunity, and Ajay Ayyappan could see both in December 2018 upon being promoted to general counsel and senior vice president at operations management and analytics solutions company EXL.
A member of the legal team since 2007, Ayyappan was used to what could be a changing office environment, but one of the first things he had to address after becoming its boss was a department that had become understaffed with recent departures.
While EXL has around 31,000 employees globally, the company’s legal staff at the time only numbered around a dozen lawyers. Until the team could again reach full strength, Ayyappan had to do more with less, but knew that couldn’t be accomplished by legal staff alone.
Improved efficiency needed the support of other company teams. Among other things, that called for simplification and streamlining of a complex client contracting process, through the development and enhancement of playbooks, templates and training materials that could be shared with internal partners in order to educate and enlist their support in negotiations. Additionally, while each EXL client may have specific needs, there are enough commonalities among most that modular templates can be created to address most solution types. These materials are made available to legal team members as well as business partners in a digital library to allow for quick access.
One year later, Ayyappan can report progress on the efficiency front, and how it’s laid the foundation for another EXL initiative, securing ownership of the intellectual property it creates in connection with the cutting edge solutions it provides its clients.
An eventful year
So it was something of a three-fer of accomplishments that Ayyappan was glad to discuss with Vanguard last December as he celebrated his first anniversary as general counsel.
With three more lawyers in the fold—one each in New York City, the United Kingdom and India—he now presides over a department of 15. Given the size of the workforce distributed among the Americas, Europe, Asia and South Africa, it’s still a lean team that at least for now is short one member.
But that’s just another challenge Ayyappan accepts as part of the job.
“The hiring process for legal can be longer and more intense than for other groups,” he explains from EXL headquarters in the Big Apple. “Legal being a relatively small team, we can’t hire unless we have a high degree of confidence that someone can contribute right away and be a great cultural fit with the existing team.”
That calls for multiple rounds of hours-long interviews, with each candidate meeting all members of the local legal team. When hiring outside the United States, Ayyappan will screen the candidates via telephone and follow up with Skype sessions and finally, for successful candidates, travel to foreign locations to meet with them in person. All members of the local team weigh in and while Ayyappan retains veto power, he he’s never had to use it, which he cites as further proof of a constructive and collaborative company culture.
It’s also about IP protection
Understanding that EXL’s transition to digital solutions will require greater focus on retaining intellectual property rights, the legal team began the process of thinking through how EXL’s contracting approach would need to change in an environment where the company was creating and deploying increasingly valuable intellectual property that it would need to leverage across many clients.
In the past, the company had been more service (as opposed to solution) focused and intellectual property created as part of a customer relationship would often become owned by that customer, with EXL only retaining residual rights to general know-how. In order to embrace a role as an industry disruptor and create solutions that can be deployed across customers, Ayyappan says the company’s approach on intellectual property has necessarily evolved to allow it to retain more of the IP it creates—a model that benefits both EXL and its customers as it allows the latter to enjoy solutions that are constantly improving.
“The customer shouldn’t expect to own the IP when we present them with a solution to a problem,” he explains. “It’s no different than when Salesforce [a cloud-based software company] provides a platform for a sales team to manage its business. The customer doesn’t own that platform—it’s just a solution from Salesforce.”
A fine fit
Ayyappan has been all about solutions since joining EXL as an associate general counsel in 2007, just five years after his graduation from Fordham University School of Law. Having cut his professional teeth as a corporate associate at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, where he focused on mergers and acquisitions, corporate finance and general corporate matters, his skills seemed just what EXL needed at the time.
He’d have a hand in multiple acquisitions and their subsequent integrations.
Needless to say, his workload has only intensified in other areas, among them client negotiations and contracting, risk management, advising the brass and keeping the NASDAQ-listed company in compliance with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Much of 2019 was quite the juggling act, he says, but matters have since stabilized to where Ayyappan can mentor his staff as well as play a big-picture role in EXL’s ongoing transition.
“I don’t have the luxury of just being a lawyer,” he says. “I have to wear a business hat as well. When you’re in-house you always look at the business perspective and solve for that.”
He’s glad to be doing it at EXL.
“We’re at the forefront of creating innovative operations management and analytics solutions to solve customer needs across industries,” Ayyappan says.
Quite an exciting mission, he’s quick to remind.
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