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Financial Times: An Indian export success story

Original Article - Financial Times

As India establishes itself as a major economic power, its business prospects are attracting global attention. These UK SMEs describe their sometimes unconventional paths to success in this burgeoning market.

“In the last few years, there’s been phenomenal change in India,” says Richard McCallum, CEO of the UK​ ​I​ndia ​B​usiness ​C​ouncil​. “It’s growing, flourishing, and incredibly dynamic.” India’s transformation into a wealthy, service-driven economy is driven by its young, aspirational, and increasingly affluent demographic: 60 per cent of its 1.4 billion​ citizens are aged under 35. “You’ve got a growing middle class hungry for the latest brands and technology,” says McCallum. “It’s a demographic that likes to shop.”

With India’s digital revolution bringing even more people into the formal economy, huge investment in infrastructure, and a government actively making India easier to trade with—there is a significant business opportunity for UK SMEs. “The market’s very, very large, enough to support a lot of UK products and a lot more development by UK businesses,” confirms McCallum.

“It’s a massive market,” agrees Ronan Finnegan, Co-Founder of Spacebands, a company making wearable technology to track workplace hazards. “Factories, construction, infrastructure. There’s so much being built.” And this growth is accompanied by a growing sense of corporate responsibility. “We entered India during Covid,” explains Finnegan. “When multinationals operating in India were anxious to reduce employee risk.” They found that by selling to one site, their product was quickly cross sold throughout entire organisations and to other companies they worked with. “Once you’re in, it’s a word-of-mouth game.”

This is helped by British products being associated with quality and carrying a certain prestige. “It does make selling to India easier,” agrees Finnegan. But it’s not without its challenges. “There’s often more sales cycles to go through,” he explains. “And packages always take longer to arrive than you’d expect!” But Indian businesses allow for this. “Once you understand the nuances, it’s a great place to do business,” says Finnegan. “We have lots of customers from India. We really enjoy working with Indian businesses.”

“India is such a vast and diverse market it can be difficult​ to​ find a focus,” acknowledges Alistair Munro, CEO of Ryse Energy, that specialises in wind turbines for decentralised power generation. But with India striving towards sustainability, the government’s decarbonisation of the telecoms industry was an area of expertise for Ryse Energy. “There is a lot of respect for the UK as a supplier,” says Munro. “We used our initial telecoms focus to get us into the market and expanded from there.”

“It can be daunting,” he admits. “It’s very bureaucratic. There’s a lot of paper, a lot of regulations. You have to really commit.” And it’s a price conscious market too, “You’ve got to build your business model more around volume than margin,” says Munro. “We’ve secured a multimillion-dollar contract with an Indian company for a project outside of India, so it’s not just about India but about where Indian companies operate, like Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka and into Indonesia and Southeast Asia.”

India has opportunities for businesses of all sizes. “It was a large market we wanted to tap into,” enthuses Dr Rajan Bedi, CEO of Spacechips, a consultancy and technology supplier. But the route in wasn’t straightforward. “We spent three years trying to break into the Indian market. I met every major industry leader, but nothing happened.” They’d almost given up when things changed. “The traditional leadership was replaced by young, fresh blood, many educated in the west with a more UK-centric approach to business,” he explains.

“Working with Indian companies is now bearing fruit,” Bedi says, confirming a “very significant order for design consultancy.” Spacechips is also providing specialist training in the country and is optimistic about its future in India. “The current generation is very proactive, incredibly ambitious,” Bedi points out. For him, the new opportunities reflect the growth of the Indian economy. “India has the potential to be a highly lucrative market,” he says. “It’s challenging, but persevere and stick with it.”

“India’s speed of growth is a compelling case for trading there,” asserts Stuart Murray, General Manager of Larchfield Aerospace, who manufacture aircraft graphics and brandings. “India has a lot of aircraft and some good paint shops, but they’re maybe not as up to speed with the quality and knowhow we can provide from the UK.” As standards rise and regulations become more strictly enforced, “we saw an opening to say, ‘we can support what you’re doing, we’ll work with you, and we’ll offer all these additional accreditations.’”

Through the D​epartment for ​B​usiness and ​T​rade​, in-market specialists were able to connect them with their target companies and arrange video calls. “An Indian meeting is four or five meetings going on at once. It’s an experience and we learned patience!” Price negotiations were also inevitable. “The price is never the price,” agrees Murray. “But we’ve built good relationships where we know there is repeat work coming. There’s a lot of loyalty there. I think there could be a bright future for us in India.”

“As India becomes increasingly important as an economy, I hope more British companies will realise that they need to get on board,” considers McCallum. “India is going through phenomenal growth and it’s only going in one direction.” And they are keen to get support from international businesses. “There’s a good opportunity for well-established UK companies to trade there,” notes Stuart Murray. Alistair Munro agrees, “If you’re an SME with markets which are growing because you’re good, then India should be part of your portfolio.”

Dan Bayliss, spacebands' Marketing Manager

Dan Bayliss

Head of Marketing

Dan enjoys reading, listening to and playing music, gaming and visiting new places.

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