Working for an Indian Conglomerate

Growing up in India, the Aditya Birla Group (ABG) must have been one of the countable few companies I should have known about as a child. Tata and Birla names were often used synonymously with anything that was considered rich and grandiose. However, never once did I imagine that I would work for such a magnificent conglomerate as ABG in my first major business project during my MBA studies at the Fisher College of Business.

Living up to traditional Indian values, the ABG group welcomed us with impressive warmth and generosity. The team was accommodated in ABG’s guest house with exclusive chefs, cars and chauffeurs. We were given separate workspaces in their Bengaluru office and were accompanied by employees to every client location at which we had an interview. And, during work hours, the team enjoyed tea/coffee at regular intervals, served right at our desks! Seeing employees have group lunches in an exclusive ‘cafeteria’ area inside the office was unusual for my American counterparts.

The most exciting part of the business experience was working from a meeting room right next to Kumaramangalam Birla himself on the day of our final presentation!  Presenting our findings to such top level management as the VP of Consumer Insights of ABG groups and Managing Director of the Chemicals business and receiving their feedback and appreciation is an unforgettable first business project presentation experience. Thank you, Fisher and the GAP program, for giving me this wonderful opportunity!

It’s about the journey, not the destination (India – Week 2)

They say a picture is worth a thousand words: moments captured in a single snippet that convey what the viewer cannot. Some photographs leave the viewer speechless, but others entice the viewer to ask questions. The Fisher team has captured both during its travels, and each is equally as stimulating. In this blog post, I’ll present some of each because India cannot be conveyed solely through a series of photographs. The real story resides in-between the images and the experiences behind them.

The Shock and Awe of the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal needs neither an introduction nor an explanation. Whoever named it a “wonder of the world” was not kidding. Its sheer size is unfathomable; however, its true beauty resides in the intricacy of its architecture. Flawless white marble masterfully carved and studded by precious rare stones. Each design outlined perfectly with symbolic intent and optical illusions embedded around every corner. The marble changes tint based on the weather and the amount of sunlight. Meanwhile, inscriptions and designs change form with distance. The team grew more mesmerized with each step. Nothing could have prepared us for this monumental experience, which was as big as the Taj Mahal itself!

The experience was a well-deserved reward. The team endured a 3.5-hour car ride from Delhi, the nation’s capital, to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, a distance of 225km (approximately 150 miles) and persevered through growing and unrelenting temperatures that exceeded 43°C (approximately 110°F). The taste, the feel, the smell, the sight, and the sound at the Taj Mahal were absolutely indescribable. No matter how beautiful, all photos do the Taj Mahal a great injustice. You need to experience it for yourself…trust us.

The Fans and Fanatics of the Royal Challengers Bangalore

Goodbye football, hello cricket! To call cricket India’s beloved pastime would be an understatement. Every schoolboy wants to be a professional cricketer, and every schoolgirl wants to marry one. Bangalore and its team, Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB), is no exception. The Indian Premiere League (IPL) season is nearing its end, and a heated battle is emerging as RCB fights to enter playoff contention. Prior to the game, RCB sat fifth place in the IPL standings. Only the top four teams make the playoffs. The entire Fisher team traveled alongside the RCB faithful to M. Chinnaswamy Stadium to watch RCB’s final home match. Little did we know, each and every one of us would become a full-fledge fan afterwards.

The match was originally scheduled for 20.0 overs. Few of us even knew what an “over” was, let alone how scoring or offense/defense worked. Due to inclement weather, the match was at risk of becoming the first rainout of the season. Luckily the rain cleared, and the match was reduced to 15.0 overs. Virat Kohli, captain of the RCB and vice-captain of India’s national team, then preceded to put on a spectacle. The rain cleared, yet a storm of “fours” and “sixes” ensued as the Royal Challengers scored with ease. Kolhi hit a century, i.e. scored more than 100 runs, in a masterful performance to beat the Kings XI Punjab. The final score was 211/3 (15.0) to 120/9 (14.0). We’ll all still take Ohio State football over any sporting event any day, but RCB cricket is a close second. We’ll be watching the playoffs stateside in two weeks.

A weekend in the Backwaters

The BackwatersBackwaters

Over the last three weeks, we have traveled to seven different cities in India. We have seen the cultural differences between north India and south India and large cities and rural cities/villages. Seeing the differences in cities, people, food and culture has been surprising, educational and fun. Seeing the cultural differences of India has increased my appreciation of the cultural differences in the US and the differences between people from around the world.

