Wipro sells soaps and perfumes…

Having read the following piece (http://publication.samachar.com/pub_article.php?id=6362247) I was reminded that many of the firms that we see in the top rankings of India’s business pages actually started life as something totally different.

Understanding their evolution helps, at least in my opinion, to understand the Indian business landscape a lot better.

There are some notable examples:

For example, as the article states, Wipro actually started off as a consumer goods firm that sold cooking oil and soap to Indians, it was only in 1980 that Azim Premji had his eureka moment and decided to change tack and add an IT business to his group. Subsequently – as we all know – that’s what Wipro’s become known for, but it still stands true that Wipro has a thriving consumer goods business, also.

The other is KV Kamath, who turned a boring development finance agency into a juggernaut in the banking sector. Whilst this doesn’t doesn’t seem to be a major divergence today, in those days it was a huge leap he had to take to make the transition.

My final example is that of Sunil Mittal’s Bharti group, which today is best known for its mobile phone business, but I have no doubt that in a decade or so, we’ll be wondering how he made the leap from telecoms czar to retail guru, with thousands of supermarkets scattered all over India, selling groceries, vegetables and all kinds of stuff that the discerning Indian shopper wishes to buy. Let’s not forget he’s done this before, after all he had a successful venture selling bicycle parts in the 70s and then electricity generators in the 80s.

Of course, we could go into the TATA story just as well, but the point of writing this piece was simply to highlight the fact that these companies have incredible histories, which if you read into and factor into your dealings, makes doing business with them a lot more meaningful.

Musings about the President’s visit

Attended a dinner event organised by the Indian High Commission in which the President was unveiled to an audience largely comprising leading members of the Indian diaspora.

Having watched the politicking from afar when she was nominated by Sonia Gandhi for this post, I arrived at the venue as a cynic of the Indian system, but quite uncharacteristcally left impressed, and almost inspired.

Impressed  – for the simple reason that she kept her speech to the point and brief. More importantly she demonstrated her intelligence by avoiding a trap that was set for her – with all the bigwigs at this bash, she chose her words carefully and decided not to single out a leading Peer of the Lords, which is par for the course –  not even Lord Paul (a die-hard Congress supporter) – or even any of the MPs who attended, but she focused on the man of the moment – Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan – the genius who was awarded the Nobel in Chemistry this year.

Inspired – because I think the President understood that her’s was a ceremonial role. Yes, we know that she can impose President’s rule, but she came across as a genteel and warm lady. Whether India deserves such a figure or someone like APJ Abdul Kalam is a matter for them, but from the dragoness I was expecting as a result of adverse media coverage, I have to say, she carried herself well.

Anyway, enough of my musings. Heavy day tomorrow (Thursday) – the Commonwealth Games handover at Buckingham Palace, followed by the UKIBC Summit and then the dinner. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that its as good as last years. Shall report back tomorrow 🙂

Impact of Monsoon rains on the Indian economy

Was interviewed by Al Jazeera today on the impact of the monsoon on the Indian economy. I said there were a few things to note:

The impact of a poor monsoon is huge. India has approx 240 MILLION farmers, and an average of 60% of the labour market is dependent on the agriculture sector – directly & indirectly. Water is important to their livelihoods.

The problem is that the monsoon pattern is changing. Instead of long rains on a regular basis, India now experiences short, heavy showers with long dry periods inbetween, the risk of flooding and paradoxically, drought is increased.

The Indian government needs to look at strategic ways to help farmers. Instead of dishing out seeds and providing subsidies, they need to look at the ways in which rainwater can be captured, stored, and distributed more effectively. Only 30% of all agricultural land is irrigated, imagine if they could improve this figure!

The second way is to educate the farming community about new technologies available to improve their harvests, such as installing sprinkler irrigation systems or extending what the ITC group has done with enabling farmers to get latest market data on their mobiles that allows them to set the right prices for their crops.

Lastly, improve access to microfinance, in which small ticket loans could be provided for investments in technology & know how.

What’s also evident is that around the time of Indian independence,  India used to be wholly dependent on the agri sector. However, as time moves on India’s dependency has declined to around a level where agriculture accounts for almost 20% of her GDP. My point is that India knows it needs to reduce its dependency on the monsoon to deliver a bumper harvest, and has been doing so gradually.

I read a really interesting note, which will help me conclude this post. A bad monsoon isn’t just bad for India, but for the whole world. We need to look at the agri-food sector like a Rubiks cube, in which if you change one face of the cube, you inevitably create changes on the other sides of the same cube. In a similar vein, a decline in, for example, rice production has an impact on the cost of wheat in North America – after all we live in an increasingly interdependent world.

India season cometh (again)

Its been a few years, but I can, for the first time in ages, say that I may actually enjoy August!

