Writings on the Walls!!!

First a disclosure. The topic for this post is lifted from the ace columnist Shekhar Gupta’s columns – the ones he usually pens on his sojourns to the rural heartland of India during election times to gauge the mood of the electorate and to see for himself the changes sweeping the country. This piece is on similar lines. One which is based on my recent visit to Coimbatore where I spent the last few days of the 2015 and rang in the New Year. Coimbatore is the 2nd biggest town in Tamil Nadu and by no means can be categorized as a rural heartland. It has been an industrial hub with a higher than average per capita income in the state and the country. But for those living in metros like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore or ChennaiCoimbatore is an idyllic place with much cleaner air and purer minds. And as you move further away to the suburbs of this town like Vadavalli the “Writings on the walls” are clearer. Let me attempt to recap some of those which I found interesting:

  • First up, as you drive down into the city from the airport, through Avinashi Road a commercial nerve centre a new Audi showroom has sprung up! Atleast I saw it for the 1st time. Not surprising though for a city where the entrepreneurial class had always high exposure and aspiration as far as cars were concerned. But what surprised me certainly was a brand new showroom which was getting ready for Harley Davidson bikes down the lane.
  • In a lazy afternoon, as we hit upon the idea of watching a film, Bajirao Mastani won the battle over Pasanga-2 (a Tamil film). My own snotty idea that tickets for a Hindi film will be easily available in a place like Coimbatore got demolished the moment I checked for tickets online. It was indeed a year end and generally a holiday week, the film screened only in 3 multiplexes and just 2 shows compared to 5-6 shows of Tamil movies,…,.. But still for the whole period we stayed there Mastani proved elusive. Still griping with the thought that Madrasis are Hindi haters –Think again!
  • More proof of this would emerge when I saw boards hanging like this in gates of houses. Note that stress on “Hindi”

Board in C'tore,012014

  • Coimbatore has huge gas stations. Once as our cabbie got into an IOC gas station, I saw this billboard.

Fitness catching in Cat d towns,122014Written in Tamil, it was talking of a promo by which those filling up petrol were eligible for VLCC gift vouchers. Was interesting to see the aspirational connect. And as we drove further I would see many more billboards for VLCC beauty products (Like this one)

Signage in a Vill petrol pump on face cream,1,122014

  • Again further proof for the increasing thrust on looks showed up shortly as I and the wife were going around looking for a friend’s house. The landmarks wereK.R.Storesand “a beauty parlour”. I kept asking few people for K.R.Stores in vain. The wife then took charge and asked the next lady the directions for the beauty parlour. And lo she clearly directed us to the house we were searching in the scorching sun for the last 15 mins😁. I wanted to tell K.R Stores to change from selling wheat flour, rice flour to being a beauty parlour😁😁
  • When the daughter pestered for taking her out, we went to a household products Trade fair which was going on in the Codissia Trade fair complex near the airport. Frankly I was going to such a fair may be after 15 years. My images of these fairs were always of stalls selling products like Roti makers, Vegetable choppers,… which usually work wonderfully in demos at the stalls but fail miserably at home😞. And then you had the myriad handicraft stalls from different states. Stalls hawking bedsheets, pillow covers,… What I saw this time was revealing. There were no stalls pushing choppers and roti makers first up. But one could see stalls selling organic food products, home security solutions, food products made of millet and other exotic cereals, solar products, foreign holiday packages and few stalls peddling fitness solutions including Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali products😃😃!
  • The neighbourhood cabwala whom we usually engage was now an Ex Ola wala. He got into the Ola App bandwagon and got out of it within few months. In his own words –‘Ola customerukku nalla Appu. Aana engalukku nalla Aappu!!’ (It’s a good app for customers but for us cabbies it’s a bad deal.). Apart from driving a taxi, he runs a provision store. His son is not interested in this business and wants to be an Engineer. ‘Avan eppo paarthalum ethanayachum kodanjukitte irupaan’ (he’s all the time fiddling around with something or other)
  • A videographer in the vicinity now offered live streaming of events. He claims this is a must now as folks abroad need to watch marriages,… live when they cannot attend.
  • And If I dare to call so, Coimbatore is fast emerging as the Retirement capital for Tamilians the world over! What started more as a social concept of community based living option for elders (whose children are mostly out of the country) has now morphed into an aspirational option. Coimbatore is now dotted with Gated community spaces designed specifically keeping “living alone senior citizens managing NRO accounts” in mind.

