Monday, February 18, 2013

SMEs in India Deserve a Better Deal

First published in The Hindu Business Line: ____________________________________________________________________
How often have we read that small and medium enterprises are a strategic asset for the Indian economy? We are told that they contribute nearly 8 per cent of the GDP, 45 per cent of the manufactured output and 40 per cent of exports. The sector provides employment to about 60 million people through over 26 million enterprises producing over six thousand products.
 However, what is seldom mentioned is that many of them are at the mercy of the larger corporations, with no effective relief from the existing government policies. For instance, delayed payments by large companies and the resultant crippling effects have always been the bugbear of SMEs, but at the risk of losing their large orders, they do not legally complain.
 While the government efforts have always focused on ways to ease credit restrictions, strengthen training, marketing, technological support, exit policies and cluster development, very little thought has gone into the relationship between large corporations and their sub-contractors. At the risk of being accused of bringing back the “control regime,” our policymakers could well take a look at the recent initiatives in South Korea, a country that has built its strong economy on the basis of capitalistic free market principles.
 On May 22, the nation's top conglomerate, Samsung Electronics, found itself in the national anti-trust agency's crosshairs, falling afoul of the unfair practices law for its repeated cancellation of parts' orders to small contractors.
 The Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC) announced that it is imposing a $1.4 million fine on the company for withdrawing orders long after payments are due. It said that among 1.5 million parts orders placed by Samsung Electronics between January 2008 and November 2011, some 2 per cent or 28,000 orders were reneged on unreasonably. This left suppliers with bursting inventories, interest payments owed and disruptions to their production schedules. Although the company has strongly refuted the claims, this just goes to show that SMEs in South Korea which have been unfairly treated by their larger counterparts can always bank on help from government agencies. The same may not be true for Indian SMEs.
 The anti-trust agency's proactive steps can be traced to the ‘shared growth' policy of the present government under President Lee Myung-bak, a former high-profile businessman. He has been pursuing co-prosperity between conglomerates and SMEs since last year as a means of addressing economic polarity.
As a response to concerns that big companies were thriving while small ones weren't under his administration, a ‘‘Presidential Commission on Shared Growth for Large and Small Companies'' was launched in December 2010, as a private institution, which is formally independent from, but actually supported by, the government.
Since its formation, the commission has announced many policy instruments to promote shared or mutual growth of large companies and SMEs through what it calls “cooperation profit distribution.” Representatives from both SMEs and large companies agreed to introduce the system and a number of proposals were then announced, including a list of business areas restricted only to SMEs.
 The commission recently announced a list of 79 products that it believes should be produced by SMEs rather than big ones, an attempt to prevent big companies from driving smaller ones out of promising markets. The conglomerates have reluctantly accepted this proposal.
 ‘Name and Shame' is another tool used by the Commission. It released a ‘‘shared growth index'' earlier in May, tracking how large businesses have made efforts to realise shared growth.
 Of the 56 large conglomerates subject to the index calculation, seven companies received the lowest grade of “improvement needed”, while six companies, including Samsung Electronics, POSCO, and Hyundai Motor Company, received the highest grade of “superior”. Twenty companies were ranked as “good” and 23 others were listed as “average”. The index has been calculated by combining the performance assessment of the conglomerates by KFTC, plus a personal survey of 5,200 contractors of the 56 companies.
Large companies that received the lowest mark in the assessment will not face any disadvantages. However, 26 companies with the satisfactory grade or above will be given various incentives from government agencies, including tax breaks and subsidies.
 It is the first time that the shared growth index has been calculated. Although some conglomerates may not be content with the index, it is desirable for them to acknowledge the commission's effort to improve the environment for achieving co-prosperity between conglomerates and SMEs.
 In fact, following its active involvement in the ‘‘shared growth'' agenda, many large enterprises have recently reached mutual agreements with subcontracting SMEs for fair trade and shared growth. Two prominent examples of such arrangements are Samsung and Hyundai's agreements with their respective subcontractors.
 Nine Samsung group affiliates, including Samsung Electronics, made cooperative agreements for shared growth with 5,200 subcontractors. The package of financial assistance amounted to $5.7 billion, among which R&D support comprised $1.7 billion.
 Samsung agreed to induce its subcontractors to make cooperative agreements with lower-level sub-subcontractors, and provide them with incentives. Similarly, six Hyundai group affiliates, including Hyundai Motors, made cooperative agreements for shared growth with roughly 1,600 subcontractors. The package of financial assistance amounted to $3.9 billion, with R&D and capacity investments making up $2.3 billion.
Hyundai promised to provide 300 R&D support manpower for its subcontractors. This is just the beginning, and many more large companies have announced similar initiatives.
With a small push from the government, the Korean companies have realised that they need to share the burden of their sub-contractors.
 That is what is lacking in India. Any number of laws can be enacted but effective implementation is crucial. It also requires a concerted effort by the government; so that the large corporations in India automatically devise their own ways to help their sub-contractors survive and share their growth.
Many companies may still be doing it on their own initiative, but if there is a government push, it will make a world of difference.

