When speaking about his recent trip to India, President Obama said, “India is not an emerging economy…but has emerged.” In this emerged economy, there are many opportunities for U.S. businesses.

“The main sectors of opportunity for U.S. business are higher education, defense, retail and manufacturing,” says Vinita Bahri-Mehra, chair of Kegler, Brown, Hill & Ritter’s Asia-Pacific practice.

But, there are many challenges as well. Vast legal and cultural differences can make an Indian expansion daunting for any business.

Smart Business spoke with Bahri-Mehra about how U.S. businesses can avoid the pitfalls and succeed in India.

What kinds of opportunities exist for domestic businesses in India?

India’s higher education sector has recently witnessed a paradigm shift. Once viewed as a charitable or philanthropic activity, it has morphed into an industry in its own right. Due to a rapidly globalizing competitive marketplace coupled with the increasing need to expand quality education at the grassroots level, policymakers in India have slowly but surely set the Indian education sector on the track toward reform.

Analysts estimate the current private education market in India to be worth approximately $40 billion and expect it to grow by 70 percent in the next three years. A large growing population of youth and an inadequacy of existing educational facilities to cater to such a population means India is one of the world’s largest markets for education and training. We are working with several U.S. universities on projects with educational institutions in India, including establishing R&D centers, providing education support services, twinning arrangements and the franchise model.

The second sector filled with opportunity is defense. India’s new defense procurement policy includes a change long sought by U.S. and European defense contractors, making it less complicated for them to pursue big-ticket deals in India. The new policy gives foreign firms more flexibility in meeting ‘offsets’ — the requirement that they invest a portion of proceeds back into India to promote indigenous industries. However, there is a strong demand by U.S. firms to see India increase its limit in foreign direct investment in defense from its current cap of 26 percent, which discourages joint ventures because U.S. firms are not willing to transfer sensitive technology with such a small stake.

What opportunities are available in retail and manufacturing?

India has a growing middle-class market with higher purchase power parity, which is making them hungry for branded world-class goods. Presently there is a limit of 51 percent in foreign direct investment in retail; however, there is strong likelihood that India will open up its retail market. Companies like Wal-Mart and Costco — and their suppliers and service providers — are already positioning themselves for when the market opens up.

India’s growing automobile market and other industries are in need of components, tools and supplies that can be used in domestic products and/or sold at the domestic markets. There are opportunities for U.S. Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to export/manufacture their products for the Indian market in industries such as infrastructure, automobiles and consumer goods.

How can businesses determine whether these opportunities are right for them?

Businesses must have a strategy in place, which must involve thorough study and analysis of the Indian market to ascertain if there is a potential for their products. That should help determine if they should focus their efforts, time and money in establishing a presence in India. Due diligence is the key to creating a profitable operation.

An opportunity from a potential customer or a potential partner seeking a joint venture is generally the triggering point to evaluate whether it is the right opportunity. It depends on whether a business can really devote the necessary resources to make an opportunity a successful venture.

What challenges could prevent domestic businesses from succeeding in India?

Companies need to understand that the legal regime in India can be quite different from the U.S. The courts in India are backlogged with cases, and the judicial system works very slowly. Enforcing a judgment in India can take up to 10 years. So an arbitration clause in a contract is sometimes necessary to avoid lengthy civil procedures. Companies may also face cultural differences as the work style could become slow and negotiations could drag on, as sometimes Indians have trouble saying ‘no’ outright in negotiations.

Other challenges companies may face are protecting their intellectual property — U.S. intellectual property regulations won’t protect you in India — and analyzing the tax exposure the business will have for the type of operations in India. And using a realistic timeline and budget for the project will be useful.

What steps can be taken to overcome those challenges?

India is fondly known as an ‘Asian Tiger.’ However, I believe its comparison to an elephant is more appropriate, because an elephant is slow in its approach but strong and formidable in its growth. In order to be successful in India, companies need to remember that analogy: things may take time to get done in India, but once they are done, the sky is the limit for growth in that market.

Indians believe in relationships, so it is important to build trust with your customers, partners and counterparts. If a company wants to do a joint venture, it is important that the project leader spends significant time in India. That sends a strong signal to the Indian partner that the company is committed. It is important not to take the human element out of business. Indian companies like to do the handshake first, and then the deal, unlike in the U.S. where the deal comes first.

Vinita Bahri-Mehra is the chair of Kegler, Brown, Hill & Ritter’s Asia-Pacific practice. Reach her at vmehra@keglerbrown.com or (614) 255-5508.

Published in Columbus
Friday, 18 February 2011 15:42

Room for growth

Mit Shah was enjoying the fruits of his labor.

As Shah, founder, senior managing principal and CEO of Noble Investment Group, a company that invests in and manages hotels, he had successfully gotten the business past the struggles that followed the Sept. 11 attacks when travel and tourism dollars fell. Everything was back on track, and the company had been growing, earning spots on the Inc. 5,000 list through the years, and in 2008, it recorded $325 million in revenue.

