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Indian exports in 2005: One of the seven missing wonders?

December 27th, 2002 by Devangshu Dutta

This is a brief note to share an impromptu impression (and some anguish) about our apparel exports that came up after reading a magazine article recently. But let me start by sharing quotes from that article:

Quote 1: India is an ideal sourcing base…Company A has a global purchasing process in place, which helps to source from any best “QSTP base” (that’s quality, service, technology and price) across the globe. “Some of the Indian suppliers are providing the best QSTP”, points out the vice-president of corporate affairs for Company A.

Quote 2: Exports today make up 12-15 per cent of Company B’s US $ 200 million (Rs 1,000 crores) turnover, and are expected to contribute 25 per cent of revenues in three years…”We recently won the bid for a specific product. This is a product that we do not make in India, yet our facility won the bid,” explains the director of exports in Company B which made US $ 1 million from the product and will start exporting it to Canada soon.

Quote 3: “The advantages of sourcing from India are assured quality to meet customer requirements, a wide product range, availability and competitive pricing. India is a perfect sourcing base.”

Quote 4: “I believe India should aspire for an export growth of 20 per cent per annum over the next decade – nearly double the current target of 12 per cent in our Tenth Plan.”

Do the above sound like anything you have recently heard from our customers? If so, congratulations! If not, you need to seriously ask yourselves. Why not! Would you believe it if I told you that the four quotes above are from industries where India had virtually no competitive advantage even five years ago (and I am not talking about software), and hardly any presence in the world market?

But that is actually the case. The industries and the companies are automobiles (General Motors), consumer durables (Whirlpool), speciality chemicals (Clariant) and fast-moving consumer goods (Unilever/Hindustan Lever). Cast your mind just 15 years ago to Premier Padmini and Ambassador. I still remember the ad launching the Ambassador Mark IV with its “sleek” looks (that was what the ad said!). And here we are in 2002, when two of the largest car companies in the world, Ford and General Motors are exporting cars and components to other markets. The very same country, the very same industry, and a much more competitive time. And yet, the India supply base is managing to shine! The same is true of the three other industries quoted above. And I haven’t even started talking about the software industry, let alone many other sectors.

So, in that context, let us talk about our traditional (centuries-old) strength, with over 30 lakh people under employment base — the textile and apparel industry. Once upon a time India used to have a market share of 25 per cent in the global trade. People within the industry can readily prepare a long list of problems to share with anyone willing to listen, explaining why we are no longer in that dominant situation. Most people think that the problems the industry is facing are very recent.

In the context of the (correct) view expressed in the government that future growth will be garment-led, let me quote another fact. Indian garment exports missed the target not just in 2001, but also in 1997, 1995, 1993 and 1991. In 1996, we barely scraped past. Does this mean that the apparel export growth target unrealistic? Or is it that the industry is slipping up in terms of taking enough action, and is only reacting to external events? Is there a way to take the industry successfully into the future?

It seems that every time there is some external adverse factor, the Indian industry seems to get badly hit, otherwise it seems to do just fine. Even global trade statistics and Indian export statistics suggest that India is riding piggy back on the growth in global trade. That means when the going is good, it rides the wave, and when the going gets tough, there is very little internal strength for it to sustain itself.

September 11, market recession. Maybe WTO quota-free environment in 2005 will, therefore, do the same thing? As individual companies, some firms (I won’t name them) have invested wisely and may be still around as a growing part of a diminishing base of companies. Others will have to think hard now, if they still want to be around and growing. My suggestion. Don’t think only about “price” or “cost”.

The thought process, and the actions that we take, need to reflect – Product, people, process and technology. Why? Because, if business trends are poor, buyers tend to first dump the worst suppliers. If the business trends are good, buying from the best suppliers increases the most. It’s really a very obvious choice. Only companies that take into account all the above factors, will migrate towards the better end of the scale and therefore survive.

H&M is one of the larger sourcing companies in India. Yet, I remember sharing the stage at a CII conference a few months ago with their global sourcing head, and he said (with some regret, I believe) that India’s share in their sourcing was going down. This is from a company whose own business has been growing rapidly. It is our misfortune that we are not able to capture the growth equally in our exports to this company.

The government also presents a mixed bag of actions and inaction, because there is no clear growth vision that is strongly lobbied by the entire industry (from fibre to apparel as a supply chain), or even from an entire sector (for example, all apparel exporters). A journalist, I was speaking to just about one year ago, quoted a prominent north Indian garment exporter who was extremely pessimistic about his company’s and the entire industry’s business prospects. If there is such “confidence” within the industry, what kind of a picture can we present to external parties? (A short story break: A poor man prayed for years and years to his family’s deity, asking for help in managing his household expenses. Finally he got sick and tired of the whole thing and started to throw the sacred idol out of his house, when the god appeared and asked him why he was so angry. The man vented his frustration about not getting any help from god, despite the years of prayers and meditation. The lord said, “My child, you also need to make some effort to give me the means to help you. The least you could do is to buy a lottery ticket!!”)

Substitute “government” for “god” and “industry” in the place of the man, and we find a similar situation in real life.

People actually sit up when I say that the Indian industry exports about Rs 30,000 crores of garments, and a total of almost Rs 60,000 crores in all textile products. People, even within the industry (surprised?) are not aware of the magnitude of the importance and the impact of the apparel industry. It is one of the best kept open secrets. There is very little hype, and very little interest. Therefore, there is very little support from anyone else that the industry needs support from. The only time the Indian fashion industry hits the news is when a “Fashion Week” comes to town, representing the interests of a segment that does a total of less than Rs 200 crores of business! So will the Indian apparel export industry be around in 2005, or will it be one of the seven missing wonders of the world?

A 6-year old quoted the following in his school assembly a few days ago, “The real difficulty lies within ourselves, not in our surroundings.” I think that is a very good introspection with which to end this note (although I have many more thoughts to share), and a good starting point for the rest of our thought process.

 

Posted in Apparel, Footwear, India, Leadership, Lifestyle & Fashion, Outsourcing, Product Development and Design, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Supply Chain, Textiles, Uncategorized | No Comments »

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