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Indian MNCs are shaking up the world

Last updated on: July 28, 2006 19:43 IST

Like other rural residents of southern Mississippi, Jamie Lucenberg, 35, faced a huge cleanup job last fall in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He needed a tractor fast to clear debris and trees from his 17-acre family farm, just 16 miles north of devastated Biloxi. "We literally had to cut our way up and down the blacktop roads," recalls Lucenberg.

But rather than buy an American-made John Deere or New Holland, brands he grew up with, Lucenberg chose a shiny red Mahindra 5500 made by India's Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd.

"I have been around equipment all my life," says Lucenberg, who also used the tractor to earn extra money clearing destroyed homes along the Gulf Coast. But for $27,000, complete with a front loader, the 54-hp Mahindra "is by far the best for the money. It has more power and heavier steel," Lucenberg says.

"When you lock it into four-wheel drive, you can move 3,000 pounds like nothing. That thing's an animal." The local dealership in nearby Saucier, Miss. (population 1,300), figures it has sold 300 Mahindras in the past four months.

Surprised that a company from India is penetrating a U.S. market long dominated by venerable names like Deere & Co.? Then it's time to take a look at how globalization has come full circle. A new breed of ambitious multinational is rising on the world scene, presenting both challenges and opportunities for established global players.

These new contenders hail from seemingly unlikely places, developing nations such as Brazil, China, India, Russia, and even Egypt and South Africa. They are shaking up entire industries, from farm equipment and refrigerators to aircraft and telecom services, and changing the rules of global competition.

Unlike Japanese and Korean conglomerates, which benefited from protection and big profits at home before they took on the world, these are mostly companies that have prevailed in brutally competitive domestic markets, where local companies have to duke it out with homegrown rivals and Western multinationals every day.

As a result, these emerging champions must make profits at price levels unheard of in the U.S. or Europe. Indian generic drugmakers, for example, often charge customers in their home market as little as 1% to 2% of what people pay in the U.S. Cellular outfits in North Africa, Brazil, and India offer phone service for pennies per minute.

Yet these companies often thrive in such tough environments. Egyptian cellular operator Orascom boasts margins of 49%; Mahindra's pretax profit rose 81% last year.

Some already are marquee names. Lenovo Group, the Chinese computer maker, made waves last year by buying IBM's $11 billion PC business. Indian software outfits Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services, and Wipro have revolutionized the $650 billion technology services industry. Johannesburg brewer SABMiller PLC is challenging Anheuser-Busch Cos.' leadership right in the U.S.

These companies are just the first wave. The biggest international cellular provider? Soon it may be Mexico's America Movil, which boasts more than 100 million Latin American subscribers and led BusinessWeek's latest rankings of the world's top information technology companies.

Never heard of Hong Kong's Techtronic Industries Ltd.? If you buy power tools at Home Depot Inc., where its products now fill the aisles, you probably know some of the brands it manufactures: Ryobi, Milwaukee, and RIDGID. Brazil's Embraer has surged past Canada's Bombardier as the world's No. 3 aircraft maker and is winning midsize-jet orders that otherwise would have gone to larger planes by Airbus and Boeing.

Western telecom equipment leaders have long looked down on China's Huawei Technologies Co. as a mere copier of their designs. But last year, Huawei snared $8 billion in new orders, including contracts from British Telecommunications PLC for its $19 billion program to transform Britain's telecom network.

The deal "sent a chill through the rest of the telecom manufacturers," says analyst Michael Howard of Infonetics Research Inc. in Campbell, Calif.

Many more companies are using their bases in the developing world as springboards to build global empires, such as Mexican cement giant Cemex, Indian drugmaker Ranbaxy, and Russia's Lukoil, which has hundreds of gas stations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

"What is surprising is the amount of progress emerging-market companies have made in the last few years," says Harold L. Sirkin, senior vice-president at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), which recently published a study based on data collected from 3,000 companies in 12 developing nations. BCG identified 100 emerging multinationals that appear positioned to "radically transform industries and markets around the world."

The 100 had a combined $715 billion in revenue in 2005, $145 billion in operating profits, and a half-trillion dollars in assets. They have grown at a 24% annual clip in the past four years. "There is no doubt in my mind that Corporate America has started to take this threat seriously," Sirkin adds.

What makes these upstarts global contenders? Their key advantages are access to some of the world's most dynamic growth markets and immense pools of low-cost resources, be they production workers, engineers, land, petroleum, or iron ore. But these aspiring giants are about much more than low cost.

The best of the pack are proving as innovative and expertly run as any in the business, astutely absorbing global consumer trends and technologies and getting new products to market faster than their rivals.