But things have slowed from the pace Shah and his team are used to.

“We’ve built this model over 17 years — great people, great human characteristics — but clearly the last two and a half years have created a real pause of how we approach our business,” Shah says.

One of his challenges is having extremely talented people, which most wouldn’t think is a problem, but in tough times, it proves to be.

“How do you keep a group of highly successful, highly talented, highly motivated, passionate leaders engaged and focused on the ability to manage what we have when you’re an organization that’s truly built for continuous investment and continuous growth, and that’s how you’re structured?” Shah says.

He’s also been challenged by looking for opportunities to grow the business and figuring out how the market will shake out.

“That has been a big part of my responsibility to continue to surround myself with people who internally and externally will give me good insight as it relates to how do we see opportunities going forward,” he says.

And then it’s been just hunkering down on the business basics.

“Continue to do what the books say you’re supposed to do — stick to your core values during times of great opportunity and during times of crisis, take care of people, make sure that you continue to commit to things that are part of who you are and who you espouse to be,” Shah says.

Over the past three years, by building a solid group of peers to rely on, focusing on his people and looking for opportunities, Shah was able to successfully move Noble forward — earning $346 million in revenue in 2009 — and prepare it for future growth.

Build your peer group

One of the aspects of business that Shah says has been particularly critical the past few years has been forecasting out where the market would go and how things could change, but he can’t do this alone. He’s come to rely on a core group of people that he’s built over the years to help him better make decisions about his company.

For example, he may have dinner with the CEO of Hilton Hotels one day and the president of Wake Forest University on another, and they both play a critical role in his life.

“I always stayed very close to a group of people that I viewed could help me on a broader basis,” Shah says. “It goes back to this peer group — never being the smartest person in the room, always having the smartest room, and always finding people who I could befriend and I could build a relationship with and build a partnership with, who, in essence, I could learn from and build a base of knowledge that I wouldn’t get in just running my company.”

Having a group of people to get feedback and ideas from has also helped him bring in the best people when those openings arise. To build his group, he got out on the road and met with people continuously, and this went back as far as 18 years ago. Over the years, his group has also evolved and today includes top executives of the world’s major hotel chains, basketball coaches, people in service businesses and manufacturing as well as investment bankers.

“That’s really helped me think about things, both then and now, in a way that helps me lead more effectively,” he says. “I have the power of and the benefit of a broad range of thinking, and then I can take those thoughts, and I can incorporate them into my own and lead through that manner.”

To create a group for yourself, Shah suggests getting out more to build those relationships with people.

“Go to meetings, go to conferences, find out the best industry events,” he says. “Walk around, shake people’s hands, get to know people, and take every opportunity that you have to understand those in whatever business and industry are at the tip of being visionary, of being organizations that have had sustainable track records, that are respected among a group of people that you respect, and find opportunities to establish relationships.”

Sometimes that means you have to make the tougher decision in the here and now. You may want to go do something fun, but instead, you need to choose to do what will be most beneficial in the long term.

“There’s been times all across my entire career where it’s an opportunity to either go have a dinner or to be in the same room or to go to a meeting or a conference, and you have no idea what you’re going to get out of it,” Shah says. “But spend those times as opposed to saying, ‘Let’s go find the best place to watch the game tonight,’ and really go and find an opportunity to establish a friendship.”

When you meet people and get to know them, it’s important to remember that they’re people just like you, so use that as a base to build that friendship.

“It doesn’t matter if someone is the CEO of a big Fortune 100 company or if they’re just your golfing buddy,” he says. “At the end of the day, when you peel back everything, people are just, if you find good human beings, decent people. They’d much rather go have a barbecue sandwich than have something fancy. They’d much rather have a beer together and talk about your families than always be talking about how you’re going to win market share here and how you’re going to do that. That all comes, but break it down to just finding quality human beings and building friendships with them.”

Focus on your people

During the downturn, Shah didn’t cut his 401(k) match, community service programs or the company Christmas party. Instead, he doubled the budget for his employee engagement committee so it could plan things like bowling outings and have a really nice holiday party.

“Let’s be honest, this is a tough labor market,” he says. “People aren’t jumping jobs right now, so we get that. You can’t use that as a crutch, because as soon as the market comes back, they’ll leave for a better opportunity once available.”

Despite the challenging times, it’s crucial to make sure you continue to focus on your people and how you can support them. Look at the people that aren’t your senior managers — just your everyday, salaried employees — and reflect on what their intentions are.

“Do they have the character and confidence, and then do they care about the company’s best interest?” Shah asks. “If they do, then making that decision is very easy.”

If you have employees that would leave to go across the street for 5 percent more, then Shah understands not wanting to put the resources out to support them, but at the same time, he also questions why that is.

“What does that mean?” he says. “That means that if you haven’t brought in that person who has that character and if you haven’t done the things to promote that loyalty, whose fault is it? Is it the team member’s fault or the employer’s fault that they’re not loyal?”

