How a refugee’s son from a small Indian town became Deloitte Global’s CEO

Small town, big ambitions.
Small town, big ambitions.
Image: Deloitte
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The story of the rise (and fall) and rise of Punit Renjen—who was named Deloitte Global’s CEO in 2015—begins in the heartland of Haryana.

Still a teenager when the country was divided in 1947, Renjen’s father was forced to forgo engineering school in the UK and eventually moved to Rohtak. In this small town in Haryana, some 80 kilometres from India’s capital city, the senior Renjen put down his roots and established an electrical switchgear factory.

When he was around seven, a young Renjen was packed off to The Lawrence School in Sanawar since Rohtak’s schools, as his parents’ reasoned, just weren’t good enough.

“In the town that I was growing up in, that’s what you did if your parents had some means,” he said in a 2014 interview. The Lawrence School, established in 1847 at the foothills of the Himalayas, is among the country’s most elite institutions, counting among its alumni a list of chief ministers, bureaucrats, business leaders and even members of the subcontinent’s royal families.

By the time he was 14, his father’s business collapsed, boarding school got too expensive and Renjen was asked to return home to continue his studies. ”So I’d go to school in the morning, come back and then put in my time,” at his father’s factory, Renjen recalled in the interview. “And I did that for many, many years…four, five years.”

With money tight, Renjen apparently had little choice when it came to choosing colleges. “My father couldn’t afford to send me to any other college, so I went to the college in my local town,” he said in another interview. 

After graduating with a degree in economics, Renjen chanced upon a newspaper advertisement for Usha International, makers of sewing machines and other home appliances. He arrived in Delhi on a local bus, wearing jeans and without a tie, but landed his first job at the company. His early years at an elite boarding school would have undoubtedly given him an edge.

Skinny jeans and a scholarship

In 1984, Renjen won a Rotary Foundation Scholarship that offered him a ticket to the US—and a place at Willamette University’s Atkinson Graduate School of Management.

Till then, he had never travelled outside the country, or even flown on an airplane. ”I had this scholarship, two pairs of tight jeans and a couple of hundred extra dollars and I showed up in Oregon, and went to school there,” Renjen said.

Renjen’s decision to attend the private liberal arts institution in Salem, Oregon was also partly influenced by family; he had an aunt who lived in the city, and that helped him transition into what would become a permanent move to the US.

At B-school, Renjen would sit at the front of class and record every lecture on a tape recorder. Inexperienced with the American accent, the boy from Rohtak thought it was best to hear the lectures twice over to catch every word uttered by his professors.

Clear that he wanted to apply his newly-acquired MBA chops to an American firm, Renjen then went out on a job hunt that took him from Booz Allen Hamilton to Citibank. Eventually, though, he settled on Touche Ross—which merged with Deloitte Haskins & Sells in 1989—and Renjen never left.

Greyhound to the top

“While I was in school, a local magazine picked the 10 best students, and they picked me and profiled me in the magazine,” Renjen remembered in an interview last year. That magazine was picked up by Deloitte (Touche Ross) partner on a flight, who scanned Renjen’s profile and then asked an assistant to call him in for an interview.

Lured by the promise of a consulting job—a profession that he knew precious little about—Renjen rode a Greyhound bus to Seattle. And (again) without a suit, he went through round after round of interviews, to eventually land the job. (That sort of sartorial inadequacy in a B-school student’s wardrobe would be frowned upon now. Thirty years ago, however, he still squeezed through.)

“They were prepared to pay me $37,000 in the early 1980s and they wanted to hire me. And that’s how I ended up with Deloitte,” Renjen explained in 2014. “And 28 years later, I’m chairman of the firm.”

And Renjen’s rise from an analyst to the chairman of Deloitte LLP (as the US firm is known) in June 2011—and now, to the position of chairman of Deloitte Global (which guides all 47-member firms, including Deloitte LLP)—has been built on one core skill: Mergers and acquisitions.

“I’m good at what I do,” Renjen said. “I’m really really good at what I do, and I’m not saying this with any level of arrogance. The only reason why I’m saying that is because I’ve put in over 25 years perfecting the craft.”

Pass the baton

A few years ago, as Australia’s cricket team lost in India while on tour, Giam Swiegers received a perplexing text message.

Swiegers, who was Deloitte Australia’s CEO till earlier this year, couldn’t figure out why his US counterpart had texted him about India thrashing the green baggies in a test match by an innings and some runs.

“I wrote back to him (saying) ‘It’s very embarrassing but Joe, you’re from Florida. What do you know about cricket?'” Swiegers recalled last year. ”He said, ‘Nothing. Punit stole my phone and sent you a text.'”

Consulting isn’t Renjen’s only passion. Deloitte Global’s new chief is also a sports buff. A lifelong cricket fan, Renjen also enjoys football (the US variant), which he watches with his son—and is also a runner.

And it’s a running analogy that Renjen employs to describe his journey to the very top of Deloitte.

“This is a relay race,” he told colleagues last year. “I want people to say, ‘He really ran that race well, he didn’t drop the baton, he didn’t screw it up.’”

From June 01, when he takes over as Deloitte Global’s CEO, a new lap begins for Renjen.