Ashok Barat is a top business leader in India who has accumulated experiences in companies inside and outside of the country. He is the Managing Director and CEO of Forbes & Company Ltd, a member firm of Shapoorji Pallonji Group (SP Group hereafter). SP Group is the single largest shareholder of Tata Group, and is a private enterprise from which Tata Group’s Chairman Shapoorji Mistry has come.
Barat graduated from Allahabad University in 1975. After graduation, he was employed at Indian consumer goods company Hindustan Lever Ltd (now Hindustan Unilever Ltd). He has been a management professional with experience in European and American multinational corporations such as Pepsi, Electrolux, Telstra and Heinz. He is also a fellow member of the Indian Chartered Accountant Association, and a Guest Member of managing committee of Bombay Chamber of Commerce as well as External Director for multiple listed and private companies.
Masami Hamada, Managing Director, Dream Incubator, interviewed Barat on the current situation in India and the future prospects of India-Japan relationship.
This year India’s general election resulted in the new leadership of Prime Minister Modi. What kind of changes do you expect to see?
I think that India’s economical, political and social systems, which used to be disparate, would be more connected to each other. Earlier in politics, it would often be paralysed whenever someone opposed something, but in this election, people chose to leave everything to the ruling party BJP. It is thought that India’s national politics that has been stalled will start evolving around a single large mandate. People in India think that we finally have a government that has power.
Now, for India, there is no option but to act.
How about changes in the economy?
Foreign investors are optimistic after the election, but India’s economy has many variables, especially external factors (such as oil price influenced by the Ukrainian and Middle East situations), and it is not that easy to accurately predict the possible growth. Additionally, prior government spent huge funds without achieving any infrastructural or economic growth. With the new government’s focus on economic growth, we will create more wealth and then distribute it well.
In terms of the relationship with Japan, Prime Minister Modi has always regarded it important even before he became the PM. In mid and long term perspective, I believe Japanese and Indian corporations can be mutually beneficial partners.
Also Read: Can you imagine a life without smartphones?
Could you tell us about Forbes Corporation?
Forbes is a group of companies that was founded in 1767. We have various businesses such as manufacturing and selling of cutting tools under the brand name ‘Totem’. Forbes also has various operating as well as investing businesses in its portfolio. It was transferred to SP Group from Tata Group in the year 2003 as a part of restructuring.
Please tell us about SP Group as well.
SP Group is a private enterprise that was formed in 1865 and will celebrate 150th anniversary next year. Today’s managing team is the fourth generation of Mistry family, and a single largest shareholder (18.5 per cent) of Tata Sons, which is the holding company of Tata Group. The sales of the SP Group is US$2.5 billion, and except Forbes of which I am the CEO, its strengths are in general contractor business, constructions of plants and infrastructures. Incidentally, 15 per cent of the sales come from outside of India. The Group has been involved in the constructions and renovations of landmarks such as the Hotel Taj Mahal and deeply engaged in the development of India’s economy.
SP Group Chairman Shapoor Mistry is a brother of Cyrus Mistry, the Chairman of the Tata Group succeeding Ratan Tata. SP Group is considered to be one of the most respected and valuable private enterprises in India.
Mistry and Tata families are strongly founded on the Parsi values — contributing to culture, society and philanthropy. They have helped to build some of the premier Indian institutes in the field of art, education and science.
As a member of SP Group and the CEO of Forbes Co., what do you think of Indian companies?
In general, Indian companies and people are very cost-conscious, and therefore, especially for companies outside of India, it is said that we are very difficult to do business with. More precisely, the Indian market is value-conscious; business has to be ‘value for money’ here. Another point is that we value cash over profit. India’s interest rate is currently over 10 per cent, and we naturally tend to value CF rather than PL. For instance, some of the large enterprises in India are focussing only on cash flow as a management index. There is a conventional wisdom that keeping money idle is a sin. This must be kept in mind when you do business with Indian companies.
How are Japanese companies perceived in India?
Indians have a general image about Japanese companies, which is of perfection, high quality in products and services, and value for money. From Indian business persons’ point of view, Japanese seem to invest with mid-long term perspective, and try to be part of the local community. I too think that they are ideal mid-long term partners.
Do you have any advice for the Japanese companies that are planning to invest and expand business in India?
Japanese companies are slow to make decisions. The modern world is changing fast, and situations are varying in seconds. If you are thinking of investing in India, now is the time. With the new government, business environment is expected to be favourable, and Indian companies are seeking technologies and financial power that Japanese companies can offer. Also, India can be a good bridge for Japanese companies to the Middle East and African markets. In that sense, a presence in India is a great asset.
Following these three suggestions when doing business in India will help:
1) Be patient: When you do business in India, do not expect an immediate profit. India is an attractive market with 1.2 billion people, but with so many players competing with each other, it is not that simple to be successful.
Suzuki accomplished such a success here because it tied up with a local partner and faced the Indian market with a mid-long term perspective.
2) Don’t be stingy on necessary investment: Japanese companies have funding available with low interest rate; it is a reasonable management strategy to invest low interest funds to fast growing India.
3) Have a broad mind and think flexibly: A successful consumer product company increased both its sales and profit by selling shampoo in a small pouch that lower-income class can afford, instead of a bottle.
Slow decision-making is recognised as a problem in Japan as well. The Chairman of SP Group is also interested in alliances with Japanese companies. What kind of fields is SP Group interested in?
Mr. Mistry is widely interested in projects related to DMIC (Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor) that is promoted by both governments of India and Japan. He is also interested particularly in the Oil & Gas sector. Incidentally, Forbes is interested in cutting instruments where Japan’s advanced technologies can be utilised.
Lastly, I would like to ask you what kind of roles you are expecting DI to play?
I have met numbers of investment banks, but DI is the first and only one that came to ask these issues. In that sense, I expect it to play an important role of the bridge between Indian and Japanese companies, and not just aiming to close short-term M&A deals, but I hope it aims to help companies of both countries to be successful on mid and long term bases.