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Corporate Jan 19, 2014

When butter chicken posed a risk for the Birlas

Risks for international expansioncan come from the least-expected quarters and forindustrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla it once came in the form of'butter chicken' being cooked in its office canteen.

The aluminium-to-telecom conglomerate Aditya Birla GroupChairman belongs to the Marwari community, where vegetarianismforms an important part of life and is a "core belief", somuch so that no meat was ever cooked at the cafetarias in anyof its offices and facilities and none of the companyfunctions had wine or whiskey served ever.

This was till the time the group bought a business inAustralia, where Foster's beer and barbecues form part ofdaily life of a vast majority of factory workers and others.

Kumar Mangalam Birla, chairman of the Aditya Birla group

Kumar Mangalam Birla, chairman of the Aditya Birla group

"Expanding internationally is hard, risky work. And as Iwas reminded the first time I saw butter chicken being servedin a Birla canteen, the most difficult challenges turn out tobe the ones you least expect," says 46-year-old Birla.

Birla, who runs a $40-billion multinational groupoperating in 36 countries with overseas operationscontributing for over 50 per cent of revenues, further said
that "if we wanted to make a mark on the world, we had to beprepared for the world to leave a mark on us."

These views have been expressed by Birla in a book titled'Reimagining India: Unlocking The Potential of Asia's NextSuperpower', wherein global consulting firm McKinsey hascompiled essays by top leaders of the country.Birla further said that there are opportunities out therefor ambitious and well-run Indian companies as long as theyremember that the world will change them as much as they hopeto change the world.

In 2003, the Aditya Birla Group bought a small copper minein Australia, worth only $12.5 million, but it presented aunique challenge to the group.

"Our newest employees were understandably worried abouthow life might change under Indian ownership. Would they haveto give up their Foster's and barbecues at company events? Ofcourse not, we assured them," Birla says.As Indian companies are changing their age-old traditions,the reverse is also true for foreign companies who look toexpand rapidly in India where a significant majority of peopledo not eat meat for religious beliefs.

US-based fast food giant McDonald's is famous globally forits beef-based Big Mac burgers, but it had to localise itsmenu for India. Several other western retailers have also beenforced to Indianise their offerings for better sales.However, sometimes it gets hard to separate businessdecisions from one's dietary and lifestyle choices.

Last year,Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries group had to drop itsplans to run a non-vegetarian food retail business.Ambani himself follows a strict vegetarian diet and manyof his company shareholders, a bulk of whom are from Gujaratior Jain communities, see 'non-vegetarian' business as hurtingtheir religious sentiments.


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