One summer afternoon five years ago, Keith Bradley was having a beer with his boss. It wasn’t all for fun. Bradley, the chief operating officer at STP Investment Services, a technology and operations provider that services $250 billion in assets, was meeting his chief executive to go through a “massive” list of policies a prospective client needed them to have in place.
STP, which was founded in 2008, already had many contingency plans. But the company never formalized what it would do if a pandemic threatened to disrupt its operations and the prospective client wanted them to.
“We were sitting outside and thinking through that process. And you never think you're going to use it. Man, were we grateful that we had one written up,” Bradley said.
In early 2020, STP closely watched the Covid-19 virus begin to spread in the continental U.S. As the number of cases seemed to grow exponentially in March last year, STP ordered all of its employees to begin working from home, even those in Bangalore, India, where it appeared the virus was not as big a threat. “I think the typical large Indian processing entities that have worked with financial services did not suspend operations until May. So, we were roughly a month and a half or so ahead of the curve in terms of our ability to shut down and isolate our resources, and that was incredibly effective,” Bradley said.
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Thanks to the plan in place, the pandemic had effectively no impact on STP, according to Bradley, “until this last surge.”
This spring, as millions of Americans received Covid-19 vaccinations, and the U.S. began easing restrictions on the way to President Joe Biden’s goal of normal July 4 celebrations, the pandemic raged on elsewhere.
“The administration needs to walk a line, using events like this to increase vaccine interest and confidence here in the U.S. while also being sensitive to the fact that this crisis is still out of control in many parts of the world,” Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the Division of Health Policy and Public Health, told The Associated Press earlier this month.
At its peak in April, a devastating second wave of Covid-19 in India led to almost 400,000 new cases and more than 4,100 deaths each day (and likely an undercount of cases and deaths for technical, cultural and logistical reasons). “The impact in terms of the size and scale of the issue is so much more than it ever was prior,” Bradley said.
STP quickly cancelled plans in motion to return employees in India to the office and began an effort to support its employees there however it could. It was tragically too late.
The Crisis in India
Shortly after Bradley joined STP seven years ago, he was tasked with figuring out how it could meet a demand from clients: operate 24 hours each day of the workweek. Qualified people in the U.S. willing to work night shifts are “ridiculously hard to hire” so STP opened an office in India, where employees would be awake while employees in the states were asleep.
Bradley said he’s been on a fulfilling professional and cultural ride ever since. Roughly half of STP’s more than 220 employees are now in India.
“I've had the great privilege of visiting India many, many times at this point, and can't say enough about that experience, I mean, it is one of the best. And I think if you ask anyone in our company that's taken the trip to India, they'll say it's one of the best experiences they've had in their life.”
For years, team members have regularly visited the office they don’t work at and are hosted by colleagues during their trips. They often bond in a way that is difficult from across the world, even as video conferencing has become a norm. Despite their separation, many aren’t just close colleagues, but friends.
“I have just a philosophy of, if you treat your people right, you hire the best people, ultimately it's going to translate into great first-class client service for all of our clients. And if your clients are happy, that's going to lead to new growth in the business. And we've been able to do that over the past, almost 13 years now as an organization,” STP CEO Patrick Murray said.
When India’s second virus outbreak threatened colleagues in India, STP did what it could to protect and support them.
To encourage employees in India to stay home, the company created a bonus program to cover the costs of food delivery, Netflix, movie rentals, video games, or anything else they wanted to help pass the time waiting out the second wave. U.S. employees sent e-cards to the team in India and STP created special chat groups where employees could share stories about what's happening there.
About half a dozen employees tested positive for Covid-19 and were given additional paid time off to recover. Unlike at U.S. hospitals, payment is often required before someone can receive medical care at Indian hospitals, so STP created an interest-free loan program its employees could tap into.
“We've been able to do quite a bit, but as the situation got worse, you kind of feel powerless,” Bradley said.
Santanu Paul, one of the founding employees of the India office, was ill from Covid-19 and went to multiple hospitals but couldn’t find a bed. He eventually found one at a hospital in another city but doctors shared a startling message. “They handed his wife a piece of paper and said, ‘He needs this medication to survive. We don't have it,’” Bradley said.
Paul, 42, died shortly after. He is survived by his wife and two children, whose names STP did not share to protect their privacy.
“We actually sourced [the medication] in Dubai through some of our connections. We were in the process of trying to move it in his direction, but he passed away before we were able to get it to him,” Bradley said.
Telling the company’s employees that Paul died was one of the hardest things Bradley has done. He was well-liked and especially appreciated by younger employees who he mentored. Paul was himself a hard worker, too, but known for always smiling. “I sat there with my head down on my desk in tears for an hour, because this guy was really important to us, and important to the company, and he was a friend. He was a friend and colleague.”
Paul’s death has driven STP to do more; it purchased oxygen concentrators for employees, partnered with a local hospital, and is working with an aid organization supporting the fight against the virus.
The office in India has designated a wall to commemorate Paul and employees in the U.S. plan to hold an annual cricket game in his name to raise money. Employees have also raised funds to help support his family.
“We're kind of going down every road we possibly can at this point, because we feel so strongly we want to make a difference within the country and within our team,” Bradley said.
Murray is proud of STP’s efforts before and during the pandemic to help employees, and that institutions, RIAs, plan sponsors, asset managers, and others haven’t experienced any difference in service, he said.
Financial services companies haven’t missed a beat during the pandemic, thanks in part to supporting companies like STP. And as more Americans are vaccinated, life in the U.S. is looking increasingly like it did before anyone heard of Covid-19.
STP wants to remind everyone that while the pandemic might feel like it’s passing in some places, the health crisis is global and continuing.
“From us, and anyone that could ever hear about our little part of India, the 150 people we have of the 1.3 billion, I hope that it personalizes the catastrophe that's going on within India, and our little story tells a little microcosm of some of the things that are happening,” Bradley said.
“We want to raise awareness of what's happening in India, obviously encourage people to do everything they can to help, because it's a big problem, and hopefully these numbers will start to peak there, and they don't experience a third wave after this one, but we just don't know at this point.”
Michael Thrasher (@Mike_Thrasher) is a reporter at RIA Intel based in New York City.