Techtronic, for example, was the first to sell heavy-duty cordless tools powered by lightweight lithium ion batteries. Jetmaker Embraer's sleek EMB 190, which seats up to 118, has taken smaller commercial aircraft to a new level with a fuselage design that offers the legroom and overhead luggage space of much larger planes.

Globalization and the Internet are ushering in this "seismic change" to the competitive landscape, says management guru Ram Charan. Because they can tap the same managerial talent, information, and capital as Western companies, "anyone from anywhere who sets his mind to it can really restructure an industry," Charan says. "Make no mistake, this now is a global game."

U.S. corporations, of course, have weathered waves of new rivals before. The 1960s and '70s saw the rise of Western European industrial groups such as Unilever, Philips, Siemens, and Volkswagen. Then came Japanese giants such as Sony and Toyota, followed by South Korean powerhouses such as Hyundai and Samsung and Taiwanese electronics conglomerates in the '90s.

Each time, chief executives found themselves caught off guard. The best U.S. corporations adapted and emerged stronger than before.

Yet this new group of game-changing companies is different on many levels. For starters, the new players are coming from many nations at once and deploying an array of strategies. They're also arriving from lands that, while growing fast, remain relatively poor.

Germany and Japan were industrial powers before World War II and built on those strengths to reemerge as global heavyweights. By contrast, China and India have begun to emerge from extreme poverty only in recent decades. Per capita income in China is still just $1,300 a year.

In India it's $620. That sounds like a huge handicap for companies from those nations: It implies low-income customers, meager capital, and hand-me-down technologies. It also means struggling with arcane regulations, corruption, and poor infrastructure.

Fit Survivors

Hardscrabble origins, though, can be a vital source of strength. These companies have learned to make money by developing reliable, easy-to-use goods and services at very low prices. And those skills have equipped them well for operating elsewhere in the Third World.

Telcos such as Orascom and India's Bharti Telecom, for example, earn high margins while selling cellular service in some nations for 2 cents or 3 cents a minute, while America Movil pioneered the use of pay-as-you-go cellular service that allows the masses to pay as little as $4.50 for a prepaid card.

India has some of the lowest pharmaceutical prices in the world. The country has 101 brands of generic ciprofloxacin, used to treat bacterial infections such as pneumonia and anthrax, costing an average of 63 cents for 10 tablets of 500mg each. That compares with $51 for generic ciprofloxacin in the U.S., according to Ranbaxy Laboratories.

"By learning to compete in this environment, we have gained strength in development and marketing that helps us around the world," says Ranbaxy CEO Malvinder Mohan Singh.

The late 1990s proved to be a time of key opportunity for these companies. In the wake of financial crises in Asia, Latin America, and Russia, many Western companies and banks pulled back from all but a few developing nations. Well-run local players bought assets from retreating Westerners on the cheap and doggedly pursued opportunities from Nigeria to Pakistan to Colombia.

From 1995 to 2003, the World Bank estimates, corporate investment from one developing nation to another more than tripled, to $47 billion annually. It probably has neared $60 billion since.

That leaves the new multinationals in a strong position. Over the next decade, the World Bank projects, developing nations' share of world gross domestic product is expected to grow from one-fifth to one-third. During the next two decades, predicts Goldman, Sachs & Co., China, India, Brazil, and Russia alone will add to their populations some 225 million consumers who earn at least $15,000 a year. That's more than the combined population of Germany and Japan.

Of 1.2 billion new cellular-phone subscribers worldwide by 2010, estimates Pyramid Research in Cambridge, Mass., 86% will be in developing nations. Chicago economic consultant Keystone India figures emerging markets will make up 69% of all new car sales by 2030, compared with 26% now.

Where they choose to fight, of course, the established multinationals still hold big advantages over the upstarts. Citibank, General Electric, HSBC, Motorola, Nokia, and Philips are masters at using low-cost manufacturing, engineering, and managerial talent from Bangalore to Sao Paulo. Few developing-nation companies have such management agility.

That's especially true in China, where promising consumer-electronics makers such as Bird, Konka, and TCL have stumbled because of overcapacity at home and poorly managed acquisitions abroad.

"Everyone sees Chinese enterprises as a threat, but in fact they face a lot of difficulties going global," concedes Zhang Xuebin, CEO of $1.5 billion color TV maker Skyworth Digital Holding Ltd.

The best emerging multinationals, though, have amassed piles of cash, have built global research and development networks, and boast world-class management. You get the idea how far some companies have come by touring Embraer's campus in Sao Jose dos Campos, the size of 55 soccer fields.

