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Insights 2020

Experiencing India for 25 Years 
 Canada Needs More India
 By Gary Comerford

Where has the time gone? It seems like only yesterday, and not 24 years ago, when I first stepped foot in India. Since that first trip I have made 90 others, ‎and through the years I witnessed the transformation of a country. 

As I boarded the British Airways 747, I had visions of an exotic India waiting to welcome me. I was both excited and apprehensive, but had no idea how my life was about to change.

The moment I landed in Delhi, all my senses were bombarded at the same time. The smell of what I later learned was burnt kerosene permeated the air.  My personal space vanished as I waded into a sea of passengers, relatives, airport workers — and people just looking for a place to sleep. In the background I could hear car horns, lots of them, blasting all at the same time. Why were these horns blowing?  

I would learn that this was simply a typical day of organized chaos in a country of 1.3 billion people, 800 million of whom were impoverished . To say that this fortysomething executive had second thoughts would be the understatement of the century. So how is it that, today, I have such genuine affection for India? When I land in Mumbai now, I feel like I am returning home.

I assure you, it did not happen overnight. 

Gary in India: At a bed kit distribution for Sleeping Children Around the World in Belgam

My assignment for Sun Life was to help establish a life insurance company in India. A few years earlier, the Malhotra report had been written to evaluate the potential opening of the insurance industry to foreign companies. This meant Sun Life could possibly return to India, after being nationalized in 1956, provided it found an Indian partner. 

How do you find an Indian partner? Nowhere in the world are there more consultants willing to use their connections to facilitate a partnership. Everyone — and I mean everyone — in India has a friend that can be of help. The good news for me was when I was introduced to Dan Gupta, the same executive who brought IBM back to India. It was Dan who facilitated a critically important introduction to the AVBirla group, one of the most prestigious diversified business houses in India. But the Birla's were already talking with several other international insurance companies, including mega-players like Met Life. How were we going to convince them Sun Life was the best choice?

I can remember as if it was yesterday, my first meeting with Mr. Bagrodia of the Birla Group. As I was sitting outside Mr. Bagrodia's small functional office, chai tea in my hand, I became totally mesmerized by the chaos that surrounded me. Couriers running in and out, papers everywhere, people just sitting waiting for direction. Years later, Mr. Bagrodia and I would joke about that first meeting, two very different officials grounded in two vastly different cultures. One an insurance executive from a country 12,000 miles away; the other located in Mumbai, running a cement company. What was it that allowed the joint venture to be successful? To me it was the simple fact that both companies developed a strong mutual respect for each other. The Aditya Birla group may have depended on and respected the subject matter expertise of Sun Life, but I recognized on day one, and I never forgot, that Sun Life was a guest in India.

As I began the journey to re-establish Sun Life in India, there were no shortage of skeptics.  Colleagues, friends, even board members were ‎naysayers about this project. In 1995, India was not a shining star on the global horizon. But I did have the unwavering support of the CEO of Sun Life, Don Stewart. Years of anti-business sentiment, dysfunctional governments, social unrest and its run-down infrastructure was seen as an impediment for foreign investment. But if you stopped to assess what was really happening, it was clear that a new era was about to begin.

Gary with Yezdi Pavri and Kam Rathee

For me it started by meeting my potential partners. They were entrepreneurs, risk takers, convinced that the baggage of the past was the previous generation’s problem. For them success was the only option. This emerging leadership group were young, educated, tenacious and above all committed to being successful.

This is what I wanted to tap into, but convincing them you were the right partner wasn’t easy. In fact, their inexperience at times often led to indecision and confusion. Fortunately, in India there is a deep respect for elders, and it was the combination of the energy of the new generation combined with the wisdom of elders that made it work. At one point in the talks, the Indian negotiating team attempted to renege on an earlier point of agreement. This was a deal breaker to Sun Life, and Mr. Puranmalka, a senior advisor to Kumar Birla realized this. I was asked to leave the room, and fully expected to be flying empty handed back to Toronto. I was soon called back into the meeting room, where Mr.Puranmalka simply said, “The AV Birla group would honour its commitments“. I knew at that moment I had the right partner.

Today we can look back at the past 25 years and see the enormous growth that India has achieved. GDP has increased tenfold since 1991. Prime Minister Modi is nothing short of a rock star both domestically and internationally. Crores of investment dollars have been made in infrastructure that has transformed the country. The airport I first landed in was probably one of the worst in the world; today Delhi has one of the finest airports in the world.  Five hundred million people, through hard work and ingenuity, have pulled themselves from poverty over this period of time. A nation that once restricted the number of computers allowed into the country is now the home of TCS, the world’s largest software development company and other world-class companies that are revolutionizing the technology we use every day. 

Brookfield, Fairfax, Bombardier, Sun Life, McCain’s, Teck and CPP Investments are just a few of ‎Canadian corporations who are investing significantly in India. They do this because they see superior opportunities, and have the resources and international expertise required. I have travelled with more Canadian trade ministers than I can count, every one of them committed to expanding relations with India. In speech after speech, all the right things were said, but when you look at the numbers we have not seized this opportunity in India as well as many others. Trade with India is still a rounding error. Other countries have aggressively pursued business opportunities with India and reaped the benefits. Why has Canada not capitalized more on this opportunity? 

I have worked and travelled throughout Asia, witnessing firsthand the explosion of these economies. But, of course, one economy above all others has dominated the conversation: China. Countries including Canada have been captivated by China, hypnotized by the allure of quick profits and growth. But the initial exuberant optimism has not always translated into the results expected. Businesses and governments today are increasingly skeptical of China, with many companies having second thoughts about their China strategy. 

There is no question that India is a better bet for Canada, and now is the time to develop and execute a comprehensive trade strategy that will position Canada as a true trading partner with India. The hundred-thousand-plus Indian students currently studying in Canada, and the one million Indo Canadians, would welcome this.

Simply put, Canada needs India more that India needs Canada, and we need to recognize this. Sticking to outdated negotiating tactics has not worked, and bold change is in order. Prime Minister Trudeau may be naturally cautious about re-engaging in a significant way with India, but there are prominent individuals and associations willing and able to assist the government in developing a new approach to India. Simply put, the time is now for active reengagement. If my colleagues and I had refused to go back to India every time there was an uncomfortable moment in negotiations or a stalemate, Birla Sun Life today would not be a Life Insurance company with 85,000-plus Life Insurance agents and Birla Sun Life Asset management, an asset management company with 2,26,633 crore  ($31 billion USD) of assets under management. 

‎It is time for aggressive engagement with India, particularly given the highly volatile relationship we are currently experiencing with China. 

Anyone who has attempted to do business in India knows it is not easy. But if I look at India today, I see more opportunity than I could possibly have imagined in 1995. Canadians have always succeeded by looking beyond our borders, and now is the time to take a new, bold look at an old friend.

Gary Comerford is Vice Chair of Canada India Business Council; Board Member, Novelis; Chair of Board of Directors, Brock University

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