After earning a doctorate in nuclear physics from Oxford, Shan Nair wrote 50 research papers on the subject and became so well regarded in his profession the European Commission picked him as one of the experts it sent to assess the damage from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in Ukraine.
But while working at a British energy agency where he supervised a group of accountants, he got the idea to co-found his own accounting company focused on international trade with his wife, Vyoma. Beginning small in 1994, Sunnyvale-based Nair & Co. now employees 640 people, boasts operations in more than 60 nations and generated $40 million in revenue in its most recent fiscal year -- a 25 percent increase from the year before.
In an interview edited for length and clarity, the 61-year-old Nair discussed the help he provides companies seeking to explore foreign markets and why he believes he can grow his business tenfold in coming years.
Q What prompted you to move from Britain and set up Nair's headquarters here?
A A lot of technology companies at the time were coming to the U.K. from the U.S. like babes in the woods with no guidance and support, which they needed. And Silicon Valley is a very open culture. Nobody here cares where you come form or how you speak English. If you have a proposition and you can show you can deliver on that, people are going to listen.
Q What sort of issues do your clients face when they expand overseas?
A When these companies set up abroad they are usually doing it with limited financial resources. So it's a question of balancing the risks and costs. For example, say you have a software engineer in Sweden that you want to put on the payroll. The Swedish authorities could argue over time that because some of the engineer's intellectual property has been developed there, Sweden should get some of the licensing revenue. Setting up a subsidiary will eliminate this risk, because all IP generated by the subsidiary will belong to the U.S. But it will cost about $20,000 to set up and another $15,000 to $16,000 a year to maintain it, which you might not want to do for one guy.
Q How do you keep track of the laws in so many countries?
A I've learned the hard way, by figuring it all out and then advising clients. So it's in my head, it's in my DNA now. Also, we have a 30-person department in India that basically populates a knowledge base on an intranet that's got all of this kind of material -- changes in tax regulations in Brazil, implications for clients, all of that written in there.
Q Do you help any foreign companies that want to do business in the U.S.?
A We have been traditionally U.S.-outbound focused. But we have a small and growing client base of foreign companies setting up operations in multiple countries, including the U.S. I would say last year, of all the new clients we got, 93 percent were U.S.-outbound.
Q How do you see your company evolving?
A I think the company is in a very exciting position, actually, and I don't think I've got rose-tinted spectacles. In any one country, there is a law firm, there's an accounting firm, there's a payroll company that can do what we do. But there are very few that are multicountry and there are very few that do it as a one-stop shop. In our case you can have a conversation about an issue in Japan, an issue in Denmark and an issue in Brazil in one call. We may make some very well-targeted acquisitions of companies offering synergistic services, but primarily I see us growing organically. I think it could easily get us to a size of about $350 million or $400 million, 10 times our current size.
Q Have you seen a growing number of U.S. companies setting up foreign operations?
A Yes. Companies are going abroad at an earlier stage, I think partly for cost reasons to develop their technology in cheaper markets. Allied with that, because the U.S. market has been rather depressed, in order to achieve sales targets, they've got to sell in foreign markets. So the effect of the recession actually has been to increase our business. That's why our growth was 25 percent last year when most companies were having a hard time.
Q What do you most like and dislike about your job?
A I really like the positive development of the company from day one. And the variety. No two clients have the same problem. Also, the clients we have want to do everything right; they don't want to break any rules. What I don't like are dealing with HR problems, I don't have a lot of time for moaners and whiners. And my reaction usually is to fire them.
Contact Steve Johnson at 408-920-5043.
Position: Co-founder and former CEO of Nair & Co.
Birthplace: Cairo, Egypt
Residence: Santa Clara and Naples, Fla.
Education: Doctorate in nuclear physics from Oxford
Previous jobs: Personal assistant to a board member with the United Kingdom company National Power; commercial head of nuclear decommissioning with National Power; research scientist with the Central Electricity Generating Board in the U.K.
Family: He and his wife, Vyoma, have a daughter, Aditi.
five facts about Shan Nair
1. The child of a diplomat, he has lived in 13 countries and for a time fancied a career in the army.
2. He likes driving fast cars on race tracks and recalls once "hitting a wall of tires at 130 miles an hour," noting, "there were tires going everywhere."
3. A key life-changing experience was making the leap from salaried nuclear physicist to high-risk entrepreneur.
4. He and his wife set up a free lunch program for more than 1,000 poor children in India.
5. He and his wife have helped rescue abused bears and elephants in India.