When you face yourself with this kind of a situation, that’s when it becomes difficult to decide whether to put money toward your people or to keep it for the company.

“If employers are in that situation, then it’s hard for them to part with their dollars because — they’ll never admit it and they’ll never sit in front of a town hall and say, ‘All of you employees are commodities,’ — they would never say that, and if they feel that, they’ll make a decision and say, ‘We’ll just hoard the cash,’” Shah says. “But if you really believe in your team members, and if you really believe they have the organization’s best interest and they’re going to be there for the long haul, then you take care of them. You always take care of them.”

In fact, as 2009 came to an end, Shah was anticipating a surplus in the budget and predicted that they would be creating a supplementary bonus program with it in addition to putting some of that back into the company as a buffer for this year.

“You always go to the denominator of what’s the right thing to do,” he says.

Recognize opportunities

The economy has changed business the past few years, so you can’t just rest on your laurels and expect clients to come your way.

“You’ve got to look through a number of different avenues,” Shah says. “It’s far different than it ever was. Generating business in general is different than what it was before — in any industry.”

Over the past couple of years, Shah has been diligent about looking for new opportunities, and that starts with knowing your market.

“It’s really about having a very good understanding of your marketplace so you don’t have to be a big national organization or global organization,” he says. “We could be just the best hotel group in Atlanta, but we need to know Atlanta like the back of our hand.”

Knowing your market also goes back to your peer group and having people you can talk to about how the market is going so you can better predict how things may shift. On top of that, it’s important to have a niche.

“You have to find a niche in the business,” Shah says. “I think that companies of the future that are going to be very successful will have a niche. They aren’t broad-based companies that do a lot of things. They’ll find a couple things they do really well, and they focus on those things, and they outperform the competition there. It’s way too difficult to be good at many different things.”

For example, Shah knows that his company is good at hotels, but he also recognizes that it isn’t cut out to go into, say, grocery stores or office buildings.

“You can’t just, all of a sudden, wake up one day and say, ‘I think we’re going to be grocery-anchored retail,’” he says. “There’s some smart leaders in our organization, but we don’t know anything about grocery-anchored retail, and I can’t just go hire someone who knows about grocery-anchored retail and pretend we can be a great company overnight.”

Instead, you have to look at what your company already does and what expertise you already have within the organization.

“You have to say, ‘What are you built to go do that’s as good as or better than the best people that do it in your business?’” Shah says. “Based on that, how do you build that if you have not already? If you think you have it already, how do you go and execute around that area?”

If you see that the opportunities aren’t in that area and you do think you have to explore a different area, you need to do it in a smart way.

“If we don’t know how to do something, we always go get the talent first and go and build a model around it, and then start with one and continue to grow,” he says. “That’s what we’ve historically always done.”

The key is you have to be able to live with whatever consequences come as a result of the direction you head.

“Understand what your downside is,” Shah says. “Know what you can live with. It’s hard. How do you be visionary, be aggressive, be strategic and also manage risks without just being completely paralyzed by it?”

How to reach: Noble Investment Group, (404) 262-9660 or www.nobleinvestment.com

The Shah file

Mit Shah

Founder, Senior Managing Principal and CEO

Noble Investment Group

Born: Morristown, N.J.

Education: Bachelor’s degree, economics, Wake Forest University

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a basketball coach. If I can’t be a coach, I want to be an announcer.

I’m first generation American. My parents are both immigrants. I’m the eldest child of immigrants. They think about education and stability, and you’re like, ‘Hey! I’m going to be a basketball coach or announcer.’ They’re like, ‘What are you talking about? You’re going to be a doctor.’ I was like, ‘All right, I guess I’m going to be a doctor,’ — until I got to college and took bio and chem and physics and hated all three with a passion.

Did you get the chance to coach at all?

I used to coach kids basketball when I was in college. One of the first things that really helped me think about what I wanted to do with my life was when a friend of mine was going to be the head coach, and he asked me to be the assistant, and he transferred schools, so I ended up becoming the head coach before the first game, and it was the most thrilling thing to me.

I was coaching these 11- and 12-year-old kids, but these kids were just wide open. They listened, they cared, they were good enough where you could teach them things. I was like, ‘This is really great.’ They’re 12, so they’re going to listen to you, and they don’t care that you’re 18 — they’re 11, so they look at you as a leader. I was like, ‘Wow. This is the first time anyone’s listened to me.’ It got me really excited about the opportunity to lead and the opportunity to be somewhere where I could teach and help people maximize their potential.

What’s the best book you’ve read?

I’ve got a number — Jim Collins’ ‘Good to Great.’ It’s kind of a pat answer. It was the first book I ever read that gave real tangible evidence of what companies did over time to help them not only survive but thrive through multiple periods of economic volatility. It helped me think about my business in ways I never had thought about it before.

If you’re looking for something less business-oriented, ‘The Last Lecture’ by Randy Pausch was a great book because it really touched on things that, to me as a human being, we should always think about.

Published in Atlanta
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