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Knowledge of India

Acuity Knowledge Partners’ CEO Robert King tells PLATFORM’s Stuart Rock about his novel leadership experiences of working in a private equity environment and steering a global business through a pandemic.

Acuity Knowledge Partners' CEO Robert King.

SR: Just a few months after Acuity became an independent business, the Covid pandemic hit the world. As we speak, the Covid situation in India is awful. With more than 2,000 employees in India, how has the company responded?

RK: The headquarters of Acuity may be in London, but we only account for one per cent of the workforce. The heart and soul of the company is in India. Pre-Covid, I would be in India every other month. Our February 2020 board meeting was in India.

If you had told me that, three months after becoming independent, the entire company would shift to working from home almost overnight without missing a beat – I wouldn’t have thought it possible. Our 3,500 employees have all worked from home and continued to serve our 350 customers.

SR: You had spent 20 years of your career working at Moody’s when you became CEO of what was then Moody’s Analytics Knowledge Services (MAKS). Did you see its potential to be a carve-out?

RK: Absolutely not. Moody’s is a 100-year-old company, which had never sold an operating unit, so I saw my role as CEO of the MAKS business as my next Moody’s career assignment. The decision to sell the business came as a surprise to me, although I saw the rationale.

Moody’s advised me of their decision to sell. It was a big decision point for me after 20 years with Moody’s, but I felt that, as captain of the ship, I should lead the business through the process into new ownership. It was the right thing to do, but I also had absolute confidence that this was a business with great potential to be unleashed.

SR: What had been the constraints on the business?

RK: We represented less than three percent of Moody’s revenues. In a large corporation, you have to fight for funding, focus and talent and that can be hard if the business is seen as non-core.

One of the strengths of partnering with Equistone has been the speed and rigour of decision-making and the focus that they bring to our strategy and growth plans.

Equistone's Tim Swales and Richard Briault.
Equistone's Tim Swales and Richard Briault.

Recently, we signed off a multi-million investment that’s beyond the initial planned budget. At the start of the year, we had an agreed budget, but we decided to significantly change that to adapt to changing market conditions and opportunities. That would have been incredibly painful in our old lives and we would have been competing with other areas. Whereas now, the focus is on deploying our capital for our future success. With Equistone we are in charge of our own destiny.

The relationship we have built with Equistone is a frank, open and trusting one. Our meetings are very focused and supportive, but with high challenges. The difference has been the focus and the speed. The board, which is chaired by Philip Gore-Randall, is swift, but rigorous in its decision-making.

SR: How did you find the process of choosing a chairman?

RK: Equistone found a group of appropriate candidates and I was fortunate to meet three of them. I was looking for someone with the appropriate experience to guide us. I needed our chairman to be someone that I could trust, that I could speak openly and frankly to, and be someone I respected.

Philip’s experience, and the chemistry between us, made him the right man for the job. He is incredibly supportive, questions me fairly and offers a wealth of experience.

acuity logo

SR: What are the reasons behind Acuity’s strong growth in 2020 and into 2021? 

RK: The exuberant capital markets in the second half of 2020 created strong demand for the talent and support that Acuity provides to our financial services clients. We had made some good decisions and investments to position the business to capture the demand from both existing and new clients.

Our investment in marketing and technology has positioned the business as a leader in our field.

SR: Acuity is looking to hire up to 1,200 people in 2021. What are the principal recruitment challenges?

RK: India has an incredibly deep talent market for the skills that we require. As a nation, it produces over one million MBAs/CFAs every year and we have a very well-oiled recruitment and training engine.

During the pandemic, we have managed to repurpose our recruitment and training so that we can hire, onboard, and get people running remotely. We have hundreds of analysts, who have joined us in last 12 months and, who have never been to our offices.

A large part of our proposition is that you can work for Wall Street and City of London firms, but stay in India, China or Costa Rica. We are also on a constant drive to improve the gender balance in our business.

SR: Where will the future growth come from?

RK: Much of our growth will come from expanding our relationships with our existing 350 clients, but there is a wealth of opportunity to find new customers within the financial services sector. It is no longer only a “big global bank thing” to use offshore third-party support. 

A full version of this article appeared in PLATFORM 05, Summer 2021