Now all these (except the last one) may not be unique to Coimbatore only. If one travels to a small town in Maharashtra, UP or Orissa the “Writings” may be similar. What is commonly wringing in all these so called “Writings on the walls” is the aspect of “Aspiration”. Whether it is craving for better looks or learning Hindi or wanting to ride a Harley Davidson or seeking better health, the new Indian (even senior citizen if I may add) is not satisfied with what he/she can make do with. But aspires for the better and the best.

It is this idea that Narendra Modi tapped into in his prime ministerial campaign successfully and rode to power. And it is important that his government doesn’t forget this aspect and does everything to fuel economic growth which will give wings to these aspirations at all levels. Ignore these “Writings on the walls” and the writing on the 2019 wall will be clear.

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Now running successfully worldwide – “India Sorry”

In the corporate board rooms of many multinational corporations the “India Story” which was weaving itself has now given way to “India Sorry” with accompanying pathos.  The overwhelming feeling is of a wholesale deprivation of the aspirations of the talented Indians by their political masters. “Incredible India” is desperately ‘in’ need of a ‘credible’ script, actors, technicians and the works. Flash back to the 2003-06 time frame, thanks to the easy money flowing in from the developed markets to emerging markets that included India, the markets were on fire. Pundits and others claimed that a GDP growth of 7-8 % is the base line rate of growth, come what may and if Govt. and administration did its bit (and If China gets to host events like Olympics 🙂 ), we could head towards 9 – 10 % growth.  The party was briefly interrupted by “the Lehman shock” the tremors of which shook the world – developed, developing and others. I say briefly because within a year or so markets like India and China not only recovered but were again breathing fire. This time the stimuli announced by developed countries like the US, Germany,… injected funds into the monetary system and once again easy money found its way here.  This was when the “India Story” was running full houses worldwide.

I recall seeing and hearing of many multinational companies having their Board meetings in India that time. Expansion plans for global companies seldom excluded India. Forex reserves were booming whether it was thro FDI or FII money. If you look at it now, that kind of over the top India focus and fuss became detrimental to India’s future. For, the rulers(UPA-I) started imagining and talking of India which is “decoupled” from the world without realizing that if structural reforms are not put in place, the “India Story” will turn apocryphal when the flow of easy money stops. And that’s exactly what happened. This is explained beautifully in Ruchir Sharma’s book –“Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles”. While he analyses many emerging markets and gives his verdict, as far as India is concerned his verdict is a 50:50 chance for India to breakout. I suspect that his own patriotic “Indian at heart” feeling came in the way of saying that the chances are pretty dim for India to become a breakout nation. Ruchir also says that we will have to get used to the “New Normal” of Pre 2003 GDP Growth which is 5.5-6%.

My own sense is that if India had focused on Governance, the situation would not have been as bad as it is now inspite of the global liquidity party getting over long while ago.  However in India the politics of economics is a deadly game. So instead of focusing on Governance, the Govt. headed by a Cambridge educated Economist was economic in Key decision-making and thereby introduced “policy paralysis” in the lexicon of the opposition/Industry and corporate reviews. Many observers are in unison when they point out that the Union budget presented by the present President of India in the year in the year 2012 as finance minister was the tipping point that led to world relegating India as a foot note in their strategy documents. Pranab Mukherjee amended the Income Tax Act, 1961, to impose a retrospective provision for tax on some types of global mergers, including Vodafone’s 2007 acquisition of Hutchinson’s assets in India. Even for a lay man it is difficult to fathom how somebody in the Govt. can think of passing an amendment with retrospective effect when companies have taken decisions to invest based on prevailing laws of the land.  That this controversial provision passed through the FM, the bureaucracy and even the PM is till today a shocker for me.  From then on it’s been a downward climb with downgrading of ratings, pulling out of money, slowdown in investments, falling off the Rupee,..,..  India got demoted while Pranabda got promoted 😦 😦 To compound to the situation, delay in environmental clearances for new projects, banning of mining, Telecom imbroglio, corruption charges all this made Indian investors to look for avenues outside of the country to invest.

