The view from the top
It’s been a steady climb over three decades for TransPerfect. A company that started in a college dorm room is now a massive operation and, according to the recently released Nimdzi 100 report, the largest language company in the world, as well as the only one with an annual revenue of more than one billion US dollars. With more than 30 years of growth under his belt, TransPerfect co-founder and CEO Phil Shawe can take a moment to pause and enjoy the view from the top. But there isn’t time to rest and reflect for long. With the language and localization industry undergoing a technological transformation, companies are taking steps now to prepare for the future. TransPerfect is no exception. We spoke to Shawe about what comes next, even as he reflects on a long career of growth and success.
According to the recently released Nimdzi 100, TransPerfect once again takes the top spot as the biggest language company in the world. What do you attribute that success to?
TransPerfect began operations more than 30 years ago in an NYU dorm room with little more than two students and a dream. To say we were a “bootstrapped startup” would be an understatement — we gained experience by personally handling every aspect of the business. This instilled a spirit of client commitment and entrepreneurship that is still in TransPerfect’s DNA. However, even back then, we knew that if we wanted to scale the business, we’d have to attract and retain great people. After some painful trial and error, we eventually came to an all-important realization: In the long run, people are the true asset, and the only competitive advantage that a business can sustain over time. Our corporate culture and core values developed from that point onward.
Diversification of customers is another key element of the business that we adopted early on. When we won a big client, it just motivated us to win more. We had seen some of our friends at advertising agencies live through the loss of a major account that made up most of their business — and it wasn’t pretty. This led us to set aside the conventional wisdom’s urge to specialize and instead consciously attempt to service many different industries. “If one sector is down, another is likely up,” we reasoned — and that’s been key to TransPerfect sustaining growth for 30 consecutive years.
Embracing technology and change has also been pivotal to our success. This began in 2002 when we acquired eTranslate and welcomed Mark Hagerty (CTO), Yu-Kai Ng (CIO), and Keith Brazil (SVP, Technology) to our senior management team as well as the nascent GlobalLink platform. Seeing the potential, we invested aggressively each year in technology and developed a suite of integrated solutions — intending to create the world’s leading translation automation platform for businesses.
Lastly, “pay it forward” became one of our mantras. Meaning, when someone attains a certain level of success in the TransPerfect system, we ask them to repay the company by coaching the next generation of leaders. Our company culture became one of continual learning, and we invest heavily in training — also critical to growth. A growth company is really less about being sales-oriented and more about continuing to drive value for existing customers — so you need to retain skilled people to grow. To that end, we coach managers to take a personal interest in the career goals of each individual team member. For TransPerfect, this results in a vision of shared success, interesting career paths, and long-tenured executives.
TransPerfect was founded in 1992 and has grown over 30 years in language work and solutions. Do you believe the timing of the company’s founding contributed to its eventually dominant position in the industry?
Yes. Technology has made the world a smaller place and promoted global business over the past 30 years. We have always had a culture of embracing new technology — and I attribute much of our success to continuous investment in technology and people.
The early 1990s to the early 2020s will likely be remembered as pivotal in the history of globalization. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve observed over that time?
This list is by no means exhaustive: First, we had the advent of the internet, then ecommerce, then SaaS, then mobile apps, then social media, then the proliferation of video — content has evolved both in its form and means of delivery. Just as translation memory completely changed the industry in the 1990s, neural machine translation and AI are doing so today. I see each of these advancements as an opportunity — and TransPerfect’s challenge is to adapt and harness those opportunities to the benefit of our clients. We have a strong track record of embracing technology advancements, investing heavily, and emerging stronger after these inflection points.
Today, our technology R&D budget is larger than it has ever been, and we are leading the charge on human-in-the-loop automation for translation workflows.
Tell us a little about your leadership style. How have you guided TransPerfect through those pivotal years? Have you taken any inspiration from key leaders, either historical or contemporary, in business, government, or elsewhere?
Our management style is based on coaching. We believe in leading by example — and every manager is somewhat a player/coach. The core of what we ask our leaders to do can be summed up in three concepts: Hire the best people, align incentives, and get out of the way.
We’ve taken inspiration from many leaders over the years, including Colin Powell, Charlotte Beers, and Richard Branson — all three have spoken at our training conferences. I’ve also personally drawn inspiration from a vast array of writers that range from Jimmy Buffett to Quentin Tarantino to Alexandre Dumas. And we once did a management training completely focused on the poem If— by Rudyard Kipling. Other cultures are also a source of inspiration — and somewhere there is training based on proverbs posted alongside a trek I did with other managers in Bhutan. Closer to home, my brother and football coach, Larry Shawe; my mom and co-owner, Shirley Shawe, who taught me to stand up to bullies; and our advisory board member, Bruce Redditt, have all been sources of inspiration over the years.
