Ebix is not a well-known
company in the global travel industry, but Robin Raina plans to change that –
Raina, CEO of the Atlanta-based firm that primarily provides e-commerce
and software services for the insurance and financial industries, has ambitious
goals on the heels of four India-based travel industry acquisitions in the past
20 months: Zillious Solutions, Mercury Travel, Leisure Corp, Via and, July 17, Yatra.
Raina joined Ebix in 1997 and became president and CEO the following year. Since
then, the company has had 80 quarters of sequential growth. On this year's first
quarter conference call with analysts, Raina said the company is getting
close to $600 million in annualized revenues, and he believes it will be at $800
million by the fourth quarter of this year. With the recent acquisitions, Ebix
has about 10,000 employees in India and another 2,000 in other parts of the
We talked to Raina on a broad scope of topics, ranging from
his plans to disrupt travel to his thoughts on Google and his extensive philanthropic
Ebix’s business is primarily in the areas of software and
e-commerce services for the insurance, finance and healthcare industries. Why
are you now creating a travel division?
Ebix’s work has always been in the area of driving what we call
convergence. To us travel is a subset of finance – that’s how we see travel. We
believe the world is evolving and the days when travel was sold as a single
piece are over.
A simple example is if I want to fly from Delhi to Paris, I
need a visa, I need an airline ticket, I need hotels, I need possibly travel
insurance, health insurance, I need foreign exchange. When you look at it today,
people tend to go to five or six different services to accomplish that. We think
that is probably not the best thing from a consumer perspective or a provider perspective.
So with EbixCash, that’s the brand name in India, what we
are striving to do is provide a one-stop shop, an end-to-end experience. In that
example, we provide all those services in one go, while interfacing data
seamlessly. That’s a little bit of a paradigm shift in terms of how to handle data,
how to handle the consumer.
And while we do that, we also want to power the
technology of the back-end providers. We don’t only want to play in the
distribution market and sell travel.
By integrating products, you provide ease of functionality to
the consumer and also more efficiency for the providers.
So what is the scope of Ebix’s work in travel today?
Ebix ventured into travel two years back. For the B2B and corporate
side, we will absolutely be undisputed number one right now in India. We also are
the number one OTA provider in the Philippines, and we are one of the leaders
We are slightly different from the traditional Indian travel
operator, because we have a global landscape. So we’ve already established our
travel operations in Asia Pacific, in ASEAN, the Middle East, the Philippines.
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In travel we now have three brands under EbixCash, if you
count Yatra in. We have a brand called Via, and the second brand is Mercury. The
differentiation is Via tends to focus on the B2B side of the business.
We sell primarily
through franchisees - 110,000 franchisees. We are in every corner of India, the
Philippines, Indonesia, Dubai. We have franchisees who use our technology and
sell for us, and Via also sells online. The main focus is B2B.
Mercury is our
luxury brand. With Mercury we focus on the MICE travel related to events. If there
is the FIFA World Cup happening or a Cricket World Cup happening, for example, we
have exclusive rights in India for hospitality boxes at the World Cup. We handle
a few 100 events per year. We handle end-to-end travel and then we handle
luxury, whether it’s a celebrity or a senior corporate executive. That’s all under
the Mercury brand.
Yatra will be the third brand now. It will be a primarily
online and a primarily consumer brand. We are also going to put corporate under
the Yatra name. Presently its under Mercury, but we will put corporate travel
We also own travel technology under the brand Zillious that’s
being used by Thomas Cook, by FCM Travel Solutions, Yatra – there’s a number of
players who use that. It’s a complete end-to-end solution that handles
everything from the perspective of a travel agent or OTA.
And it’s open architecture
technology. We intend to white-label this technology platform and sell it
through large travel exchanges in the U.S. and Europe as well as in Asia and Africa. We’re
already in deep discussions with European players, America players. We are very
bullish about doing that.
What led you to develop an interest in Yatra?
