South Korean firms have invested smartly in India, targeting its middle class and export-platform potential.
By Jason Overdorf and George Wehrfritz
Sept. 19, 2005 issue - In one whopping megadeal, South Korea has become the largest foreign investor in Asia's second emerging giant, India. On Aug. 31, Korean steelmaker Posco established a local subsidiary in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, paving the way for a controversial mill and mining complex that will cost the world's fifth largest steelmaker $12 billion and employ some 40,000 workers once it's fully operational in 2010. The behemoth dwarfs India's previous foreign-investment centerpiece, a $3 billion power plant launched by Enron in 1993. Yet even before shovels hit soil, Posco's arrival has triggered an outcry among anti-globalization activists and opposition politicians, who see a scheme to snatch, then export, Orissa's vast iron-ore reserves.
Their clamor—and the global buzz over China's emergence as an economic superpower—mask a deeply significant trend in Asian business: Korea Inc.'s rise to prominence on the Indian Subcontinent. By the numbers, Korea now tops the list of countries investing in India since New Delhi launched economic reforms back in 1991—at more than $14 billion. South Korean firms like Hyundai, LG and SK Group have carved out a notable presence in the country—the world's second largest and a potentially huge market for products like refrigerators, washing machines and television sets.
In just a few years, South Korean brand appeal has eclipsed Japanese rivals like Sony and Honda, and even the nation's biggest cricket stars have become known as Team Samsung, thanks to a successful sponsorship campaign. "South Korean firms have become household names in India," says Rakesh Shukla, an economist at the National Council for Applied Economic —Research in New Delhi. "[And] India has become an investment hot spot for the South Korean companies."
Confucian Korea, multiethnic India: it's not, on the surface, a natural match. Why the pairing works is a study in global commerce that offers lessons that non-Korean investors have already begun to heed. Though their strategies differ in nuance, each of Korea's chaebol (conglomerates) follows the same general game plan in India: intensively research the market, hit the ground running and localize, localize, localize. Thus Hyundai developed a new car, the Santro, especially for the Indian market and achieved near-complete localization of its supply chain within its first year of production. They target specific markets, create new (sometimes, state-of-the-art) products to serve them and usually beat their competitors to the store shelves—the exact opposite of the one-size-fits-all strategy still common among other multinationals in India. "We learned to treat Indian consumers with far greater respect than, for instance, a Japanese company was going to do earlier," says B.V.R. Subbu, head of Hyundai's Indian autoworks. " 'Good enough for India' is the kind of approach they have had."
In bilateral terms, Seoul and New Delhi have become key economic partners. Korean ventures have helped to establish India's vast potential as an alternative to China—both as a market and as an export platform for products like cars and white goods. Korean businesses now pursue a two-pronged "China plus one," or "Chindia," strategy as a matter of course, partly to hedge against a currency shock, recession or political unrest in the Middle Kingdom. India is LG Electronics' No. 3 strategic market after the United States and China, for example. "Korean companies rely too much on China. India has a great potential to [help us] reduce that risk," says Park Bun Soon, a strategist at the Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul. "You can't put all your eggs in one basket."
Arguably, Korea Inc.'s best weapon in the battle for Indian market share could be empathy. Unlike Japanese, British or American rivals, Korea is a newcomer to the club of industrial powers. Just 40 years ago, in fact, it was written off as a "basket case" economy incapable of advancement, a tag sometimes still attached to India. Attuned to their own history, Koreans sensed a latent energy in India others initially missed. So rather than stake out small premium segments by catering to India's tiny elite (as Sony sought to do with its high prices and products designed in Japan), the chaebol set their sights on a vast—yet, by Seoul's standards, still poor—Indian middle class. "Korean companies gauged the potential of the country very differently," says Samsung India's deputy general manager Ravinder Zutshi.
One case study is LG Electronics. Since arriving in India in 1997, it has become the country's leading manufacturer of televisions, washing machines, refrigerators, microwave ovens and air conditioners. Last year LG's India sales hit $1.7 billion; its 2010 target is $10 billion. At its factories in Pune and Noida, all but about 20 of the 2,700 employees are Indians, and the company has introduced many India-specific product designs, including refrigerators with smaller freezers and power sources bolstered to handle voltage spikes. LG's Indian operation chief, Kim Kwang Ro, strives for "complete localization and product differentiation." Adds LG spokesman Park Hyung Il: "India is a country with diverse subcultures. You cannot succeed there without becoming a local company."