Lessons for Retail Giants Hoping to Enter India

First published in Business Standard: __________________________________________________________________
After a quiet period, intense lobbying for opening up multi-brand retail once again seems to be hotting up. On May 24, Carrefour’s India head, Jean-Noel Bironneau, met Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, and his counterparts from Wal-Mart, Tesco and Costco will no doubt follow soon.
 Ever since the government announced its decision to allow foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail trade, and then backtracked, there have been a flurry of articles on the pros and cons of such a move.
There is no clear answer and those in favour and against FDI have expressed ample views. So, another attempt to do so would be futile, although it must be stressed that allowing FDI does not mean that the global retail giants will automatically wind up capturing the market.
 Take their experience in South Korea, home to one of Asia’s most dynamic and largest retail markets, ranking fourth behind Japan, China and India, with a relatively wealthy population. Wal-Mart and Carrefour have had to beat a retreat after struggling for years to increase market share. Tesco is the only successful foreign retailer, going from strength to strength.
 The varying success of these three retail giants in South Korea has become must-read case studies for all potential foreign investors. It also holds lessons for them in the Indian market, given the high complexities in terms of a wide geographic spread and distinct regional consumer preferences. Historically, South Korea kept its major retailing operations closed to foreign ownership. It was only in 1988 that the government began a series of three-year plans designed to improve the efficiency and productivity of the retail and distribution industry.
The first stage of this process occurred in 1989 when regulations on the establishment of foreign companies’ subsidiaries and the inflow of FDI were eased. Then, foreign retailers were permitted to establish stores at a maximum size of 1,000 sq m, as prescribed by the second stage of the open-up policy. The regulations on the number and size of retail outlets of foreign companies were further relaxed in the third stage of the programme beginning in 1993, when foreign companies were allowed to open up to 20 stores with each store not exceeding 3,000 sq m.
 It was not until 1996 that FDI in the Korean retail market was completely liberalised and foreign retailing companies began expanding there in earnest. Sensing huge opportunities, Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Tesco entered the country around the same time, but adopted different strategies.
 Wal-Mart attempted to penetrate the Korean market by building stores in distant areas where land prices were low, replicating the US strategy of smaller-city store build-up. It had only 16 stores in all of Korea with just one in the Seoul metropolitan area and could not achieve economies of scale.
The company expected the Korean consumers to drive to its stores for price shopping as American consumers do. However, this location strategy did not match well with the Korean consumers’ lifestyle and shopping habits. They prefer to buy smaller units on a more frequent basis and to have accessibility to a store within walking distance.
 As a result, Wal-Mart faced serious challenges in implementing its core competence in South Korea. Moreover, it could not enjoy its buyer power in the local vendor market and had no control over its Korean supply chain and procurement. Eventually, it packed its bags in 2006.
 Carrefour had a similar story. Despite its experience elsewhere, the company failed to localise its stores to a sufficient extent. Instead, it tried to introduce its global practices and strategies in the country. Its store layout, ambience, products and location failed to attract customers. The company wanted to attract customers by providing them high-quality products in bulk at low prices. Its stores were styled like warehouses and were simple in appearance compared to the stores of its competitors. Initially, customers were enthusiastic, but most of them were not bulk purchasers.
 Also, unlike other markets, Korean customers prefer a clean and sophisticated atmosphere along with low prices. At the time of its exit in 2006, Carrefour was the fourth-largest retailer in the country, with 32 hypermarkets. The company had invested $1.5 billion, making it the largest foreign investor in the Korean market, but that was not enough to guarantee it success.
 In contrast, Tesco had an effective “localisation” strategy for downstream activities. It entered the market by forming a joint venture with a major local partner, Samsung, leveraging its knowledge and expertise of the local market. Tesco devoted considerable attention to transferring its core capabilities to this new market, but did not attempt to iterate the British version of its retail format.
It gradually increased its stake in the company to 95 per cent, but continued to localise its 450 stores, consisting of both large hypermarkets and small Express stores. Also, of Tesco’s 27,000 staff in Korea, only four are expatriates. As a result, it became one of Tesco’s biggest success stories, generating a third of its overseas sales.
 One key factor that contributed to Tesco’s success was its ability to create “value” that is suitable for the Korean tastes and preference. While other foreign brands like Wal-Mart and Carrefour have failed, Tesco’s Korean brand, Homeplus, is moving from strength to strength, as it closes the gap with the market leader E-mart.
It also has leveraged Korean’s love for high-tech, having just launched innovative virtual stores in subway and bus stops where customers can use their smartphones to buy products that are delivered right to their homes.
 These stories contain valuable lessons for the global retail companies who now wish to expand their presence in India, whenever the law permits. Their multi-brand retail strategy has to be different from their wholesale cash and carry stores. Moreover, it is important to heavily localise operations keeping Indian tastes in mind, with or without a domestic partner. Blindly applying western business models for the Indian market will not work.