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The Business of Government – An 8-point agenda for Growth

(If you’re in a hurry, go to the Slideshare presentation, and bookmark this post for a complete read later.)

These pages usually focus on the consumer and retail sector, its constituents, its problems and the opportunities therein.

The consumer and retail sector is all about choice, and it is worth noting that we’ve just concluded what was possibly the most massive consumer event in the world.  I’m referring, of course, to the Indian elections, where more than 500 “consumers” were bombarded with above-the-line and below-the-line marketing by various organisations pushing their brand, product (candidate) and services (ideology and manifesto).

The sum total of analyses of India’s 2014 election results already exceeds what one sane person can read in a lifetime. The BJP and its allies have won a majority of seats unprecedented among non-Congress alliances, in the first-past-the-post system. While opinions may be fractured, the Parliamentary mandate is clear.

In this context and in this spirit, it is also relevant for us to take the big picture view. Retail is a sector that touches the lives of virtually every citizen of this country on a daily basis. So anything that affects their lives and their aspirations have a direct bearing on the retail business as well.

India’s citizens are creative and entrepreneurial. They are hungry for growth. While they are respectful of heritage, they are also devastated by the decline that has come about over decades, centuries, and are determined to change this situation. What they need is the government to shoulder its responsibilities.

If there is one narrative that can pull diverse, divided strands of opinion together, it is “inclusive growth”.  Throughout his campaign Narendra Modi has repeated the mantra: “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” (literally “all together, development for all”).  In recent weeks, on more than one occasion he has extended this to mean pulling together the efforts of leaders across the political spectrum as well. At the time of this writing, the Prime Minister elect Modi has already set out to manage expectations. He has positioned himself as “mazdoor (labourer) no. 1”,  and is asking the electorate for 10-years, making it amply clear that there is no magic broom to remove the dirt of corruption overnight, nor a magic hand that will conjure out ever-increasing incomes out of bottomless magic pockets.

While there are many problems to be tackled at the macro and the micro-level, I think the “business of government” can be captured broadly in an 8-point agenda, and each of these has a significant bearing on the consumers of this country, and the businesses they transact with:

1. Healthcare: While India’s average life-expectancy has improved steadily since Independence it still hangs in the mid-60s while China’s and Brazil’s is over 73. India offers less than one bed for every thousand of its citizens, while both China and Brazil are well over 2. The United Kingdom, whose National Health Service is constantly lambasted as being “overstretched”, offers about 4 hospital beds per 1000 people, and the average for former British colonies is also around 4. Public healthcare infrastructure in India – from primary to speciality – remains critically under-funded, and the public hospitals that exist are chronically under-equipped and under-staffed.  Where equipment exists, it is underutilised, as commission-seeking individuals refer patients to the burgeoning private clinics and hospitals. Over the last decade or so private healthcare providers have achieved prominence in the media and among investors, and concessional access to public infrastructure and assets such as land, but they have proved to be consistently out of reach of the general public. Livelihoods and family savings are routinely destroyed in the search for better-quality healthcare in the new, profit-maximising business models. Health should be every citizen’s fundamental right, as one of the foundation stones of a strong nation. It is a right that is denied daily to hundreds of millions. Providing health support is the core business of the government, and needs urgent attention and substantial investment dispersed nationally.

2. Power:  India’s power consumption average is about one-third of the Chinese average and less than a tenth of the USA, and this is not only because Indians have smaller homes or live more frugally, but because hundreds of millions of Indians spend most of their days and nights without electricity. If you think you can get a sense of the deprivation from a household that gets power a few hours a day, you actually have to visit one where power availability has improved due to grid power or micro or off-grid availability through solar or biomass units – the enormous impact that the improved power availability has on the lifestyle, livelihood and quality of life can only be truly gauged then. Across the nation, private participation has been invited into the power sector at different times, but the execution has been mixed.  Private companies would also like to serve those areas where population concentration and decent financials allow the private provider to create a profitable business. Large swathes of the Indian population lie outside of such areas, and the onus is upon the government to provide the required electricity for households to live a fuller life, for students to complete their lessons, for healthcare and administrative facilities to run effectively, for small entrepreneurs to be able to grow their businesses.

3. Clean water: Imagine one train crash every day of the year, each killing all passengers on board. Sounds catastrophic, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t that get some serious attention? Well, it is estimated that around 1600 deaths are caused every day by diarrhoea alone (higher than the train wreck fatalities), and that 21% of communicable diseases in India are related to unsafe water. The problem is not only in far flung villages, but acute even in the largest cities of the country. Both those numbers are shamefully high for a nation that wants to see itself as a global superpower. There are no technological gaps for effectively harnessing the existing water resources, and for maintaining cleaning, distribution and recovery systems – only management gaps.