Yatra is a household brand in India. It’s a name everybody
knows about. So from a travel market perspective, that’s a big plus. Secondly we
felt that once we have Yatra we will be an undisputed number one in the corporate
and B2B side of the business. Three, we believe we can be a very formidable player
in the online consumer space once we have Yatra.
And lastly, Yatra is a company that
actually kept growing their business, but they weren’t making enough money - they
were actually losing money. When we see companies in a little bit of distress,
but they have a great brand name and good value, then we tend to like that. One
man’s distress is another person’s opportunity.
Over the last 20 years, Ebix has made a lot of acquisitions
and bought companies in a little bit of distress and converted them into highly
profitable operations. All of those are pluses for us from a Yatra perspective.
In a recent interview you did on India’s Times Network, you
said that whenever you enter a new business sector, your goal is to be
different, to change the industry. What are your plans for your company’s work
in travel, in India and beyond?
Our vision is rather simple. We don’t see travel as a standalone
piece. We see it as an integral part of the financial exchange. We want to
tightly integrate travel into other services. We want to handle every piece - visa,
airline, hotel, travel insurance, health insurance, foreign exchange - and we want
to do it globally.
So we are continuing to expand our operations across the
world. One of our target areas will be North America. We intend to enter the
United States and Canada from a travel perspective very, very soon, the next
six to 12 months. And like I said, we have a different viewpoint. We like to be
not only on the front end but on the back end side of the business too.
I’ll give you an example. When we sell bus travel, we don’t
just sell e-ticketing. What we actually do is once a consumer is inside the bus,
we actually provide the firmware for the bus, we provide the counters for the
bus, the cameras in the bus, so the consumer can wave the EbixCash smart card
and pay for the ticket through the machine. We provide that service to the bus
operators who pay us based on every ticket for which they wave their card. For
us an end-to-end functionality is key.
Our goal in the next few years is going to be to continue to
expand globally in the travel sector, but where we differentiate from everybody
else is that we are always going to talk about all of these solutions in one brand.
We aren’t going to talk about travel in a standalone basis.
If a customer wants
standalone, sure we’ll provide it, but our focus is on bundling all of these
services together and interfacing them completely so the consumer gets a complete
solution from us.
Who are your competitors in travel?
The biggest market we have right now in travel is India – it’s
booming in travel - and the largest competitor is MakeMyTrip, which is in the
consumer world. We feel we have our own niche. MakeMyTrip is a worthy company,
and they have the volume on the consumer side, that tends to be their focus.
However, we have a slightly different model. MakeMyTrip is a loss-leading
company, 40% losses, publicly traded, whereas Ebix is highly profitable – we’ve
had 80 quarters of sequential growth, and we are really focused on growing
profitably and sensibly. So we don’t take revenue for the sake of revenue. We
want to grow our revenue along with our profit.
As you start to expand globally your competitive set will
expand as well to include some very large, established brands – Booking,
Expedia, Ctrip. How do you plan to compete?
Those are great brands and they’ve done a fantastic job of
growing their business. At the same time, we believe we have a very niche
ability to go after some of the markets. For example, if you look at North
America, I feel some of the large players have dropped the ball.
And I have
first-hand experience of that, which is if you are a corporate and you want high-quality service, you need to have products for the corporate in travel. There are
not that many products in the North American market in terms of the kind of
service, for example, we provide on the corporate travel side in India.
We want to handle every piece - visa, airline, hotel, travel insurance, health insurance, foreign exchange - and we want to do it globally.
Robin Raina - Ebix
There’s better technology, more functionality, more
service-oriented, better workflows. I believe that there’s a difference that can
happen from an efficiency perspective, putting more control in the hands of the
travelers, and that needs to happen in terms of providing more control to the corporates
to be able to not only provide a seamless service to their employees but do it
in a manner where they can have their checks and balances, controls, efficiencies.
