India is latest stop for young executives

Foreign MBAs and ambitious business types view time in India as invaluable to getting ahead in a global economy.

Max van Cauwenberghe could be forgiven for wondering how he ended up in a place like this.

Outside his office in this Delhi suburb of 1 million people, cows mill on roads with potholes that could be mistaken for meteor craters. It's late September, but the sun still broils this arid landscape at more than 90 degrees F., and a dust storm is turning the air to the consistency of sandpaper.

Yet this young Belgian entrepreneur, fresh from business school, simply smiles. After all, he says, there is no place he would rather be than in India.

Just a few years ago, often the only way to tempt expatriates to set up shop here was a lecture about company loyalty or a hefty hardship allowance. Now, an increasing number of interns and even executives are coming here voluntarily to witness – and to fuel – the rise of India Inc.

"I don't think they would have been interested five years ago," says Uday Chawla, managing partner of Transearch, an executive recruiting company in New Delhi. "But people want to go where the excitement is."

As with all things about the Indian economy, superlatives are not in short supply. But a trend is evident. India has clearly become more attractive to executives seeking a chance to test their mettle in a growing market. Some 300 new foreign executives are forecast to come to India this year, according to Kris Lakshmikanth of The Head Hunters.

Yet the greater allure appears to be for business-school grads like Mr. van Cauwenberghe, who come to India to expand their minds and their résumés.

In far away Chennai, for example, the eagerness is evident in 100 applications a month from foreigners looking to come to India, says S. Sankaran of KBS Consulting. India's outsourcing revolution has left a contrail of exuberance visible from Europe to the United States, and many like van Cauwenberghe have begun to follow it.

It brought him here to the headquarters of Evaluserve, which specializes in doing research and analysis for companies worldwide. On this day, he sits in an office with three other expat colleagues – a Belgian, a German, and two Dutchmen. It is a room full of Europe's future business leaders – or at least they hope so. And each has chosen India as his finishing school.

A few of them have been world travelers already. Nicolas Nizet has been to Hong Kong and Siberia for internships. Raoul Wouters spent time in Ecuador. But India offered something unique: a chance to see and understand a crucial business trend that peers only know through books and classroom lectures.

"Outsourcing is already part of the everyday life of so many different companies," says van Cauwenberghe. "And it is going to be unmissable for the rest if they don't want to die."

As a result, there is the sense among the assembled gang of four that they are pioneers of the business world's next big thing. "You need to differentiate yourself from [your peers]," says Mr. Wouters. "Most of us have the same education, so going to India is a very good way to do that."

According to the head of Evaluserve, India's need is great. He and others agree that India already has an abundance of domestic talent. But if it wishes to compete globally, it must have global resources – in other words, it must be fluent in the language and culture of its clients.

That's where the expats come in. "We are not only an India-centric company," says Ashish Gupta, head of Evaluserve India. "So to have this mingling of cultures is very, very important to us."

In all, he estimates, India will need more than 100,000 expatriates by 2010. In 2002, the government reported that 13,000 expats were working in the country. Yet the need goes beyond language skills to the highest levels of management. "In India, most business is at the start-up stage, so we need managerial talent," says Sudhakar Balakrishnan, director of Adecco Consulting in Bangalore.

Indians themselves have filled some of this shortfall, as more are staying here rather than venturing abroad – reversing decades of brain-drain. The need for foreigners remains, however, whether it is for foreign companies establishing their presence in India or for Indian companies wanting experienced Western executives.

With new growth industries such as retail and airlines, "India doesn't have the expertise, so expats are coming in," says Mr. Lakshmikanth.

For some executives, it is a tempting opportunity.

When Swedish telecom giant Ericsson asked Mats Granryd to head up its India division last year, "it was not difficult to convince me," he says. "It is a time of growth, as well as a time that is shaping the telecom industry here."

In short, it is a challenge unlike any in Europe or America: to helm a company at the first stages of what could be phenomenal expansion. That promise has helped make India an easier sell. "An emerging economy gives you a bigger chance to show how good you are," says B.S. Murthy of Human Capital Consulting in Bangalore.

Yet Mr. Granryd is cautious about the trend. "It has made it moderately easier to get people to come," he says. But life in India "is difficult, no doubt."

David Hudson has seen this first-hand. He found India to his liking when he came here to establish Group 4 Securicor's India operations. But that was 1989. Back then, the waiting list for foreigners to get gas cylinders for stoves was 10 years, and he had to book international calls three days in advance.

Much has changed. Delhi even has a T.G.I. Friday's now. But the month of May still averages 101 degrees F. and good schools remain hard to find.

To be sure, it still requires an adventurous executive. But the rewards can be enormous. Says Mr. Hudson: "Business is limited [only] by your imagination in India."

Saurabh Joshi contributed to this report.

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