Traditionally, August and December were two points at which we could do all the things that needed doing at work, but in the last few years this distinction blurred as there was so much going on. It seems to be much quieter this time around, perhaps they’re too busy organising themselves for the autumnal months ahead of us – which looks busy.

I thought I’d write a post as to what’s going on in London viz. India in September & October, as this’ll probably save some time in conversation. Please feel free to add to this list:

Lord Davies, International Trade Minister, leads a business delegation to India this September. He’ll visit Delhi, Mumbai, and Nagpur from 14th – 18th September.

Officials from The Indian Ministry of Finance & SEBI visit London on a study tour of regulatory and monetary policy.

The Corporation of London hosts its India Advisory Council meeting on 1st October, which Naina Kidwai and other leading CEOs from Mumbai visit. There’s an event with CNBC also.

The Lord Mayor of London leads a City delegation to India from 19th – 24th October. The Lord Mayor represents the interests of the financial services sector of the UK.

The Indian President visits the UK on her first state visit here. You can be assured of several events around this. I believe that her visit will also be used to mark the countdown to the Commonwealth Games in Delhi.

The UK India Business Council will organise their annual conference and dinner on 29th October. Was a blockbuster last year, you’d better buy tickets early if you want to secure a seat.

The All Party Parliamentary Group for UK – India Trade & Investment Relations will host a dinner symposium on how British companies can participate in building India’s roads, ports and other infrastructure. I’m lead to believe that an Indian Minister will deliver the keynote address. Event takes place in conjunction with the Commonwealth Business Council on 2nd November.

Just as well I’ve been down to the gym building up my stamina. At least, I’ll be able to enjoy the merriment around Diwali this time. Can’t wait to attend all those charity fund-raisers in town 😉

India Inc: …

I’ve got a small dilemma that I need your help in resolving. You may be aware that for the last two years or so, I’ve been writing a book on the emergence of Indian companies in international markets, and have profiled ten Indian CEOs / entrepreneurs / promoters such as Narayana Murthy, Baba Kalyani, Subhash Chandra, Malvinder Singh, Kishore Lulla etc. who have lead the charge to globalise their firms.

Well, I’ve now finished writing the book and can now focus on the presentational aspects of the project, of which, the most important being (at least for today) the title of the book. My original choice was: ‘India Inc: How India’s Top Ten Business Leaders are Winning Globally’. However, as a result of the economic downturn, is this title appropriate, given that the world has been turned on it’s head as a result of the banking crisis and subsequent global recession?

It would seem a little to extravagant to use the original title in the environment we’re currently in.

For this reason, I’m searching for something appropriate as a subtitle to ‘India Inc: xyz…’. Or is ‘India Inc.’ substantial enough?

Your ideas are welcome.

David Cameron meets Indian CEOs

I’d organised a meeting yesterday between David Cameron, Leader of the Opposition, and a client of ours called ‘The India Group’, which is an alliance of the European based CEOs of large Indian private sector firms. Not only did we meet someone who’s described as our next Prime Minister, he also made sure that William Hague, Shadow Foreign Minister, and Ken Clarke, Shadow Business Minister, both of whom are considered ‘heavyweights’ in the Conservative Party, and should retain their high profile portfolios if they form the next government, attended this meeting.

Cameron was relaxed despite having to respond to the Prime Minister’s Iraq Inquiry statement later in the day. He appeared knowledgable and personable and had, what seemed obvious to me, been briefed appropriately in advance on the key issues that may arise.

So, it’s no surprise that business immigration featured highly with the IT companies leading the charge on labour mobility within the UK in the context of TUPE legislation. He spoke about Ken Clarke leading a review on Whitehall red tape that will help form their policies in advance of the next general election.

On trade promotion in India, Cameron suggested that some of the Regional Development Agencies across England would be put on notice. He recognised that trade promotion in India may also need looking at and the India Group recommended that just as Indian SMEs seemed to be embracing opportunities in the UK, the Government really needed to push British SMEs to do more with India. Banks like ICICI had tried linking up with counterparts in the UK to provide trade finance for their clients interested in India, with not much success, which seems a shame given the scale of the opportunity.

Hague spoke about a better relationship on foreign policy, which all India watcher’s will agree about, especially as Miliband’s visit to India was seen as an unmitigated disaster. Hague spoke of their support for India and Japan for permanent seats on the UN Security Council, which we know China has a different view on.

The Conservative team were interested in the pace of market reforms the new Congress lead coalition would take, to which the India Group agreed that the Insurance sector would probably be the first to have FDI levels increased. What was interesting was that the CEO’s, all, were united in conveying that despite the shortcomings in some industry sectors, India was open for business. It just so happens that the two big sectors that the UK has particular competence in – financial services and retail – are the one’s that have yet to be liberalised. Fair point.