On the floor of one hangar, dozens of workers in impeccable overalls put the finishing touches on three luxurious Legacy 600 corporate jets that seat up to 16. In a classroom perched above the assembly line, 30 engineers enrolled in the company's graduate aerospace program fine-tune a PowerPoint presentation on a hypothetical new jet they have designed after conducting exhaustive market research and cost-feasibility studies.

Local heroes

Other emerging players are using their access to deep pools of low-cost local engineers and experience gained in developing nations to close the gap with Western incumbents. Just three years ago, Huawei was known in the U.S. mainly as the company that Cisco Systems Inc. caught copying its designs.

But Huawei, which spent $558 million in R&D last year and employs 7,000 engineers at its sprawling Shenzhen campus, is winning respect globally. Last year 57% of its sales were outside China. It boasts a 15% market share in Asia and 9% in Latin America, cutting sharply into Cisco's lead in those regions. Huawei is the global leader in the rapidly growing equipment market for voice-over-Internet protocol service.

Besides undercutting Western rivals' prices by 20% to 50%, Huawei is adept at designing equipment appropriate for developing nations.

"A Cisco always starts a discussion with its software superiority," says Steven Davidson, leader of strategic change at IBM in Asia. "But many companies in developing nations would rather pay half the price for software that gets the job done."

A raft of Indian companies also have gotten in position for a U.S. assault after building heft at the margins of the global economy.

Ranbaxy may rank just No. 14 in the $28 billion U.S. market for prescription generic drugs. But it is a leader in nations like Nigeria and Brazil. It has earned goodwill by being one of the biggest suppliers of $1-a-day generic AIDS treatments to Africa at cost, and hopes to have its own new malaria drug on the market by 2008. It has also snapped up smaller generic drugmakers in Belgium, Italy, and Romania.

When Ranbaxy first began to market its drugs in Europe, recalls CEO Singh, its sales staff was often kept waiting hours before skeptical purchasing managers would hear their pitch. Now, Ranbaxy is a top supplier in much of Europe, and 80% of its $1.2 billion in revenues comes from overseas. It has staff in 49 nations, plants in seven, and an R&D team of 1,100 at its 17-acre campus outside New Delhi.

Ranbaxy hopes this R&D base will enable it to vault into the top five in the U.S. by 2012 and to No. 1 globally, passing Israel's Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. It has 58 generic medicines pending U.S. Food & Drug Administration approval, including a version of the anti-cholesterol drug Lipitor. Ranbaxy's pipeline is the second-biggest in the generic industry.

How can Western multinationals respond? The first step is to begin respecting the new competition. That is the attitude David C. Everitt, president of Deere's $10.5 billion agricultural division, is adopting toward Mahindra. Everitt concedes the Indian rival could someday pass Deere in global unit sales.

Mahindra dominates the Indian market, which is bigger even than America's, and is especially strong in the small tractors that account for two-thirds of U.S. sales. But Deere also is picking up its game by, among other things, boosting R&D in higher-end tractors for mega-farms in the U.S., Europe, and Brazil, and expanding its own production in India and elsewhere. "We are not afraid of competition," Everitt says. "It gets the juices going and helps us find ways to be better."

Standing pat

Another strategy is to refuse to cede ground either at home or abroad. Last year, Whirlpool Corp. agreed to pay a surprisingly high $2.8 billion to buy Maytag Corp. It wanted to keep Maytag out of the hands of China's Haier, which is ramping up in the U.S. and had made a rival bid.

Cisco, meanwhile, is keeping up the pressure in China, Huawei's home market. Cisco continues to win large orders from Chinese corporations, has plowed $650 million into Chinese tech startups, and has forged a tieup with local Huawei rival ZTE Corp.

Then there's always the strategy of joining the new challengers. Nortel Networks Ltd. and 3Com have formed telecom equipment and design ventures with Huawei. And Navistar International Corp. in Warrenville, Ill., has a joint venture with Mahindra to build trucks and buses for export. "These companies can be opportunities," says BCG's Sirkin, "if you can work with them."

No matter how the big U.S. companies respond, gone is the era when they could afford to wait for an emerging market to ripen, then count on their ability to roll over the unsophisticated local players.

"If you don't participate in these markets, you not only miss opportunities but also are cut out of all the innovation that comes from competing there," says University of Michigan management strategist C.K. Prahalad. "Then you won't be able to withstand the pressure when these companies come and hit you here."

Whether one chooses to confront or collaborate, the new multinationals are set to change the rules in industry after industry.

BusinessWeek