[This article appeared in Daily News & Analysis (DNA) on 10 October 2013, under the headline “Without Wal-Mart, can Bharti play it alone?”]
A year ago, Wal-Mart had called Bharti its natural retail partner in India. But today the companies have jointly and publicly changed their relationship statuses to “single”, calling off the 6-year old marriage. Bharti will buy out or retire Wal-Mart’s debentures in the 200+ store Easyday retail business, while Wal-Mart in turn will acquire Bharti’s stake in the 20-outlet Bestprice cash-and-carry business.
By some estimates, the split was imminent for perhaps a year or longer, as the pressure rose for the two companies due to multiple factors. Several regulatory changes governing foreign investment in the Indian retail sector made it difficult for Wal-Mart to acquire a stake in the existing retail business that the two partners had set up. Anti-corruption investigations in Wal-Mart’s India business (in addition to Mexico, China and Brazil), as well as questions around the legality of US$ 100 million worth of quasi-equity compulsorily convertible debentures issued to Wal-Mart at a time FDI was not allowed in multi-brand retail businesses brought down even more external scrutiny upon the joint business. And finally, pressure against foreign investment in multi-brand retail of basic goods such as food and grocery, continued to exist not just amongst opposition parties but also parties within the ruling coalition and individuals in the government.
The split means that Wal-Mart can now overtly take complete ownership of the Bestprice business, and drive it as it sees fit. The fragmented retail market and the myriad small businesses in India do potentially provide a large customer base for the cash-and-carry business if Wal-Mart chooses to be more aggressive. However, that may not happen immediately. The business has been coasting for over a year without new openings that were already planned and significant personnel changes have happened from the seniormost levels down. Wal-Mart’s investigations of corruption allegations continue and before committing more resources it will definitely want to strengthen systems so as to not be in violation of Indian and US laws.
On the other hand, if it wishes to now enter the retail business, Wal-Mart would also have to look for a new Indian partner to set up new retail stores in a separate company. Retail is capital-hungry so Wal-Mart would need a cash-rich partner who can accept a junior position in the venture in which Wal-Mart would clearly be the driver financially, strategically and operationally.
At this time Wal-Mart seems to have decided to take a step back and evaluate what the Indian market means to it right now and in the future, what sort of investment – both in financial and management terms – it demands, and what returns the investment will bring. It remains to be seen whether it will choose to grow aggressively, coast up incrementally or, in fact, take the next exit out of the market as it has done in some other countries earlier.
And what of Bharti? Will it be able sustain the retail play without Wal-Mart’s close operational guidance and financial participation, or will it choose sell the Easyday operation to another domestic investor? On its part Bharti has stated an ongoing commitment to the business, and has also hired the former CEO of the joint venture, Raj Jain, as a Group Advisor. A 200-plus store chain is sizeable and credible in India’s fragmented food and grocery market, and is seen by the group as “a strong platform to significantly grow the business”.
However, Bharti’s core telecom business is also capital-intensive and highly competitive, and it will be difficult at this time to sustain high-paced growth in another cash-hungry, thin-margin business such as grocery retail. For now the Group’s best bet would possibly be to consolidate operations, unearth more margin opportunities and take a call at a more opportune time whether to further invest in growth or to treat retail as a non-core business and exit it.
Creating a substantial, profitable retail business is a long-term play in any part of the world. In India, as retailers are discovering, it takes just that extra dose of patience.