This past weekend we traveled to the state of Kerela, famously known for the “backwaters”. The closest thing I can compare the backwaters to is the inter-coastal waterway of Florida or the Florida Everglades.  We explored the backwaters via houseboat where we had lunch, relaxed on the outdoor patio of the house boat and enjoyed the beautiful views. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, we only had four hours on the boat. The following day, we saw a different part of Kerela where we explored the wilderness, and saw wildlife and road elephants. The weekend in Kerela was filled with beautiful views, wilderness and the relaxing atmosphere that comes with nature.

For anyone who plans to visit India, I would highly recommend going to the backwaters; it is absolutely beautiful. I am not sure if I will ever visit India again, but if I do, I will make sure that I find time to spend a couple of days on a house boat on the backwaters.

Understanding India’s conglomerates

It was when we went shopping through the streets of Bangalore that we happened to notice that a lot of retail shops belong to the same parent company. Working with Aditya Birla Group for the first time in my life, I was eager and excited to see the name “Aditya Birla Group” wherever I went. But when one of my team mates pointed it out that, unlike in the US markets, these conglomerates penetrate into every possible industry and still succeed that I started thinking about it. I discovered the huge extent to which these big conglomerates have penetrated into the Indian market and have become an indispensable part of Indian life.


In this era, where innovation is the single biggest factor that enables companies to survive, we still see organizations that are not ready to change their business models by trying out highly innovative and transformative ideas. Instead, they capture profits by using simple barrier-to-entry techniques. They flood the market with their own products and make it less profitable for their competitors to enter into their zone of operations.  This pattern is very evident with many big Indian conglomerates; their footprints are in almost every industry and they enjoy almost absolute monopolies. I understood this phenomenon when I saw the name “Aditya Birla” on almost every shop or mall that I walked into. Aditya Birla Group has a dominating presence in chemicals, metals, cement, fashion, telecom services, financial services and other retail operations. The same is the case with Reliance and TATA, the first big conglomerates in India.

As a one of the three biggest conglomerates in India, Aditya Birla Group enjoys a fairly monopolistic position in their chosen industries. Retail clothing/fashion is an interesting case in point. The Birla’s have conquered the Indian clothing market by either owning or being the licensee for using and retailing multiple brands that compete with each other. They have Peter England for the mainstream class, Van Heusen for luxury clothing in formals, Allen Solly to satisfy the target segment that lies between the former two and finally Louise Phillippe operating within Luxury formals as well as casuals. These brands satisfy the needs for different classes of people with different price points. Although initially I was a sure that these brands would cannibalize each other, their operational strategy makes it evident that by avoiding all types of competition, they succeed in capturing significant market share and drive huge revenues because of it. It also prevents loss of market share from switching customers as they offer an end-to-end solution within the clothing industry. The same is the case with other Indian players such as the Biyani group and the Singhania group. While the Biyani group controls the Pantaloon or Central malls, their Future Group handle brands like Urbana, Indigo Nation, RIG, Scullers, UMM, John Millers. And then, there is the Singhania group that sells the Raymond, Park Avenue, Colorplus and Parx brands and offers the sharpest looks possible.

The more I read and tried to understand the business strategy of these companies, I was able to see that the underlying principle behind their operations is “Platform Sharing”, a concept first used by automobile manufacturers in the early 20th century. By having almost the same raw materials for their entire product range, they are able to drive down costs by achieving economies of scale. Basically, they offer differential pricing to mutually exclusive customer segments for the same product that is sold under different brand names. In addition, the company is financially sound with highly efficient R&D, production and supply capabilities, and streamlined operations. Last but not least, the brand equity for Birla is incomparable The end-consumer clearly knows what they are paying for even if it comes with a premium pricing as they are ever ready to accept any product that comes from the parent company. Having said that, a benefit of working for ABG is that they offered us a 25% corporate discount for any purchases we might make from their local outlets :-).

To sum up, it was interesting for me to learn more about how these Indian conglomerates companies operate after seeing them through the lens of a foreigner and comparing their  operations to other conglomerates around the world.

India: Into the Fray…

BEEP, BEEP, Whirrrr… HONK. The symphony of horns droned on in the hot and muggy day as our auto rickshaw flew down the street weaving in and out of the crazy traffic that ignored all of the signs and lines that tried to give it order. It was only our second day together as a team, and we had already braved several challenges in just getting the team together in the same house and getting around the city. Still, we knew were in for an even bigger test as the week at work started.

Monday morning came quickly and the team was weary eyed as we clambered into a few Toyota Innova vans to get to the airport and head to Mumbai. Although we had just landed in Bangalore a few days earlier, we were already off to our second city to visit with a few of our clients whose schedules had changed from the original plan. (Throughout the week, we heard rumblings of other planned trips, but were relatively unsure of what to expect from day to day or meeting to meeting.)

