A day with Baba Kalyani – India’s Mr Manufacturing

I was quite privileged to have had Baba Kalyani fly into London, especially, to attend a press event, and then to an exclusive event that HSBC hosted for me to mark the launch of my book this evening. For your reference, Mr Kalyani’s claim to fame is that his firm (Bharat Forge) supply components to almost every singly vehicle in North America & Europe! In my book, I refer to him as ‘India’s Mr Manufacturing’.

At the press event, we had a number of journalists from a variety of sectors – sectoral press, newswires, Indian, Chinese, and French journalists etc who grilled him on big picture issues ranging from global warming & climate change, the financial slow-down, India Vs China, what to expect from Davos this year etc.

What struck me was his statement that, despite the scaremongering, the UK presented the best opportunity for manufacturing firms in Europe (and not Germany). I’m used to listening to political spin about these kinda things – we’ve recently had Lord Mandelson waxing lyrical about global manufacturing, but I believe it matters when leading players like Mr Kalyani say it.

At the evening event, which was an exclusive event with “society” figures, the focus shifted from macro issues to his personal story. I wanted to offer the audience the opportunity to ask questions to Mr Kalyani. I felt this was important because when I used to return to London and narrate what I had learnt through my interviews with the entrepreneurs to my friends, they’d chip in by saying “I wish I could ask him / them a question” – so the event allowed them exactly that.

All in all, I’m delighted to say, today was a success.

You can take a look at some of the photos here:

Thank you

As long as I remember, I’ve always been a fan of books. Over time, the range of books that I’ve bought has expanded to include all types of subjects and genres, resulting in an eclectic mix being crammed on my book-shelf at home. I’ve impulsively bought books in markets; in airports on my business travels; and on the net when I’ve managed to write a list of things to order on-line.

So, when I turned 30, I wrote a list of things that I wanted to achieve, but, as with new year’s resolutions, never imagined that I would actually make any headway on any of these.

My list included jumping out of a plane (a skydive), earning my first million, solving third world debt, flying to the moon, and writing a book. So, achieving two of the above with five years to go before I make another list – on my 40th, is – at least in my view, not bad going.

The launch event, last Thursday, was a major milestone in my life. On a personal level, it feels great to have my name on a book, and look forward to seeing it in places that I normally shop. It kinda felt strange to be at the launch event – professionally my firm organises these for others, so it was weird to be the centre of attention at my own! On a professional basis, it’s gratifying to be able to contribute to such an important subject and feel that the book will lead to bigger and better things for me and my firm.

At the event, it seemed that everyone kept on asking me the same two questions – ‘what gave you the idea?’ and ‘what does it feel like?’, and my wife laughingly told me that lots of people kept on approaching her to ask whether ‘she was proud of me’.
My reason for writing the book was quite simply that I believed that with all the talk of India’s emergence on the world stage, a wider audience needed to become familiar with the trailblazers that were making it happen. Yes, it would’ve been great to have the obvious names like Ratan Tata and the Ambani brothers, but it would be doing the subject a disservice to ride on their shoulders as many others have.

From the outset, I was quite clear that mine wasn’t going to be an investigative book, it was meant to be an introduction to a set of role models emanating out of India that will one day, be referred to – along with, some of the biggest entrepreneurial icons that the West seems to love. I’ve always been puzzled as to how a guy like Narayana Murthy, who founded Infosys by borrowing Rs 10,000 from his wife, has gone on to build a firm that employs people all around the globe and earns over 50% of its revenues from the US, but is still largely unknown.

Or a Baba Kalyani, whose firm manufactures components for every single vehicle in the US & Europe. Or take Subhash Chandra, who apart from Zee TV, owns a firm called Essel who manufactures over 30% of the world’s toothpaste tubes! Despite their global reach and success, how comes no one, apart from hard-nosed business journalists & professional India watchers, know anything about them?

With formalities being conducted by Stephen Pound MP, who as everyone expected, was on absolute form that evening, delivered his trademark, side-splitting, remarks, to the annoyance of the next speaker, who would inevitably find it hard to follow such a performance.

