Sunday, October 30, 2005
The closest I got to owning one..
A serious clerical error resulted in this writer being nominated and invited to the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt Indo-German Young Leaders Forum. The outcome was five fascinating days of learning, meeting and networking with some very interesting people, all of whom were obviously there on merit.
This happened amidst sun, sand and spray (as they say) at Temple Bay, a cracker of a seaside resort in Mahabalipuram, an hour and a half from Chennai. The participants ranged from professional managers and young industrialists to politicians and first generation entrepreneurs. The experience was unforgettable for many reasons, not least the (strategically induced) interplay between the argumentative Indians and the perfectionist Germans. In coming days, the writer will post a series of short dispatches from the Forum.
Trees, Songs & Dances
Germany has a keen interest in Indian history and has, in its universities, apparently over 50 chairs dedicated for that purpose. The hitch, as Christian Wagner, Senior Research Associate with the German Institute for International & Security Affairs in Berlin puts it, is that most chairs focus on the period upto the 8th or 9th century AD. Indeed a fascinating period as a later dispatch will argue, but a little behind times. There is just one chair for modern Indian studies, he adds. “There is thus a problem for Germans wanting to understand the new India,” he admits.
If there is a problem in Germany, there is a problem across the European Union, minus Britain obviously. But then there are very few things on which Britain and the continent are on the same page, for historical and other reasons. This writer was a guest of the European Commission (the executive arm of the European Union) in the late 90s when the action plan for implementing the Euro was being hammered out, the disconnect with India was evident then as it is now.
But there was no China ghost then. There is one now. Wagner says he is struck by the number of people working on China, academically. “I dare not give figures,” he smiles. So a generation that could have spent some time understanding India is using it, probably more productively, learning about China and how to engage with it. Many young Germans, including some this writer met, for sure are going along that path.
The good news is that Indian films are leading a change of sorts. Says Wagner, “Indian movies are now watched in Germany and we see lots of advertisements with Indian backgrounds.” Wagner is familiar with this part of the world but says seeing movies with songs and dances on German TV is new. “This has led to some debates with the wife about the remote control,” he admits ruefully.
The New Engineering Corridors
MV Subbaiah (family member of Chennai’s Murugappa Group) spoke of how he respected the Germans for their strong sense of nationalistic pride and team spirit. He also compared the argumentative Indian and the disciplined German ! Obviously you can’t transplant nationalistic pride but sitting next to someone who does feel so can influence you in a small way. It did to me and the need to further it amongst all you know, meet etc. Subbaiah recalled his numerous visits to German factories and how he continues to be impressed by them.
Subbaiah, an engineer from Birmingham University, also spoke about moving a project from mind to market and the challenges of integrating basic and applied research strengths. Interestingly, he also spoke of Indian family enterprises working with the mammoth network of small to mid-size but highly competitive family firms of Germany.
India’s IT story will be driven by its corridors with America, Silicon Valley and the like. Its manufacturing resurgence will and perhaps ought to be driven by the new corridors coming up with Europe and to some extent countries like Korea and China. Indian auto component manufacturers are already buying into plants in Germany while other engineering companies (Crompton & Greaves) are buying up plants in other parts of Europe.
Boutique investment bankers like Rene Griemens (another colleague at the Forum and a former Citibanker) say they are already scouring the Indian countryside for companies that he can take to Europe for acquisitions. “I love this place,” he says tucking into a rather generous helping of biryani.
The engineering corridors have existed in the past but perhaps not on an equal footing; knowledge flowed from Europe to India with appropriate localization but little went back, except maybe for the occasional manager. The new engineering corridors will work on a more equal footing. With India becoming a regional manufacturing & R&D centre for European majors like Siemens and ABB, this trend is already apparent.
A corridor works best when there is a connect that goes beyond the shopfloor, at least in this writer’s mind. That’s what’s worked with America and could also be one of the biggest challenges when it comes to continental Europe in general and Germany in particular. Lets hope Bollywood does its job well.
The American Rim
It usually takes an European to point out how America-focussed India is. Dr Jan Christian Ehler, a Member of the European Parliament from Germany, made that point again, when he began his talk by remarking how he found that most of the Indian participants at the BMW Foundation Forum sported masters degrees from the United States, across disciplines (The writer barely made it through graduation so discussions on post graduate degrees and the like don't usually normally faze him)
Ehler says he’s not against the Americans, he served with the 82nd Airborne (making him the second civilian in our group who appears to have taken a voluntary break to join the army) but he says there is a problem on both sides. India because most its `elites' have studied in `rim of the American empire’ and Germany/Europe because they have not quite understood the new idea of India and South Asia.
A greater connect with continental Europe will depend on how these two aspects shape up. Of course, Europe is not the invitational melting point that America is but it goes without saying that its in India’s interest to have a stronger cultural connect as it becomes a economic powerhouse. Whether it’s the Euro as a reserve currency or the centres of learning (particularly when it comes to manufacturing, maybe even areas like media and entertainment) in Europe, India needs to reach out further.
Young Germany thinks their once mighty nation is in trouble, unless it fixes its social security system. The general refrain is that young people are being forced to contribute large amounts to a social security system that unemployed or older people live off. They even feel the image of German engineering perfection and precision that the country boasts (though not overtly) actually belongs to the past and is fast slipping away.
Another cause of frustration seems to be that the older folks do not quite fathom the rise of China and what it means in the new competitive world order. One that is obviously putting considerable economic pressure on their country. Many young Germans work for corporations large and small that have had a China strategy for years. They travel a lot, particularly to China and are thus aware of what is happening but are not entirely sure their politicians tell the voters all this.
In all our meetings meanwhile, the participants (German & Indian) would be seated in their chairs a few minutes before the appointed hour. We would know the clock had struck the hour because the host would tap his pen on the glass and announce the start of proceedings. There is something fulfilling about meetings starting exactly on time, whatever the subject – no waiting for this one or that. There were tea breaks, usually of precisely 7 minutes, German-Prussian time, the host would quickly add.
Frank works as an executive assistant to the CEO of the (German) world leader in solid wood processing machinery. You would think not too many folks can catch up with a company with decades of experience just doing that – a gold standard brand that can compare, perhaps, to the German Heidelberg in printing presses. And yet, as Frank told me, there are already Chinese fakes and me-toos. Inevitably, they would become brands which would challenge them in the global market place.
His company has a manufacturing presence in China but he wants to work there as well. The learning opportunities there are huge, he felt. Barbara who works with the BMW Foundation is also interested in China except that she’s taken her interest a step further. She studied Chinese in college and speaks the language. She also drives some of her foundation’s work in China.
I asked her how she got interested in the language. Her answer sounded fairly routine. Someone else in the family was already doing it, it just happened and of course it seemed logical and interesting. I have seen this in America as well. Commodity guru Jim Rogers told me (as he writes in his books) last year that he has a Chinese nanny teaching his toddler daughter the language right now. Why, because, the future is there, he says.
Be that as it may, its interesting how when you become a real superpower, you focus on understanding people’s markets while they try and understand you. Like with Japan and now with China. There is a stirring of interest in understanding how India is driving the IT services model with its rapid scaleability and so on. Unlikely that will result in people rushing to bookstores to look for `The India Way’ or some such titles. At least not in a hurry.
(More To Come !)