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Buying into opportunity

BS Bureau | November 26, 2003

The successive announcements by two companies that they are taking over forging firms in Germany and Britain highlights the new trend wherein Indian enterprises are making overseas acquisitions.

These two are different from some earlier international acquisitions, like the Aditya Birla group's buying up of a mining company in Australia to ensure raw material supplies, or the purchases of several American firms in the business process outsourcing field.

They are also different from Reliance's bid for Flag (which could be characterised as the tactical seizing of an unexpected opportunity), but they have some similarities with Tata Motors' bid for Daewoo's truck plant in South Korea, in that the acquired companies have all been troubled units that are going cheap, but which have firm franchises in the markets where they operate.

The acquisition of these manufacturing companies underlines two or three important developments. One is the growing strength and confidence of India's manufacturing companies.

All three acquiring companies --Tata Motors, Bharat Forge and Sundram Fasteners -- have become poster-boys for the successes achieved in recent years by Indian manufacturing firms, and it is only to be expected that they should now lead the push overseas.

But even more important is the opportunity that they have spotted in troubled companies struggling in developed but static markets. The opportunity lies in the game of back-ending (i.e integrating) some of the acquired firm's manufacturing activity with the operations in India, thus saving cost, while keeping the front-end functional in order to retain customer relationships, local sourcing advantages and premium branding.

Viewed this way, there will be many more such opportunities thrown up in markets like Germany, which is populated by countless medium-scale firms that are usually family-run and have special niches in design-driven high-tech manufacturing operations, but where the firm's costs and scale of operations make continued survival difficult.

Often, the next generation of the family is not interested in continuing the line of business, and the owners want to sell out. This combination of factors means that the cost of acquisition is very reasonable, and there is none of the negative fall-out associated with jobs being transferred to India, because the Indian firm that is moving in will actually be saving jobs that might otherwise have been lost.

Samtel's acquisition of a troubled high-tech firm in Germany, and its subsequent revival and growth, represents precisely the kind of success story that Sundram and Bharat Forge can now emulate.

On a broader scale, the overseas acquisitions show that many Indian firms are thinking global in an altogether new way, by going beyond the game of simple exports and seeking to become a part of many national markets through local sourcing, assembly and manufacture.

Whether it is the setting up of manufacturing operations in China so as to move into the Chinese market, or the establishing of assembly operations in places like Brazil and Indonesia (as Bajaj Auto and TVS Motors plan to do), the more aggressive and accomplished Indian firms are joining the globalisation game with a new-found confidence that was not there even five years ago.

Similarly, Reliance's bid for Flag shows an ability and willingness to think world-scale. The fact that Bharat Forge, after its German acquisition, will become the second largest forgings firm in the world, next only to Thyssen Krupp, tells its own story of the quest for global leadership that some of the better-placed Indian manufacturing firms have embarked on.

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