So, for this reason, I was totally taken aback with the expert commentary provided by Dixit Joshi, MD of Asian & European Equities at Barclays Capital, who explained that the world needs to understand the thinking taking place in India’s boardrooms in order to address some of the world’s biggest challenges.

Having taken the temperature of the room, I decided to put the speech that I’d crafted to one side and speak ex-tempore on my reasons for undertaking the mammoth task of writing a business book, in an age when the rules were being re-written as a result of the global recession and credit crisis. Importantly, I remembered to thank a few people who’d made the event happen. I took the opportunity to thank my wife, as without her support and love, I wouldn’t have been able to see this project to completion.

I had a great night. I felt humbled by the massive turnout. I was touched with the words that were spoken about me, the book, my firm, and my family.

At the end of the night, I struggled to articulate my emotions, and hence have take a few days to write this post, but the over-arching message remains the same – ‘thanks’.

You can read a write-up of the event, take a look at the pics, and watch footage of the speeches here:

Mark Kobayashi-Hillary’s also uploaded some photos and videos, which can be accessed here:

Houston, we have lift off…

So, here we are. The big day’s arrived and it’s put in perspective the efforts of the past three years to research and write this book.

Coincidentally, the Financial Times has also carried a balanced review of the book, of which the best quote that summarises the rationale with which I started this endeavour, is:

“The interviewees chosen in India Inc. represent an interesting cross-section of today’s Indian business leaders, beyond the largest industrialists. It will be welcomed by many readers in a country that has a voracious appetite for business books, particularly biographical accounts of how a successful entrepreneur or businessperson overcame the country’s notorious red tape and poor infrastructure to make millions.”

“For readers who want a light introduction to these personalities, India Inc provides an easy read with occasional vignettes.”

Shall write about the launch event tomorrow…

Launch week – update

I promised to send regular updates on the progress of the book, so here goes:

I was asked to write a guest column for Business World, in which I offer some nuggets from the interviews I conducted with the entrepreneurs – such as how they are fundamentally different to their Western peers. You can read the article here: http://www.businessworld.in/bw/2010_01_15_Enterprising_India_Inc.html

I’ve also been asked to write a comment piece in the Economic Times of India on what India Inc can teach the world. Let me know if you have any views or ideas to incorporate. On the issue of PR, Real Business Magazine is going to feature two extracts from my book, as are a number of various trade magazines.

With regards to events, we had a small family ceremony this weekend at the legendary Hare Krishna temple in Watford, which used to be George Harrison’s home, where my family invited some close friends to share the moment. Later this week, we have the main UK launch event in which we expect around 150 of our clients, associates, and friends to attend – should be great fun.

On India Inc, the story that caught my attention is the proposed bid by Anil Ambani to acquire the beleagured Hollywood studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), whose back catalogue includes the James Bond series, Ben Hur, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind – all major blockbusters. Last year, Ambani inked a deal with Steven Spielberg to produce some films together which raised some eyebrows – it’s also one of the major conversations I had with Kishore Lulla, Chairman of Eros, who’s featured in my book.

Feel free to send me your thoughts on what I should write in the Economic Times piece.

If you haven’t already so, you can join the Facebook fan page by clicking here: www.facebook.com/indiaincthebook

Tell Google, India NOT China is the future

Google should shift its focus to India, where a free press exists and is encouraged – unlike China, which censors almost everything, and uses it’s heavy hand in dictating terms, with the “national interest” in mind.

With a middle class the size of the entire US population – armed with disposable income; with a fundamental belief in democracy and the rule of law; with a free and critical press – most businesses would be better off in the longer term looking at India, rather than targeting short-sighted revenues in the “people’s republic”.

Despite it’s obvious failings and comparative slower growth rate (6.5%!), I could go on & on to offer my view on why India is a much better suited place for Google, but I’m interested in what you think. Do you think India is a better bet than China?

Let your comments flow…

A few years ago, a wordsmith conjured up the following phrase which encapsulate, at least for me, why Google ought to shift its focus: ‘India: the fastest growing, free market democracy”. Case closed, as far as I’m concerned.

What’s wrong with the Aussies?

I’m going to keep this short. Australia needs to get on top of what is obviously more than “a law & order issue”. Else, they’re going to find upto $2bn wiped away from their economy, and subsequently find themselves out of favour with one of the world’s most powerful economic players.