Perhaps most importantly, I take inspiration from our staff — they often solve problems in a better way than I do. And that epitomizes our management style — we’re always trying to hire someone who can do the job better than we can.
TransPerfect has been a leader in the trend of mergers and acquisitions that we’re seeing dominate the industry today. Can you tell us a little about how you formulated your M&A strategy and executed it?
Our M&A approach is fairly unique: We have a long-term approach and are looking for long-term partnerships. We typically go into deals hoping the leadership and the people stay on. We have never done a deal valued on “synergies” — which, in the private equity world, typically means cutting jobs.
More generally, we are always on the lookout for like-minded executives and cool technology that fit well within our existing tool set. Our ideal merger candidate is an entrepreneur who is comfortable in ceding some control to become part of something larger — and we want our incoming leaders to have the autonomy needed to run and grow their businesses.
We have completed more than 30 M&A transactions, and I consider every one of them a success in some way. I cannot overestimate how much the executives who joined us through mergers have made TransPerfect what it is today.
Can you tell us anything about your plans to pursue growth moving forward? Do you have any plans for additional M&A activity, or is that phase of your strategy completed?
Today, our business grows from a combination of organic growth, driven by our sales team, and strategic M&A, and we see this continuing. One thing I love about my first 30 years at TransPerfect is that we have never known the pressure of making quarterly numbers, so we can make decisions based on what we feel is in the long-term best interest of the company, our team, our vendors, and our clients.
Leaning into technology changes has served TransPerfect well over the years. For instance, according to your website, your translation management and website localization technology, GlobalLink, yields a 50% savings in costs, timelines, and translation project management. How did TransPerfect formulate its approach to driving language technology over 30 years?
Our technology roadmap is driven by listening to our customers. A primary place this happens today is the GlobalLink NEXT user conferences, and I encourage all clients to attend. At the last GlobalLink NEXT in San Francisco, I heard executives from companies like Microsoft and Amazon presenting how they use our technology to benefit their businesses — that was a very proud moment for many of us. The GlobalLink Suite has evolved massively over time, adding flagship technologies, such as TransPort and OneLink, alongside Project Director as well as extending our footprint into media and gaming localization.
What does the future of language technology look like, and how does TransPerfect plan to approach it?
We fully embrace Neural MT, AI, and generative technology like ChatGPT. By aggressively harnessing technologies like these within our GlobalLink workflows, we let the machines do what they can and let humans do what they’re best at.
As the largest company in the language industry with 8,000 full-time employees and a network of more than 10,000 certified linguists and subject-area specialists, TransPerfect is a company of enormous size and influence. How did you build a team to manage such a large organization?
First, we promote from within. It is very rare at TransPerfect for someone to manage someone in a job they haven’t actually done. Our executives often become seasoned industry veterans quickly based on our growth, and the organizational chart fills in underneath them. The most challenging thing about running a large, multinational organization with more than 8,000 employees is that with every new layer of management, we have to do our best to make sure that our knowledge, values, and principles get passed down.
There is one trick to running a large organization successfully — and that is to run many small organizations successfully — and then add them up. To run small organizations successfully, you have to develop ways to measure success, and TransPerfect often uses custom metrics that are not easily understood by those not immersed in our business.
Tell us a little about your personal life. What do you do to relax and decompress when you’re out of the office?
I’m an avid fan of American football and all sports, really. I hike, bike, ski, snowboard, and play racquet sports, like pickleball, beach tennis, and padel. I like nature and history and will take any opportunity to go to a UNESCO heritage site. Perhaps most of all, I like to travel and experience other cultures — a passion many of our senior managers share.
I am extremely proud that TransPerfect has grown to a point where our people can make geographic life changes without necessarily having to change careers.
I’m also really proud that, even throughout turbulent times, TransPerfect never stopped our efforts to give back and support the communities in which we live and work.
Before we let you go, is there anything you want to add?
If you always get up after you fall, keep at it, and do the right things daily — odds are you will eventually succeed. I have battled everything imaginable, from the social and economic impact of the 2008 global financial crisis, September 11th, and two U.S. wars — to over-zealous competitors and a state-sponsored hostile takeover attempt. So, whatever storms may come your way, my best advice is to maintain a calm and steady hand at the wheel — and always keep moving forward.
I couldn’t be happier with or more thankful for today’s TransPerfect team, and I can’t wait to see what we do next.