As a rearguard action, Chidambaram was brought in as the Finance Minister to succeed Pranabda and frankly speaking he has been trying his best. The decision-making wheels in the Govt. have started moving. The “Rajan effect” has been just short of magic. From the time Raghuram Rajan was made the Governor of RBI, there has been some great things happening in the economy the most important being the strengthening of Rupee.  But the “Sir Newton effect” has been overpowering. Newton said “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. So the reaction from the world now is of a wait and watch.  With the Government in the December of its term, it makes little sense to investors and others alike to jump into the fray. For them it makes more sense to wait and see if India presents a credible and durable “Change” come 2014.

And it is not just the world which is looking for a change in India but even within India the mood is the same. Though it is still not clear what the opposition’s clear economic agenda is, Narendra Modi the PM candidate for BJP is attracting attention all over.  This can only be due to an overwhelming yearning for change. If that change happens, it will be interesting to see how they tackle the economy differently. Yashwant Sinha an Ex and potential finance minister in his book calls himself a “Swadeshi Reformer”. As oxymoronic as it sounds, except for opposing what the Govt. is doing, even he has not yet spelt out clearly BJP’s stand on key economic reforms.

Shankkar Aiyar a reputed columnist in his book “Accidental India” says and I quote “It would seem that everything the country has achieved has arrived by accident, catalyzed by calamity”. Turning points in the country like the liberalization of 1991,.. as per him “were not the result of foresight or careful planning but were rather the accidental consequences of major crises that had to be resolved at any cost”. For quite some time now I was of the same opinion but dismissed it as a streak of a cynical Indian. But reading this fantastic book has confirmed my worst fears around policy making which is by nature reactive rather than proactive.  As the country is in the throes of another economic crisis if not collapse, we await another “accident” which will bring the “India story” back to the global theatres. Till then it looks like there is no escape (velocity) 🙂 🙂

MANJUL_010712pol_economy_pranab_manmohan

Also pls. read my earlier post on reforms “The Politics of Reforms” written in Sep 2012 –  http://wp.me/p1dZc2-bQ

The Economics of “Refill”

In all probability you must have seen this.  An Indian scientist is explaining to a group of Indian visitors what seems like a visitor’s gallery in NASA about the most ambitious project of NASA“JUNO” a spacecraft to discover Jupiter’s secrets.  At the end of his brief, he asks the group if there are any questions. Up goes a hand and the man asks nonchalantly “Kitna Deti Hai” (How much does it give – mileage?)  The scene cuts to the scientist who is flabbergasted by the question. The commercial closes with a voiceover which says “For a country obsessed with mileage Maruti Suzuki makes India’s most efficient cars”. This is one in the series of ads being aired by Maruti with the same theme to drive home the point concerning the obsession of Indians with mileage when they look to buy cars.  Here’s the link to that commercial.

The scientist who is shown as an Indian should not be so astounded after all. Because an average Indian consumer who apart from looking at the price of a product is programmed right from his childhood to also look at its running cost over a period of time while buying any product.   Hence this obsession with mileage as far as car is concerned and may be a space craft when he decides to buy one.   The importance of the “cost of using” a product (let’s call it ‘running cost’ to keep it simple) is not limited to cars alone.

Till I was in school, I was using a fountain pen in which the ink can be refilled and used for a long while.  I ‘graduated’ from using a fountain pen to a ball point pen ‘when I left college’. This can be used for eternity by just replacing the “Refill” once the ink is over.  Though the ball point pen as such costed few cents – we were told that it should NOT be ‘used and thrown” but refilled and re-used again and again.

Welcome to the “Economics of Refill”.  Welcome to India.

Between “Use & Throw” and “Refill & Use”, the vote of the Indian consumer is always for the 2nd one.   So you have refill solutions for almost all categories – In Fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) category  you get refill sachets for dishwashing liquids, mosquito repellants, room fresheners, cleaning liquids and the like.  In appliances – we are keen to know what the power consumption is because we are concerned that the electricity bill should not detonate in our face after we start using the product.  Moving from consumer to business category the story is not so different.