Australians are warm, hospitable people. If they don’t stop the mindless violence being dished out to Indian students, they place at risk their reputations – which no media / PR campaign can overcome.

We know you’re not thugs. But, please for your own sakes, get a grip on this situation.

A Dubai Born Brand Going Global

It’s not often that you witness history, but last night, I observed just that. I’m in Dubai at the moment – a place I must say is not the most endearing for the simple reason that it’s all quite new and sparkly – despite the emirate of Abu Dhabi having to step in to help it honour its financial obligations.

There’s approx 1.5million people residing here, of which the local community constitute approx 15%. The vast majority seem to be from the southern states of India, who work in all capacities from maids & servants, professionals in corporates, and are also major investors with large enterprises in Dubai – all of whom, which have enabled its skyline to be as extravagant as it is.

It’s for this reason that I was truly taken aback to learn that the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum went to his first ever non Emirati (local population) event in Dubai, and he couldn’t have picked a better one. The event marked the 50th anniversary of an Indian family having invested in Dubai, whose company – GEMS – is a world beater in the education sector.

What’s remarkable about this family and firm is the way they’ve taken the best of being Indian and have fused it with Arabic culture, to set it on it’s path to global success. As an internationalist, I’m going to use this post to not only congratulate the Varkey’s, but importantly to applaud the Sheikh for taking this small, but important step in strengthening Dubai’s ties with the future.

As for GEMS, having looked at them closely, I’m convinced they’re at the cusp of truly becoming a global brand. They may have a 100 schools and educate 100,000 kids, but the landscape is so, so wide for them to paint. Yes, they’ll go through the pain of becoming a business that moves beyond the identity of its owner; yes, they’ll also make mistakes – but having witnessed their flair, ambition, and drive to recruit the best talent, it’d be hard to bet against them becoming “the” first global private education brand.

In Dubai, we may have just seen the future…

Goodbye to Bajaj Scooters

One of my fondest memories of visiting India as a child, was that of jumping on my cousin’s Bajaj scooter and going for a spin. That scooter was his pride & joy, just as much as the fridge freezer was my aunt’s – both items spoke volumes in their neighbourhood about their social status… just as owning a Chelsea tractor or a private education does in mine today.

Given the near iconic status of the scooter in India, I was surprised to learn that Bajaj are going to stop manufacturing it. You can read all about it here, as there’s been acres of coverage in India about this decision: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSBOM32109320091210

Apart from getting nostalgic about the demise of the scooter, what I wanted to comment about, more than anything else, was the manner in which one of India’s most prominent firms is handling this. In one corner is Rahul Bajaj, Chairman & father of the Chief Executive, Rajiv Bajaj who disagree with the decision to stop making scooters.

Bajaj Snr is an outspoken guy who enjoys roughing people up. He’s known for lashing out by speaking his mind but I didn’t think he would dish out the same treatment to his own son on prime-time TV. Rajiv Bajaj came across very impressive and said all the right things, whereas his father looked exactly the opposite.

The take home for me from this episode is as follows:

1. With India’s increasing affluence, consumer tastes are shifting… resulting in people wanting better products and services, like motorbikes instead of scooters. Just as Bajaj exits an important product line, others do exist and will take the opportunity to innovate.

2. What Rajiv Bajaj is saying is that he can’t add any more to this business, with profits declining, he believes the greater opportunity lies in motorcycles. He added that the day he figures out how he can add value to an overcrowded market sector he’ll re-enter the scooters sector.

3. We often hear about owner / promoter types of businesses being wedded to their original concept, here we see the future – a family firm that is in disagreement but decides that logic trumps emotion. Also, that the governance and leadership in India’s firms isn’t as bad as what others believe. Rahul Bajaj should be congratulated for playing the role of Chairman to the tee by questioning whether this decision benefits its shareholders.

Whether he needs to do so in such a public manner is a matter for debate. I, for one, may miss my cousin’s Bajaj scooter but you can’t really fault the firm for the decision its arrived at. All in all, for me it demonstrates how mature and responsible Bajaj is as a company.

Leave a comment to share your thoughts on what the hallmarks of a progressive company should be.