4. Transportation infrastructure: While India has one of the largest rail networks in the world, at about 20 kilometres per 1,000 sq km of land area it compares unfavourably to highly industrialised European countries (Germany: 115 km per thousand sq. km., UK: 65, France: 53) or even the large less densely populated USA (26 km per thousand sq. km.). On road development India’s picture has improved in the last 15 years, but it still trails world-leading economies in terms of length as well as quality.  Poor transportation systems cut people off from economic opportunities, and force them to migrate to already overloaded cities, perpetuating problems in both urban and rural areas. Historically, all strong nations, democratic or otherwise, have flourished due to extensive, superior transportation networks.  Where people and goods can move quickly and freely, both trade and culture flourish, and build the strongest ties that bind people together.

5. Education: This is another area which has systematically been under-invested in by the government.  From pre-schools to universities, the growth of educational institutions for the last 30-40 years has predominantly been in private hands, where affordability is not the prime driver.  The number of seats in government-run institutions has not grown in proportion with the population, let alone in correlation with the demand. Access remains a problem, as does the quality. There is no reason why government-run educational institutions need to be bad – there are enough examples around the country within government schools and colleges, where organisational systems and individual intent produces excellence. Without immediate and adequate government focus on education, the massive young population of India will go waste, at worst it would be a ticking time-bomb of under-skilled frustrated underachievers.

6. Environment: This might seem like a strange inclusion in this “development-oriented” list. However, it is essential that the environment should be on a list of core items that the government needs to manage well. The government is usually in the news for either not doing enough (such as not monitoring the systematic encroachment in and destruction of the Aravalli Hills) or, at the other extreme, getting in the way by holding back environmental approvals to development projects. Another term for the environment is “the commons”, reflecting that the natural resources belong to the people, together. The commons need not just protection, but regeneration, resurgence. Defence and political experts around the world list climate change and clashes over natural resources as among the highest conflict risks in coming years, and the evidence is frequently visible. When “growth” is measured only by those activities that extract and deplete the common resources, support and encouragement is provided for those individuals and companies that do this the “best”.  It is short-termism and selfishness of the worst sort.  Evidence of large scale climate-related changes and the debilitating impact on civilisations exists around the world and across the span of history; the closest might be the Ganga-Saraswati civilisation that is said to have dispersed due to the depletion of one of its greatest rivers. We don’t even need to forecast huge impacts far into the future.  Millions of Indians increasingly are born and live with chronic diseases that are related to deteriorating air quality, depleted water resources, polluted soils and disappearing vegetation. Indigenous natural species of plants and animals are declining, mostly invisible to the nation at large. A comprehensive, evolving framework is needed that goes beyond short-term planning and management by knee-jerk reactions.

7. Competition: This is an area which requires little investment, relative to the other items on this list, but a huge amount of intent and follow-through.  No economic system is perfect and, indeed, it is the imperfections and discontinuities that provide business opportunities.  When the imperfections are exploited by many, competitive forces balance each other out.  The need to diversify is well-understood by people who care to think about risks.  Concentration of efforts, resources, power behind a few initiatives or organisations can bring about disproportionately good results, but also creates the risk of wipeout.  Diversity is a challenge because it creates fragmentation, but it is also an essential source of innovation, combating not just present risks but future threats as well. Self-moderation is too much to expect from even the most enlightened of large business leaders and even the most progressive of industries. Anti-competitive and customer protection frameworks have improved in recent years, but are still understaffed and underequipped. As the economy grows, so does the need to provide oversight against unethical behaviour by large organisations.

8. Accountability: None of the above can truly happen without transparency in governance, and productivity in public service i.e. respect for schedules, budgets and commitments.  Measures such as Right to Information (RTI) have moved the country several steps up the transparency ladder, but accountability to “service deliverables” is still missing in a vast number of people employed in government departments. Entry into “government service” is seen as a ticket to a reasonably comfortable employment if you are inclined to not rock the boat. The idea is to not question the status quo as far as possible, and to ensure that the outcomes for the “overclass” are taken care of. This attitude needs to change. In fact a small start could be made by replacing the phrase “government service” with “public service” – the business of government is to serve the public at large, and this needs to be recognised and acknowledged by everyone involved in it. Efforts in all the other areas will fall flat if accountability and productivity are not embedded into the money and efforts invested. (Imagine if we could sign SLAs – service level agreements – with each and every individual hired for public service roles!) The roles that accountability brings with it include “upholding the law” and “enabling an environment where each citizen has a fair chance of success”.