In my own long enough experience of selling printers in India, I’ve seen that the 1st question the trade asks when you talk of a printer is “Refill hota kya”? (Is this refillable?) And if your answer is negative, you can knock off one high potential emerging market from your pursuit list.  So you have the Dot Matrix printer ribbons being refilled with inked fabric, Inkjet cartridges of Inkjet printers being refilled with Inks and Toner cartridges of Laser products being refilled with Toner powder…  Akin to “Kitna Deti hai” in cars is the question – “Running cost kya hai” (What is the running cost?) in the printer industry.  . So much so, few years ago when we were planning to introduce a label printer which produces High quality labels which are long lasting – though the price of the printer itself was quite affordable we were continuously faced with the question of “Cost per label”!!!    Here we are talking of a label printer which can produce labels of such high quality that they are dust proof, impervious, chemical resistant, heat resilient so on and so forth and the 1st question which pops up is “All that is fine. What is the Cost per label”?  We had to change the narrative of the product from “Cost per label” to “labels for life” to be successful.  Succeeded we did, but it took a lot of sweat.  This question of “Cost per label” was not so commonly faced by the company in other markets it sold this product before.  Similarly in developed economies like US and Western Europe, I understand that the toner doesn’t get refilled by cheap refill vendors.  (There is an organized refurbished toner market though)

There is a common notion among foreign companies that consumers in India want cheap products (means products that cost as low as possible) and don’t care for anything else.  And this notion is continuously flagellated while arriving at product as well as pricing strategies. Well this view can be off the mark by the width of the Indian Ocean.  An Indian consumer while is certainly cost conscious also looks for lower running costs which includes recurring costs on usage like power consumption, consumables cost, maintenance costs, fuel costs, .. depending upon the type of product.

With this “refill psyche” in our DNA, look at the contribution we are making to a greener planet!!!  “Use & Throw” generates more plastic than “Refill and Use” isn’t it?

So companies looking to script a success story in India or an emerging market are well advised to introduce products which follow the “Economics of Refill” wherever applicable.

“While on this, don’t miss to read – “Characteristics of Emerging Markets and the Opportunities They Create” by Kamini Banga and Vijay Mahajan.

Post script : In villages, you can hear the phrase “Kitna Deti Hai?” actually in reference to “cows” when they are being sold in the market – meaning how much milk does it give in a day !!!  So the cow which gives a very high “milkeage” becomes a “Cash Cow”!!!

The “Emerging” Mirage !

A peek into any of the corporate board rooms today across continents is more likely to show “Focus on Emerging Markets as a bullet point in their company’s strategy slides.  The reasons are understandable and more than obvious. Developed countries of yore after years of driving consumption and growth are showing fatigue and companies have no choice but to look beyond G5 to get their “G”rowth.  Depending upon the individual companies reach, the scope of “Emerging” markets may vary but it’s almost certain to have ‘Incredible India in its list. This is not surprising though.

  • A population of 1.2 bn., almost 1/6th of the world population
  • 65% of population under 35 years
  • GDP growing at 7-8 % annually in the last decade
  • Ever growing middle class population which is hungry to lap up products and services with a vengeance

The above numbers on India are mouth-watering for any head honcho hoping to take his/her business to the next orbit.  However very few are familiar with the challenges and uniqueness of doing business in India and hence unable to see thro the ‘Emerging’ mirage!

Having cut my career teeth and got my feet wet in India and also having been exposed to doing business in other countries, I’m of the view that India is one of the most complicated and toughest countries to do business and survive and here are some of the reasons why:

