How Amrish Rau of Pine Labs made strides during the pandemic
From owning a fintech platform to taking the reins at a unicorn just ahead of the lockdown last year, CEO B. Amrish Rau talks about the highs and lows of a pandemic year
Logging into our Zoom meeting, I see B. Amrish Rau, CEO of fintech company Pine Labs, fiddling with the virtual backdrop. He’s not too happy with the image of what looks like a business district. He tries another—it’s the same place but at night, with lights twinkling within buildings. “This is the first time I am trying this feature. It doesn’t come through very well though. I don’t think it’s working for me,” says Rau, doing away with the background altogether.
The decisiveness is apparent. And necessary to run a firm, build a team and a culture, and gain the trust of team members. In the fast lane of growth, Pine Labs became the country’s first unicorn (with a valuation of over $1 billion) in 2020, after it received investment from the American corporation Mastercard that January.
For any leader, settling into a new organisation takes some time. For Rau, 48, who took over the reins at the 3,000-employee Pine Labs just two weeks before the pandemic-induced lockdown last year, it was even more difficult. In addition to the challenge of getting to know the team without meeting it in person, there was the issue of navigating, and surviving, the pandemic. As the pandemic tightened its grip, business collapsed to 20% in the first two phases of lockdown till April, only picking up from July, when the country started opening up.
A merchant platform company, Pine Labs provides last-mile retail transaction technology, basically the point-of-sale (POS) terminals you see in retail stores, from small kirana shops to mutli-chain companies like Pizza Hut, Big Bazaar, Croma and Starbucks Coffee. But it’s not limited just to payments—over the years, they have added products to help customers digitise all their business processes.
Rau, who went to the office on only three days last March, admits it was a tough start. “The easy part was being nice with people on Zoom. The tough part was being tough with people on Zoom but, at the same time, hoping that they know who the real you is,” he says. “Now how do you build that relationship over Zoom? I found it extremely difficult, where I still had to be me, be tough, get things done, get business going on a certain area,” says Rau, who lives with his family in Singapore.
He moved ahead with his plans, overriding reservations to expand his sales team in April so that they would be ready by the time the pandemic “softened up”. Pine Labs hired 150 salespeople in April and plans to hire another 300 by March. “I remember putting at ease the CFO and the board members that I was sure about what I was doing,” he says.
The risk paid off. The number of Pine Labs payment terminals across India rose from 700 in April to 24,000 per month by October. The current valuation of the company, headquartered in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, stands at over $2 billion (around ₹14,480 crore), after it raised nearly $100 million in funding in December.
Rau, who has considerable experience in the fintech space and ran his own startup for three years, took up the Pine Labs challenge as a founder would. Started in 1998, the company operated in a niche segment—providing smartcard payment and loyalty solutions for the retail petroleum sector. A little over a decade later, it pivoted to the mainstream payment market, connecting merchants to banks and financial services. The POS platform was set up three years later, in 2012. Today, it has over 1,50,000 merchants in its network across 3,700 cities in India, South-East Asia and the Middle East. “The platform was the biggest attraction for me, as I can create a massive organisation on it,” says Rau.
Attempting greater visibility among both merchants and consumers, he has aggressively pushed a slew of features, like “Buy Now, Pay Later”, to gain new ground. With the pay later feature, for instance, Pine Labs closed transactions worth ₹2,000 crore from April last year to January this year. The expansion has come largely from the smaller cities, where the growth has been to the tune of 300% since February last year. The feature is being used increasingly for two-wheeler purchases but they are noticing an uptick in the apparel and furniture segments as well, Rau says.
Pine Labs has amped up its effort to educate merchants and salespeople about the role of POS and other services and help in digitisation, a need acutely felt during the pandemic. “Ultimately, we want to be the gatekeepers of digital technology coming into the merchant’s environment by offering more products and increasing our engagement with the customers,” says Rau.
The company has helped him fill the void that emerged when his startup, Citrus Payment Solutions (or Citrus Pay, as it was known among consumers), was acquired by South Africa-based Naspers Ltd’s fintech company PayU in September 2016. The $130 million all-cash deal was one of the largest in the fintech space, and Naspers offered him the job of PayU CEO.