Closer to the hearts of some of those was the issue of personal taxation and non-dom, to which Cameron was quick off the blocks to suggest that had the government adopted the plans they’d suggested, those around the table would have the certainty they desired.

I’ll conclude with sharing how they started as it’s an important point. Cameron emphasised that both – the Labour Party & the Conservatives (a) didn’t really differ on issues concerning India – whether this was trade or foreign policy and (b) that both parties shared the view that Britain was a better place as an open globalised economy, one which market protectionism and restrictive practices were unwelcome.

The future of family owned businesses in India

The dominance of family owned businesses in India is well known. However, has what Malvinder Singh done with Ranbaxy shown us what’s to come in years ahead?

For those not watching, Malvinder Singh was the Chairman & CEO of Ranbaxy, India’s largest pharmaceuticals company, who decided that he’s had enough and stepped down.

Ranbaxy was bought by Malvinder’s grandfather, who saw the opportunity in the generics market of India for low cost drugs. Malvinder’s father took charge and grew the business to spectacular levels and took it to a global platform. Malvinder was initiated into the business when his father was diagnosed with cancer. He took on various minor roles in a short span and then emerged as the CEO.

During his apprenticeship, the role of leading Ranbaxy was instituted in a professional CEO – one who wasn’t a member of the family – and at that time, the general public saw this as a positive move and various commentators suggested that the future had arrived. Little did they realise that Malvinder would take charge and sweep aside the same professional management that they had put in place. In fact, Malvinder went that step further and argued that just because his family owned a majority stake didn’t mean he wasn’t “professional” or “qualified” to lead the firm.

Yes, he also brought success to the firm and vindicated his convinction of leading the firm to new heights – most notably, with the sale of his family stake to a Japanese firm for approx $5bn. He may have retained his position as CEO of the firm, but I suspect that after various issues related to the US drugs regulator and also their huge losses, he would’ve had no choice but to walk.

In one way, this seems to complete the story. With the sale of their stake, Malvinder hung in there and still talked of Ranbaxy as an Indian firm. With his exit, Ranbaxy can move on.

So, has Malvinder shown us the future of family owned businesses? Please post your comments.

The budget shows democracy is deeply rooted in India

If you wanted an example of the strength of Indian democracy, then today’s interim budget provides that opportunity, as it demonstrated that despite the incumbent government being on its last legs, and faces the very real prospect of being voted out of office, they’ve resisted the urge to announce concessions that may have increased their chances at the ballot box. The Foreign Minister – Pranab Mukherjee went as far as acknowledging that they “didn’t have a mandate to do more”.

Media reports suggest that over a trillion rupees were wiped off the stock market today as investors were hoping that various sops would be provided for key industry sectors to stimulate growth. Given this loss of confidence, I’m surprised that no concrete proposals have been floated to outline what each party would do to revive the economy.

In Britain, I believe that the economy will be the only story at election time, for this reason, I’m intrigued as to why this isn’t the case in India. With the elections so close, doesn’t it make sense to set your stall out on this issue?

With respects to the strength and maturity of Indian democratic values, I hope our politicans show the same depth when it’s our turn to go to the polls.

Jaguar / Land Rover & Tata

I’m writing this post in the context of hearing on the news that Lord Mandelson has placed a call, this morning, to  Bombay House, the Tata HQ in India.

I was speaking with a senior government figure, who’s involved in this matter, two evenings ago at a Whitehall pub in which he began enquiring as to what the Tatas would do if the UK Government refused to lend them the £1bn bailout they’ve requested for Jaguar / Land Rover.

To say that the Tatas have no other options would be misleading, as it wasn’t so long ago that the media reported that they had deep pockets and more importantly the intent on making the new venture a success. Let’s also not forget that within the Tata Group, there are a couple of companies which can only be described as ‘cash cows’, such as TCS, the IT firm from which they can divert resources to the benefit of Jaguar / Land Rover.

However, what I found interesting was his take on the cultural differences between the parent and child. He suggested that the Tata’s weren’t used to a culture where their plans would be stress tested and scrutinised as, in their opinion, their track record, trust, and their brand should prove to be enough of a guarantee for the UK taxpayer.

I disagree with the suggestion that the Tatas are naive and culturally backward. The Tata’s have been in the UK for more than a century and employ almost 50,000 people here in some of the most intensive and unloved sectors of the economy. As a result of their experiences here, they would understand the nervousness of the Government and therefore not take it as an affront to their heritage if certain questions were asked. After all, they understand that government money, ultimately is raised through taxation – our money.

With that comes responsibility. The Tata’s understand that, all too well.