When President Barack Obama made his first visit to India last November, around 200 American CEOs accompanied him. During the visit, more than 20 business deals worth over US$10 billion were signed between the two countries, including sales of Boeing passenger aircraft, Boeing C-17 Globemasters, GE 107 F414 jets, GE power turbines and the setting up of a Harley Davidson assembly plant. The agreements were estimated to result in the creation of more than 50,000 jobs in the U.S.
The trip was the beginning of a spate of visits by CEOs from across the world. Among the most high profile was that of Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of investment firm Berkshire Hathaway, who described India as “a large market with huge investment opportunities.” Others who have come include Leo Apotheker, then CEO of Hewlett Packard; Sam Palmisano, then CEO of IBM; Lars Olofsson of Carrefour, John Chambers of Cisco, Pierre Nanterme of Accenture, Peter Loescher of Siemens, Michael Smith of ANZ, Joseph Hogan of ABB, Robert Dudley of BP, Andrew Witty of GlaxoSmithKline, Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric, Robert Iger of Walt Disney, Indira Nooyi of PepsiCo and Carlos Ghosn of Renault-Nissan. Jeffrey Joerres of the Manpower group and Ben J.Verwaayen of Alcatel-Lucent France are expected to visit before the end of the year.
What brings these leaders to India? “For many multinational corporations, India is potentially a large market and sometimes a sourcing location,” says S. (Kris) Gopalakrishnan, vice president of the Confederation of Indian Industry and executive co-chairman of software firm Infosys. “These corporations would like their senior executives to understand and experience India directly.”
Brand strategy specialist Harish Bijoor agrees that cultural immersion plays a big role in trips to India by the leadership teams of large multinationals. “In [fiscal] year 2010, I handled a total of six cultural immersion sessions on India spanning the country’s politics, business, religion, society and culture,” he notes. “This financial year, with five calendar months left to finish, I have already handled 17 sessions.” According to Vaijayanti Pandit, senior director at the Federation of Indian Chambers Of Commerce & Industry, the visits will only increase. “We [expect to] see many more [global CEOs] coming to test the waters, build networks and actually do business in the course of the next quarter.”
In the past, India faced significant criticism from firms looking to do business there; now the conversation is changing, Bijoor says. “Today, [people talk about] ‘a happening India,'” he notes. “In many ways, India is a learning experience for the overseas CEO. There is plenty to take home and implement as well.”