Someone else might come up with a slightly different list – this is mine, the seven pillars and the overarching beam. I’ve not listed the areas in any specific order of priority. Some of them need more government intervention, some need less private intervention, a few (such as education) need both.  These are all areas that are the foundation on which everything else is built.  These are the areas which, to a very large extent, determine the levels of dignity with which a country’s citizens lead their lives.

In this day and age, the government is not needed to run steel mills, airlines or even handicraft retail stores.  But without high quality and high availability ensured by the government in the above areas, even the most capable individual will find it easier to build a life and even the best private enterprise will find it more profitable to do business elsewhere in the world.

A much-followed new-generation business leader recently rhetorically asked in a social media post that, if we have an economy swinging towards services with a large chunk of it being technology, “Why do we need government?”

The reasons above, my friend, are why and where we need government, because business is not delivering on these areas in an equitable manner, and these are areas where technology will not necessarily provide all the answers.  We have years of evidence of this, in some cases decades, and it is time we choose to move.

By and large, most people would rather choose to move something, than move somewhere (else). And the retail business will be one of the first to benefit.

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Golden Geese, Steel Safes

(Contributed to the BusinessWorld cover story – “What 2 Expect in 2010”, issue of January 4, 2010)

Everything that can be said and assumed about the Indian market is true at some level of granularity. Very simply, in India there is a segment for every product, an opportunity for every service, be it ever so small. But when bubbles are bursting all over, as the Noughties Decade comes to a close, the puzzle that is Indian consumer market also warrants a fresh look.

For most of the Noughties Decade India has seen Generation-C, the “Choice” generation, coming of age. They have moved over from being “secondary customers” consuming off their parents’ incomes, to entering the work-force and becoming customers in their own right.

It may sound trite, but Gen-C customers have grown up with many models of 2-wheelers and 4-wheelers and colour television with multiple channels. They have many more career options and many more opportunities in each career. Not only have they grown up on a diet of choice, they have also grown up with much higher confidence about the future, about their place in the world and what they can expect. And they have infected the outlook of generations older than them as well with a similar confidence.

Therefore, for most of the decade, it has been a distinctly rosy picture for consumer goods marketers and retailers. Business plans routinely expected 20-50% annualised growth, and businesses even delivered those figures on some basis or the other. Organizations as diverse as retailers and management consultants were inspired by India’s age-old image as the Bird of Gold. Supermarket chains mushroomed like never before, department stores and speciality retailers grew their footprints, quick-service and casual dining expanded covers, while electronics, durables, leisure companies, and car brands all counted India among their hottest markets.

Product off-take reflected this outlook. Amongst the FMCG sector, while basic items such as the bath and shower segment demonstrated a steady annualised growth of about 7%, premium cosmetics galloped at almost 20% a year. While the relatively mature 2-wheeler market grew at just over 7.5% annually between 2002-03 and 2008-09, the 4-wheeler passenger vehicle market demonstrated growth of almost 14% a year in the same period.

All this was before the recent rude interruption.

A speed-breaker began showing up in the consumer market in late-2007 and grew larger through 2008. Once the global financial markets melted down in late-2008, media sentiment turned acutely negative about the Indian market as well. And, eventually, with uncertainty prevailing around the world, consumer spending in India did take a hit. Consumers cut back on the frequency of purchases or traded down.

On the trade side, retail businesses began acknowledging that stores were performing below plan and went into rationalisation mode. For branded suppliers, where some of the growth had come from stuffing the pipeline and filling new shelves, wholesale order books became thinner.

Yet, as painful as the economic scenario might have appeared, the Indian consumer market has shown remarkable resilience. Demand in smaller cities and towns has remained robust. Regional brands, especially, found plenty of opportunity to grow in markets and geographical regions where they were under-penetrated or absent.

And as the mood lifted through the latter half of 2009, consumer demand clearly moved back up. The speed at which the demand rebounded would suggest that the Indian market was relatively sheltered from the global economic storm.

However, there are some critical differences to understand.

On the one hand, Gen-C’s confidence shook for the first time – a generation that has only seen upward mobility, witnessed job cuts and salary freezes or declines even if only second-hand. Comparisons with the Great Depression may be exaggerated but it is a scenario they can now imagine as a possibility. At least three new professional academic batches have or will have moved into the job market under these sober conditions. On the other hand, tremendous inflation in basic costs supports some amount of uncertainty about the future. The fact that many of the Gen-C would have just begun or would be about to begin families serves to only heighten such anxiety.