Arriving in Mumbai, we quickly went to the office and experienced our first in-person meeting in India with the Hindalco team. This first group of clients seemed quite excited to see us to, and even we knew that we had still more clients to meet, we were off to a great start. At the end of the meeting, we learned that we would be traveling to Chennai later that week. Combined with our weekend travel plans, we figured that we would be doing a large amount of flying all over the country. There is no doubt that this project is going to be quite a hectic three weeks!

Still, our team found time to enjoy the non-work hours and explore cultural norms together. That night in Mumai, our team tasted milk tea, which is a frequently enjoyed beverage in India. This is something we have continued to do nearly every place we have traveled this first week. It’s something I’m sure I’m going to miss when I return to the States… so it just might be something I keep up!

After the first meeting with Hindalco, half of our team (Kyle, Alex and Gopika) went to Pune, India the next day to speak with some customers of Hindalco, while the rest of us (Ponnu, AJ and Tada) planned to meet with our main contact on Epotec™ a secondary business we intended to work with. At the last minute, the meeting was cancelled, leaving us a bit puzzled. We were to have a workshop with them the next day and still had many open questions about their business. We hadn’t had a great deal of time to interface with this group or who we were going to be speaking with the next day. Instead, we met with our team advisor and spent until the wee hours of the morning putting together a power point deck that could cover a number of topics.

In the morning, wishing for our reliable cup of joe, the three of us piled again into an Innova hoping we had the right address for where we needed to be. (We’d learned our first night that addresses don’t always work in India). Walking into the workshop, we weren’t sure what to expect. Fortunately, our planning session with our advisor and his client counterpart happened a bit later allowing them to understand exactly who we were speaking with and adjust the schedule to accommodate the audience. All in all, the meeting went well! The clients appreciated the work we had done. Although not all of our proposals were accepted, the clients expressed interest in a few areas that we will pursue,

We took a picture with the full team representing heads of the company, R&D and a significant part of their sales team.

After finishing up, we headed home to meet with the other half of our team and tell them about this workshop, as they were to enter a similar workshop the next day.

One week in… and we are already very much entered into the fray. As we into the next week, I am wondering what other schedule and meeting changes are ahead!

Logistics in India Not Always Logical

Guest House in Bangalore
A Street in Bangalore
A Street in Bangalore

As first timers in India, some of our team members experienced very intriguing “cultural shock” with daily activities that we take for granted in the US. One such shock was the logistics of moving around.
All of us flew to Bangalore, India last weekend, but did so separately. The client kindly arranged multiple drivers to make multiple trips in order to take each one of us from the airport to the guest house where we were staying.

Dosa: Southern Indian Breakfast
Dosa: Southern Indian Breakfast

For most of the team members, this arrangement worked out fine. But for two of us, there were problems.
AJ Otey arrived in Bangalore about 1:30 in the morning. The driver was at the airport waiting, but obviously in a quite sleepy state. Several times, he dozed away and almost drove the car into a ditch. Fortunately, he found a tea stand, which still was operating that late at night/early in the morning, and with a quick cup, woke up.
But, that was not the end of AJ’s adventure. The driver had the address of the guesthouse on paper, but didn’t know the exact location. He had no means, such as GPS or smart phone, to get directions. So instead, he drove around he area, and asked whoever was available on the street for directions. Fortunately, the driver  eventually found the guesthouse after a 30-minute search.
Alex Minggang Li arrived at 4:30 in the morning. His driver overslept and didn’t show up at all. After about an hour of waiting, Alex decided to take a cab. However, none of the cab drivers at the airport recognized the address that was given by the caretaker of the guesthouse to team members. Fortunately, the client had emailed the team a brief description and the name of the district, which helped the cab driver understand the approximate location of the guest house. Yet, like the other driver, this cab driver had to drive around the neighborhood for almost an hour before finally finding the guest house.
The good thing is that all six team members arrived safely and relatively on schedule.
Later on, we found out that, even with GPS or Google Maps, a search of the guest house address yielded either a wrong location or nothing. Therefore, one can conclude that a very detailed street address will not necessarily mean that you will get to your destination without any hiccups!
In the eyes of people from the US, Indian logistics are not logical!
Many US visitors also can be amazed (or scared) by how traffic is managed in India. On the same street, one often finds pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, motorized tricycle cabs, cars, trucks, buses and even animals such as goats and cows all trying to get somewhere. On first observation, this traffic seems chaotic and illogical: people often don’t follow the lane lines, don’t turn on blinkers, don’t observe right of way rules, and honk all the time. But astonishingly, everything seems to work out… really well! During our stay so far, we have not seIMG_5033en even one accident on the road. Traffic moves rather smoothly, even during rush hour. Everyone knows what they are doing, and seems to be happy about it, too. Perhaps there is a logic underneath this seemingly illogical pattern of logistics. We will need to learn more and hopefully figure it out during the next two and half weeks.