He seized the opportunity but it was a challenging phase: He had to reassure his team in Citrus Pay and gain the trust of the team at PayU. “Nobody liked me on that day,” he says. After three years at PayU India, however, Rau was itching to start something of his own again. For although the Citrus Pay deal ensured he didn’t have to work again for money, he missed the chance to build. He even approached the VC firm Sequoia India but heeded suggestions from one of the partners there that it might be wiser to look at a platform that was already up and running.
“We had a great exit (from Citrus Pay). But it’s not a monetary aspect at all. What you miss is the fact that once you have a platform, you can then keep building on top of that. With Pine Labs, I was getting another chance to have a platform, which I so very much missed. I want to create something massive on the platform that I have,” says Rau, who has invested in startups like Kunal Shah’s Cred, Mobile Premier League and KhataBook in his personal capacity over the last four years.
His philosophy is simple. “I actually treat everything as a game, as 11 players in the football field. Invariably, my leadership style is that I am somebody who’s helping everyone solve their problem. That’s something you learn on the sports field, and I have tried to be consistent with it,” says Rau, who is a member of the Cracking Willow Thunder Club, which is part of the Singapore Cricket Association.
Looking To The Future
Fintech is one of the industries that has recovered quickly from covid-19’s blow and, in fact, has seen growth through the pandemic. Over the next two decades, digital payments are expected to race ahead of cash, says Rau. “The way I look at it is, every day when we go to bed, we know for sure tomorrow is going to be better than today. And there are very few industries you can say that about,” he says.
But it’s also an industry where errors can have a major impact on consumers’ lives. Recently, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) pulled up startups offering high-interest instant loans because of the harassment customers faced when they couldn’t repay on time. Rau believes such action is necessary to ensure the entire industry doesn’t get tarred with the same brush.
He recalls the 2010 microfinance debacle in Andhra Pradesh, when the high interest rates charged by some institutions led to borrowers taking their lives. The state government responded with severe regulations. “It wasn’t that one entity which got hammered, the entire sector collapsed. And to be honest, microfinance is much needed in India. Similarly, fintech and fintech credit are solving a real problem. But two or three bad actors out there can completely mess the entire industry. So, following good governance, best practices, staying on the right side on what you do for society in general, is extremely important while you grow a business,” says the Pine Labs CEO.
Rau has certainly come a long way. After graduating from Mumbai’s Shah and Anchor Kutchhi Engineering College, he got his first break in 1996, thanks to his brother, who was working with Siemens at the time. His stint in sales with Siemens Nixdorf Informationssysteme offered invaluable experience. “It’s (all) about how can I serve my team better,” he explains.
A year-and-a-half later, he joined NCR Corporation, the ATM manufacturing company, working for seven years in multiple roles, from regional sales manager to general manager of the ASEAN region. He then moved to the US-headquartered First Data Corporation, an electronic payment services company, setting up their India team in December 2005. It was during his stint there that he met Jitendra Gupta, who would go on to found Citrus Pay with him in 2013.
Getting into the work groove while working remotely may have been challenging but it has been a smooth ride at a personal level—Rau has been able to spend more time with family. “Over the last eight years, I used to be out of home for at least 10 days of the month. And now I have been at home for 11 months, and so family life is good,” he says with a laugh. Then again, Rau has always ensured work doesn’t impact the time he spends with his children—a 20-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter. “I have never really messed around with that part,” he says.
When asked about the takeaway from the last 11 months, Rau isn’t keen to merely list achievements. “If I say in the pandemic I built 17 products, that would be such a loser of an answer. If I didn’t feel what happened during the pandemic, how front-line workers worked very hard to get our lives back…. There was a time when, for a week, we kept a rose for anyone who delivered anything at home. We wanted to be appreciative of people who were on the street and kept us going. Those small things are what will stick in our head 20 years later,” he says.
How do you de-stress?
By playing sports and watching my children play squash. Following the kids for their squash game is something that completely de-stresses me.
Your pet peeve
Currently, it’s about how much people like to preside or manage over situations instead of executing on their own. Delegation and hands-off supervision is one thing, and not being competent enough to execute is another. I see this mistake from senior leaders again and again.
A person who has inspired you
(Former HDFC Bank chairman) Aditya Puri. He’s easily the most inspiring leader from India. I was lucky to know him and see him closely build HDFC Bank. Some of his greatest traits were in team-building, work-life balance, and simple uncomplicated thinking in institution-building.