  • Though India is one country, it is in fact many countries within a country
    • Every 300 kms. the speaking dialect changes, the food habits and tastes vary and more importantly the taxes govt. charge gets different!
    • As you travel within the country, the cultures are different, different people types emerge
    • There is one New year ( 1st Jan ) as per English Calendar and you have the several regional / local New years spread throughout the year  so much so that many foreign companies having subsidiaries in India are bewildered that they have to follow different holiday calendars for their different branches! ( Even in China there is only 1 lunar New year )
  • The tax structure is never straight forward and is full of complications.  For example for IT peripherals – though the basic customs duty is 0% (India being a signatory of the WTO Trade treaty), the effective duty could be as high as 15 – 20 %!  There are other duties and levies like CVD (Counter veiling duty), SAD (Special Additional duty), CESS on CVD, Higher education CESS on CVD, Customs educational CESS, and Customs higher educational CESS!  The cascading sad story doesn’t end here.
  •  On the same product you pay taxes while producing, pay taxes while moving the goods from one state to another and pay taxes while selling!  If you are a salaried employee, your income which is used for buying such products is already taxed mind you!   So much taxing of the brain isn’t it?
  • Due to federal structure the above taxation rates and structure can be different from state to state.
  • The prevailing legal system in India is supposed to be strong and fair. But everybody in India knows that taking legal recourse is the last resort for settling business disputes.  Considering the time taken to settle disputes in courts companies give up or try to settle them out of court at higher costs.
  • In 1991, India got its 2nd independence i.e. freedom from the license/permit Raj and the country started warming itself to foreign investments.  However reform has become such a bad word today that there has been no re-run of the reforms since then!
  • Add to this, one cannot ignore the Govt’s  recent bungle like deciding to retrospectively change the law allowing it to tax indirect transfers of Indian assets through deals struck overseas
  • Govt.  Policies can be so very unstable that a successful policy initiative undertaken by one regime could become a monstrous scam in the next regime.  The telecom policy turnarounds are a good example of the same.  While the Uninors and the Videocons wind up their mobile business, there have been 1000’s of hapless youngsters who have lost their jobs in the process.
  • Dealing with Govt. agencies to get business done could be a nightmare and I need 100 blog posts to just explain some of the complexities.  The general impression is that the procedures/rules have all been kept deliberately complicated so that they are subject to convenient interpretations.

So any foreign company contemplating to ride into this Emerging market bandwagon may be in for some real shock and awe!

If the environment is so hostile for doing business, how’s that many of the Indian companies manage to do business and also grow and that too for years?

  • They have managers in their ranks who have it in them what I call as the “Indian Instincts of Management” which enable them to precisely think in such adverse conditions
  • Most of the companies over a period of time have developed a core competency mandatory for doing business in India which was famously called as “Managing the Environment” by Dhirubhai Hirachand Ambani (so we hear)

So if a foreign company wants to emerge successful in India it is not impossible if it can follow some simple rules:

  • Population figures, GDP numbers are all fine but the crux is business potential for your product will depend upon whether it is “essential” or it is “desirable” for the Indian consumer in terms of category.
  • Pricing strategy and requirements may completely vary depending upon if the product/service is a utility product or a lifestyle product
    • So if you conclude that you can get away with premium pricing of your highly feature rich product because Indians also are lapping up iPhones and iPads you may be in for some surprise.
    • Between value for money and lower price – lower priced products may sell more ( again could be category dependent)
  • A typical Indian consumer gives a damn to your worldwide presence.  What matters to him / her is the company’s demonstrated commitment to stay long-term in India, produce/sell quality products, provide decent after sales support and keep reinforcing that commitment
  • Between a product of Global quality (“0” defect product) and “Chinese” quality there exists an acceptable Indian quality which is – products functioning properly, not failing so often, and being serviced promptly in case of failures (I would like to believe that this is changing and more and more Indians are beginning to be more demanding. I still reckon that this is just an urban trait as of now)
  • Many of the services which involve manpower which are chargeable in other countries are expected to be “Free” in India.
  • Because of the inherent weakness in infrastructure in Indian cities, the staff productivity in India will be lower than in other countries. So better not to follow global benchmarks while planning headcount.
  • Being flexible is key to survive whether it is in Strategy, Go to Market or in planning
  • Have a solid “Indian” team to manage the business in India since for those most of the above issues are not really issues but realities of doing business in India.
  • Look at India only if you have the staying power and patience is your virtue.  For some of the reasons mentioned above even for a globally strong brand it may take a while for it to make its presence in India.

The above list may not be exhaustive. The bottom line is “In India – think like an Indian” which is to in short “Expect the Unexpected” and prepare yourself for the Incredible Indian Experience. Welcome to jugaad.in!

Post Script:

For its signature edition (next day of budget) Economic Times commissioned the biggest names in Advertising like Piyush Pandey, R.Balki, Prasoon Joshi, Joshy Paul,..to create ads on how they see India in the midst of a global slowdown.   For the same, Balki created this ad and I liked it the most and would like to share. He commented on the ad thus :

“It’s not in any brief for an ad agency to tell the client to change the product. But modern India is a ‘product’ that could do well with some change. The ad highlights the necessity as well as the opportunity to change India— to make it the real Incredible India”