Which means there’s an opportunity to provide that level of
service in North America and create all these self-booking tools, in an end-to-end,
comprehensive way and target the corporate market. I don’t believe these players
have done a great job in the corporate sector in terms of providing desktop
services, cross-functional services and value that actually percolates down,
and also services provided in a manner and workflow that companies can control
in terms of the processes to make a travel decision happen.
Ultimately you need
to have software that caters to the custom needs of corporate market. To me
that’s an opportunity target. So I think primarily we’ll start with corporate and the B2B
side of the business, and we’ll graduate into the consumer side after that.
We can’t talk about travel and future developments without a
mention of Google. What are your thoughts on Google’s continued inroads into
All I would say is many, many other players have come into
travel and all of them have nibbled at it. A lot of them are serving the front
end wherein they actually have outsourced the back-end services to other
There is potpourri of different players doing different
things. It doesn’t always work. If you step back a few years you will see Google
entered into insurance in U.S. – it didn’t do very well. It doesn’t mean that Google
may or may not do well in travel, but whatever industry you enter you need to
have a complete handle on it, an end-to-end product.
It’s not just about
putting a front end and making an online mechanism available for consumers. Consumers
tend to gravitate to service providers who can provide a more end-to-end service.
That’s the nature of any industry.
So I’m not sure that just having eyeballs guarantees anybody
leadership in anything. I’ve seen that not only with Google but there are so many
other large players who have gone and tried to venture into 10 different kind
of services and haven’t really succeeded purely because it’s not really their
cup of tea.
It’s not that simple to just provide an online outlet and stand
there and wait for bookings. You have to really understand the nuances of the industry.
Until that happens some of these efforts will just remain efforts, and they
will never reach their critical mass that these players would like it to have.
In any industry it’s not only important to know what to do, you
need to know what not to do. And the what not to do comes from experience,
comes from expertise... so it’s very difficult for people to just step in and
become big players in a sector.
And speaking of expertise, as you expand the travel business
globally, how do you plan to build Ebix’s expertise in travel?
For markets abroad for sure we’ll need to make some key
hires. We are going to leverage all our resources that we have to grow our
business. Of course we want to use the expertise we have as a foundation but we’ll
have to complement that with additional hires.
There is also the possibility of
us making geographic acquisitions in specific markets. It’s like if I’m going
to go into France and launch travel, there’s no point in me trying to do that until
I have the relationships in the local French market. And sometimes it’s better
to open the doors by making an acquisition in the right sector, like travel, and
build up from there onwards. So I think that’s going to be our strategy.
In addition to your work as CEO of Ebix, you are actively involved with a
charitable foundation you created in 2003 that runs multiple schools, orphanages and medical facilities and has built more
than 6,000 concrete homes for slum dwellers in India. How does your work in
this area impact or complement your work as a CEO?
For me, I couldn’t have it any other way. The way I look at
it is to be a complete human being you need to be at peace with yourself. You need
to be able to sleep well, and you need to be happy. A business demands that you
be analytical, pragmatic, happy and at the same time be able to make balanced decisions.
I believe whatever I do on the charity side really gives me
those abilities. It keeps me happy, it makes me feel more balanced, it keeps my
feet on the ground, it makes me humble. Those are traits that help me on the
When I’m making deals or trying to buy companies, I tend to make
more rational decisions. I tend to make decisions that are more balanced, I don’t
get carried away just because I have to do the deal. Because what I’ve learned
while dealing with have-nots, while dealing with underprivileged ... it’s best
to appreciate what you have and ensure that when you make decisions do that in
a manner wherein you are not compromising your ethics, you are not compromising
your integrity and you are not too caught up personally in it. You need to be
ambitious, but you don’t need to be greedy.
What is going to be my legacy? Should it be that I left a
multimillion-dollar business behind? I don’t know whether that’s a good legacy.
Sure you created employment, that’s a great thing. At the same time, I feel
your best legacy can be to leave smiles on hopefully
the faces of hundreds of thousands of kids around the world who can be happy.