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  • CFO Magazine

Forget What You Think You Know

To succeed in emerging markets, toss out old assumptions – and consider packing your bags.

Finance chiefs, by their nature, rarely need to be reminded that, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” But with domestic demand sluggish at best, many are looking to overseas markets for growth, and there is a marked tendency to put on rose-colored glasses when doing so.

Of course, the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) and even the CIVETSs (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, and South Africa) might not be as exotic as they once were. Nonetheless, who isn’t bedazzled by the growth stories being reported from these developing countries?

It’s not just that many of these countries survived the recession more or less unscathed and are back on growth trajectories that most developed markets can only dream of. According to many predictions, collectively they may soon eclipse today’s developed countries. Anil K. Gupta, professor of strategy at Insead business school in Singapore and co-author of Getting China and India Right (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2009), says that at current market exchange rates, emerging markets, which account for just over 25% of global GDP today, will increase that share to more than 50% in 15 years.

Many, if not all, companies understand what that means for them. Gupta recalls that at a recent conference in Shanghai, the CEO of a global advertising company said that the big emerging markets “are like the Premier League, [and] if we don’t win those markets, the rest doesn’t matter.” Or, as Gupta himself puts it, “The goal isn’t just to be there; the goal is to be there and win.”

But what role does the CFO play in helping a company win? Increasingly a strategic one, both in terms of sounding a note of caution and determining how to forge ahead.

“It always strikes me that when companies think about expanding abroad, they almost always look only at market characteristics — the number of customers and so on,” says Freek Vermeulen, assistant professor of strategic and international management at London Business School. “Yes, it can be very nice that there are lots of customers [in those markets] with money to spare, but you need to start the other way around and look at internal stuff and ask, ‘What are we good at, and will our competitive advantage work in an emerging market?’ If the answer is no, don’t go.”

But if the answer is yes, a big job lies ahead for the CFO — to begin challenging the old assumptions that the company has long held about these new markets.

More Different Than Similar

One such assumption is that a company needs only two strategies, one for home and one that lumps the rest of the world into a single “international” group.

On paper, having just one international plan seems sensible, particularly from the standpoint of efficiency and clarity. But it oversimplifies. Fast-moving consumer-goods multinationals, such as Kraft, Unilever, and Procter & Gamble, figured that out years ago and now spend millions developing, country by country, localized products, packaging, and prices to gain market share in tough countries like India.

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