By Geoffrey Jones

May 29, 2020

The Creating Emerging Markets project at the Harvard Business School provides rich new empirical material that is publicly available for both research and teaching on emerging markets global players. At the core of the project are extensive interviews by Harvard faculty with highly impactful business leaders who have been active across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East over the last four decades. These interviews address pivotal moments of transition throughout these regions with particular emphasis on entrepreneurship, innovation, family business, and the globalization of firms and brands. Now, with almost 150 interview transcripts the project emphasizes ways that businesses can create value for their societies. The video database contains over 250 short clips that are also downloadable for classroom or other use. These resources are accessible at https://www.hbs.edu/creating-emerging-markets/Pages/default.aspx

Some of the interviewees include India-based global firms such as Bajaj, Cipla, Tata, Godrej, Oberoi and Tata; regional multinationals such as the Dubai-based logistics group Aramax and luxury retailer Chalhoub Group, and the Saudi-based Jarir; multilatinas such as Bunge and Cencosud; and African firms including Nando’s and the former Celtel (now part of Bharti Airtel).

There is rich material on conventional topics in international business that can be garnered from these interviews. Adi Godrej, lucidly explains why his consumer goods group prefers acquisitions to greenfield investments when entering new markets. The cost of building the Godrej brand in new markets was too high, and instead the firm preferred to acquire strong local brands, and to continue to support them, sometimes importing Godrej technologies. Daniel Servitje Montull, the CEO of Mexico’s Grupo Bimbo, the world’s largest bakery company, noted how it entered the United States by selling “a lot of nostalgic goods” and that “there was great loyalty from the Mexicans that were migrating to the United States.” Only when they had an established market presence, did they begin acquiring American firms.

Many of the interviewees reflect on the advantages and disadvantages for global expansion of being based in an emerging market. A number of interviewees perceived advantages from their home economy. Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, the CEO of Philippines-based infrastructure and water company Ayala, noted how his turbulent home economy enabled the company to find “cost-effective solutions in our environment that are not apparent in a developed world.” Dubai’s Fadi Ghandour reflected that early the growth of Aramax was helped because global giants like Fedex stayed away. “The Middle East was seen as a backward space, so it was left alone, luckily,” he noted. “The turmoil in the region, and the political climate in the region, and the regulatory hurdles in the region… I would say, today, that this environment—it was a competitive advantage in ways.”

Other business leaders found their home country more of a problem as they sought to go global. This disadvantage was considerable when country of origin provided an important part of brand value. Susana Balbao, a prominent Argentinean wine producer, had to devise an innovative marketing strategy to attract Asian consumers.  “Argentina does not yet rank in consumers’ minds as wine producer, much less in Asian consumers’ minds: they have never been to Argentina and know nothing about the country. That is why we started a campaign in which we related wine to tango, as that is quite present in Asian consumers’ minds. They love tango. So we started bringing together wine, tango and Argentina.”

As companies based in emerging markets sought to globalize, they also faced far more powerful incumbents from the developed world. This problem affected even the largest companies in emerging markets. Rahmi Koç the chairman of Koç Holding, Turkey’s largest diversified business group which represented 8 percent of Turkey’s GDP, explained the challenge of entering markets against powerful Western multinationals. “They can afford to lose ten years in order to get control of one market. We do not have that kind of financial muscle, so have to count our pennies very carefully and take the next step forward extremely diligently.”

There are also many discussions of challenges, missteps, wrong turnings and failures found in the interviews. Ian Fuhr, the founder of the Sorbet Group, the largest chain of beauty salons in South Africa, provided a frank analysis of a failed entry strategy into Britain in 2015. He perceived a highly fragmented market, and apparent poor quality of service. The company entered with upmarket stores, but struggled to attract customers, as willingness to pay was lower than in South Africa. He also had a problem recruiting. “The standard of education of beauty therapists in the UK is much, much lower than South Africa, which was an absolute surprise to us”, he noted. “So people were coming out of these colleges that were not really fit for salon work, and we had to retrain them.” The company exited within a year.

Research on global players from emerging markets has understandably typically employed FDI data, surveys and other quantitative approaches. The interviews should not be seen as a substitute to quantitative data, rather they provide frank insights at the highest levels of individual businesses about global strategies, decisions to invest, choices between greenfield and acquisition, and difficulties encountered. In the bigger picture, this project is designed to deepen our understanding of how modern business sectors have grown in emerging markets over recent decades. The large extant business history literature is overwhelmingly focused on North America, Western Europe and Japan. This makes little sense. In 2020 the world’s twenty largest economies in terms of nominal GDP included eight emerging markets, including China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, and Turkey. If business history is to remain relevant, it needs to to fully incorporate the historical experiences of Africa, Asia and Latin America. These regions had different contexts – including long eras of foreign domination, extensive state intervention, acute institutional inefficiencies, and extended turbulence – which encouraged different responses from businesses. Among other things, this will provide the basis for understanding how many of the global players from emerging markets got their start.

Geoffrey Jones is Isidor Straus Professor of Business History at the Harvard Business School. He founded the Creating Emerging Markets Project and now co-directs it. He is a Fellow of the Academy of International Business. His recent books include Profits and Sustainability. A History of Green Entrepreneurship (Oxford University Press 2017).

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