So, let’s recognise two immutable facts about the Indian consumer market in the current environment.

First: that the ancestral “steel safes” are back, at least figuratively if not literally. Customers do want to save more for now. And if they are spending, they want to feel that they are extracting far more value than the price they are exchanging across the counter, value that will last long after the transaction at the store. In recent years, this inherent ‘value orientation’ of the Indian consumer was neglected by many. Now every product, service or brand must aim to deliver this sustainable value, and demonstrate the value repeatedly.

Secondly, each business needs to look at the lifetime value of a customer if it can. Rather than cutting the golden bird open and trying to extract all the golden eggs at once, one needs need to keep the bird well-fed, happy and healthy, and enjoy its rewards over several years. Rather than creaming the market, pricing, branding and distribution need to be structured for a sustainable relationship with the customer.

Some businesses will work better than others in this market, and strategies will need to be adapted. A lifecycle approach may handy in identifying the business segments which might meet the steel safe criterion, or the golden goose criterion, or both.

The first segment that comes to mind is weddings. Wedding expenditure is seen as a “social investment” for both the families, and the actual items bought are an investment into the couple’s future together. So, bridal trousseaux and wedding wardrobes, wedding arrangers and catering, and household goods provide significantly more tangible and intangible value than the money spent.

Similarly, “first child” isn’t usually a segment in any marketing handbook, but should be. The couple’s first born, especially if the baby is the first in its generation will usually get a disproportionate amount of attention and spending on clothing and utilities. A baby’s growth into a child, of course, can provide a relationship and marketing opportunity that can last for years, but the first 2-3 years are specifically valuable. What’s more, given India’s demographic dividend in the form of a sustained under-30 age group, baby products have a sustained and growing value as a market.

As the child grows, there are clear indicators of current and future value that can drive purchases. While base schooling is an essential expenditure, extra-classes and tuitions are a high-value discretionary investment that parents are choosing to make. Sports, on the other hand, however essential they may be to a child’s development are often seen as a distraction. That is, unless the child is attending sports coaching and the parents have an eye on helping the child create a career from it – in which case, a coach who is apparently good, branded equipment and kit are definitely worth investing in. So a cricket coaching franchise might just be the ticket to fortune, while a toy company may struggle. Some may decry the decline in art, craft, philosophy and fundamental sciences, but these are not on the list of priority of most parents. In the short to medium term, parents would continue to disproportionately push their wards into academic disciplines that are seen to develop marketable skills and pay well. Expect continued growth in the engineering, medical and management education market, but also in other vocational disciplines.

On the other hand, everything is not an investment for the future. Present comforts may also provide extra value, through convenience.

Some of these comforts may be as small as enjoying out-of-home exotic meals (pizza and pasta still qualify as exotic for the bulk of the population). Or if eating out looks out of budget, ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook meals are an easy substitute. Jubilant, Yum, McDonald’s, Haldiram, Sarvana’s, Nirula’s and the thousands of other casual dining and snack food chains have a long clear highway of growth ahead, as do snacks and packaged food companies such as Nestle, Britannia and ITC.

Brown goods and white goods that offer comfort and convenience – coolers, water heaters, convectors, air-conditioners and kitchen gadgets – continue their onward march, despite the huge shortfall in electricity. Even if the big brands struggle with their price points and overheads, regional brands and private labels will continue growing strongly in these segments.

Health is another area for significant investment. With prevalence of lifestyle-ailments, from stiff necks to high blood pressure, basic pharmacists to cardiovascular specialists are all in demand. Anticipate significant growth to continue in over-the-counter medication, medical devices, as well as clinical and hospital care.

At the other end of the scale, with decent and adequate public transport lacking in most cities, we can expect personal vehicles to increase multi-fold, despite the small blip in 2008-09. About 60 million 2-wheelers and over 10 million passenger vehicles have already been added during the decade, and the growth trend looks set to resume from 2010, unless there are significant oil price or vehicle taxation shocks delivered by the government.

And as consumer confidence resurges, more overt displays or personal spends will return as well, including apparel, footwear, home products, accessories, vacations, fitness and recreation, but we would expect them to follow behind the higher priority “safe” or “geese” segments.

Finally, the one thing that marketers in any product need not be really concerned about whether there is a future in this market. Even, Hindustan Unilever, a mature FMCG company with very high distribution penetration built over decades, still counts less than 60% Indians as its customers.

Surely most companies have a much longer road ahead before they need to be worried about their markets becoming saturated.