A new study by McKinsey Co. forecasts huge rewards for companies that target India's middle-income earners. Published last week, "Winning the Indian Consumer" projects $400 billion in demand by 2010, which would make India the fourth largest consumer-goods market in the world. Most growth, the report argues, will come in a category called "aspiring India," comprising 40 million middle-income households, "a geographically immense market of consumers —who demand high value at low prices." Korea Inc. reached the same conclusion in the late 1990s. The study singles out LG for creating a distribution system that begins with flagship stores in big cities "and encouraged local entrepreneurs to set up stores in smaller towns to serve sizable rural populations."
Even in marketing, localization is Korea Inc.'s recurring theme. All its top brands strive to identify themselves as "Indian-friendly" rather than "foreign and therefore better," as outsiders sometimes do to generate snob appeal in emerging markets. Korean brands want to be seen responding to the needs of Indians with a more humble attitude, so as not to offend national pride. And who would be better sensitized to the issue than flag-waving Koreans?
Hyundai motor india typifies Korea's strategy of conceiving products specifically for the Indian consumer market. Until Hyundai arrived in 1998, foreign automakers were selling recycled models; Toyota, for example, marketed a "new" van in India that had already been discontinued in Indonesia. Hyundai's goal was to challenge Maruti Udyog Ltd., the government of India's joint venture with Japanese rival Suzuki, which had so dominated the market that to many Indians, "Maruti" had become synonymous with "car." Worse, Hyundai's own research indicated that Indian consumers ranked Korea far below Germany, Japan, the United States and even Malaysia for its automaking prowess.
No matter: Hyundai Motor launched a full line of cars, from a small hatchback to a luxury sedan, and the new choices caught on with the public. Some of the models are identical to those sold in Seoul showrooms, but are made in India. Today, less than six years later, Hyundai is India's second largest automaker. In 2004 the company sold roughly 150,000 cars within India—a jump of 40 percent over the previous year. Rivals Ford, General Motors and Honda sold 25,000 to 30,000 cars each. "Both the Japanese and the Americans have taken much longer to understand the real depth of the Indian market and its real size," said Hyundai's Subbu, a career industry executive Hyundai poached from domestic car- and truckmaker Tata Motors to run its Indian subsidiary.
Perhaps more important, Hyundai last year became India's largest auto exporter, selling about 75,000 passenger cars to Europe, Africa, Mexico and other countries. Rivals like Toyota and Honda instead bet on Thailand, which is now recognized as a less promising market, and less promising export platform. The reasons for the latter are complex; among them, Southeast Asia's free-trade zone has been painfully slow to materialize, and the region doesn't have the strong engineering tradition India does. Also, China and India are simply growing faster than Southeast Asia, and rapidly eclipsing it in terms of export competitiveness.
Korean firms have shown that India is extremely competitive in high-end manufacturing. Subbu has said that the quality of workmanship in India is as good or better than in Korea. In China, where most of the auto plants are joint ventures, technology theft is a constant fear. That's not a worry in India, because Hyundai owns the whole show. In contrast to other foreign automakers, Hyundai has localized production aggressively, a major cost-saving strategy. "The Koreans had zero name recognition, so they had no delusions about trying to get premium prices," says Saumitra Chaudhuri, an economic adviser at the credit-ratings agency ICRA Ltd. They realized that "Indian customers are more price-conscious and willing to experiment with newer products if the price is right."
Posco could take Korea Inc.'s success to another level. If India's manufacturing sector meets robust growth forecasts—and the company can sidestep nationalist critics—Posco's Orissa facility will open just in time to meet a surge in demand for steel. Today, India consumes just 30 kilograms of steel per capita each year, a mere eighth of China's annual intake. Its biggest customers are expected to be Korean auto- and white-goods makers in India.
Importantly, Korean companies have helped India gain self-confidence as a manufacturing nation and an exporter with the potential to rival China in certain industrial sectors. That confidence, in turn, puts new pressures on New Delhi to streamline foreign direct investment and open the door for more multinationals. This virtuous cycle has the potential to erode India's reputation for inefficiency, protected markets and red tape.
Though many would deny it, multi-nationals from Japan, Europe and the United States are cribbing from the Korean success story. After failing with the Escort, Ford swiftly developed a car especially for the Indian market, and has begun exporting it to several other countries. Maruti is embracing hipper designs. Sony has slashed its prices to get back in the game against Samsung and LG. Yet for now, at least, Korea Inc. is where it wants to be on the Subcontinent: firmly ahead of the pack.
With B. J. Lee in Seoul and Sumeet Chatterjee in Mumbai
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.