If Infosys is admired for its excellent systems, TCS is respected for its execution skills and Wipro scores on creativity.
But while the big three of India's IT sector - TCS, Infosys and Wipro - have their individual strengths, their business models are very similar. All three depend on the application development and maintenance (ADM) space for about half their revenues, North America remains their biggest hunting ground and each of them earns at least a third of their sales from a single sector.
If one is growing faster than the other, attribute it to hard work. Market-savvy Infosys, with a revenue of Rs 13,149 crore (Rs 131.49 billion), clearly has the best track record, having turned in a stupendous compounded 60 per cent annual growth in revenues between 1982 and 2007.
However, of late the Rs 18,685 crore (Rs 186.85 billion) TCS appears to have become far more aggressive. That's showing up in big client deals - the $1.2billion Nielsen deal which it bagged recently and twenty $50 million deals in the pipeline.
While it should most certainly grow faster than Infosys this year - 24 per cent vs 21 per cent for Infosys - it might well turn in a repeat performance in FY09. Of course, Infosys' margins are far superior - it's an area that TCS needs to work on.
The Rs 11,094 crore (Rs 110.94 billion) Wipro, meanwhile, has lagged its peers; revenues grew just 38 per cent in FY07 compared with 40 per cent-plus for the other two.
With $100 billion worth of orders on offer, everyone's cashing in but the perception in the industry is that TCS is ahead, with a couple of plum deals including one for $170 million from the Bank of China. It also got a big piece of the $500 million ABN Amro order last year, together with Infosys and Patni Computers.
Says N Chandrasekaran, TCS' ED and COO, "Not only do we have a full services play, we also have the scale to manage large and complex programmes across multiple delivery centres globally. And that's giving us an edge."
Experts point out that Infosys has always been market-savvy, but TCS seems to be catching up. James Abraham, partner, The Boston Consulting Group disagrees though, "Today, the top three brands are equally strong."
What helped TCS bag the Bank of China order and another $150 million from the Bank of Pichincha was its buyout of banking product software compare FNS in late 2005. Infosys, on the other hand, has remained shy of acquisitions - it had just one small outfit in Australia to talk about until it bought out Philips' captive BPO arm which brought with it a $250 million deal.
Infosys is reluctant to shop around probably because it's confident of growing on its own by adding and mining clients: compared with a year ago, when it had 35 customers billing more than $50 million, it now has 54, including four $100 million clients.
Also, the tech major is known for its efficient systems - its MIS is believed to be the best in the business. It's possible, Infosys is anxious that an acquisition might take away from such efficiency.
Experts, however, say it might not be a bad idea to acquire a business, even at a slight premium, if it adds to the portfolio. Take for instance the kind of benefit that Wipro has achieved by buying Infocrossing, a data centre outfit, for $600 million. By combining that with Wipro's infrastructure outsourcing package, the firm snapped up an order for $275million.
In fact, Wipro has always believed in taking the inorganic route - it started out buying Spectramind, a BPO outfit, way back in 2002. Despite being the most acquisitive of the three, however, it hasn't managed to keep pace with its peers. Although at one time Wipro had a killer differentiator in the R&D space, it didn't have a very large presence across other industry verticals except for telecom.
Perhaps that's why Wipro's been left behind; both TCS and Infosys focussed on the banking and financial services industry (BFSI) vertical, which has paid off. Even today when there are concerns about a slowdown in the sector, the two have posted strong growth - in the September2007 quarter, revenues from this space were up 10 per cent-plus sequentially. That should stand them in good stead because Pradeep Udhas, global partner for outsourcing at KPMG, believes that going forward, domain expertise will be a key differentiating factor for any player.
TCS has, in fact, added several new clients in the BFSI space, including one $50 million client in the September quarter. On average, it has added 52 clients in the last six quarters: the number for Infosys has been much lower at 41.
And it is also able to ramp up the business from existing clients - the number of $20-$50 million clients has grown from 53 at the end of FY07 to 69 at the end of Q2FY08 while the number of $50 million clients has risen from 14 to 24.
All three firms are looking to beef up value-added services like consulting and while it's still a small revenue stream, TCS reckons the business could bring in about 10 per cent of revenues over the next three-four years.
If there's something that sets TCS apart, it is its ability to retain people- attrition has been relatively low despite it not being among the best paymasters. The secret, say experts, lies in the comfort level that employees enjoy once they have spent a few years in the organisation.
Besides, the hands- off approach of the top management means that the middle-management finds itself handling more challenging assignments, especially overseas. Says BCG's Abraham, "TCS seems to have learnt to live with attrition better than the others have, they are able to recruit and redeploy faster than the others."
Says Chandrasekaran, "We have the best retention rate in the industry because we have a well-defined career growth path and are able to meet aspirations." In the September 2007 quarter, TCS added 9,300 people, beating expectations and taking its head count to 1,04,000.
What will help TCS, experts say, is that it is focussed on growth and not hell-bent on protecting its margins, even when the rupee appreciation is hurting profits. There was a time not so long ago when the industry believed that Infosys might actually catch up with TCS. But that doesn't seem as likely now unless Infosys changes tack to do some big ticket acquisitions.
The markets don't seem to be buying the TCS story yet though; the stock remains cheaper than Infosys. It's up to TCS now to convince them that it's moving into the next league.