When Narayan Iyer moved to Mumbai after a 20-year stint in the US, he thought he would be returning to the comfort and safety of home. He couldn’t have been further from the truth.
In the eight months that he has been here, his house has been flooded in the monsoon, he has witnessed street riots and he was driving past Mahim station last July when a bomb exploded in one of the trains in the station, part of a series of blasts across Mumbai that killed around 190 people. Still, Iyer isn’t going back. Not when the organized retail business in India is booming.
“It’s like a gold rush in the retail sector here these days,” said 39-year-old Iyer, chief solutions officer of India’s largest listed retailer, Pantaloon Retail (India) Ltd. “In the US, my work would have been incremental. But here I get an opportunity to do something new, to build something afresh,”
Last year, Sandeep Chhikara left his job with a private-equity firm in Paris to come back to his hometown, New Delhi, to work for Carrefour SA’s India operations. Iyer and Chhikara are part of a small, but growing, band of executives who are giving up overseas lifestyles to be part of the organized retail story in India.
“Having a person of Indian origin gives an edge,” said Hemant Kalbag, a principal at consulting firm AT Kearney Ltd, who worked for the firm, and for furniture retail chain, Levitz, in the US before returning to India last year.
India’s retail market, estimated at $300 billion (Rs13,20,000 crore), is at the crossroads of change. Only as little as 4 % of this is organized retail. The remainder is a mish-mash of street vendors and small neighbourhood stores called kiranas.
All that is set to change.
Over the next five years several companies will spend around $25 billion trying to tap this market, according to New Delhi-based consulting firm Technopak Advisors.
The list includes the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and India’s biggest conglomerate, Reliance Industries, and several others.
Late last year, Reliance kicked off a $5-billion plan to open hundreds of stores. Bharti Enterprises Ltd, the parent company of mobile phone giant Bharti Airtel has chosen Wal-Mart as a partner to help it set up stores.
All of them have run into a problem. With the lack of expertise in modern retailing, they are finding it difficult to fill middle- and senior-level positions, say headhunters.
“There is a scarcity of (top-level) talent here,” said E. Balaji, chief operating officer of one of India’s largest recruiting firms, Ma Foi Management Consultants Ltd.
In the last six months, his firm has lined up 50 non-resident Indians from West Asia, Singapore and Malaysia for top retail positions in India.
Ajit Joshi worked in Australia, organizing events ranging from the Olympics to matches at the Melbourne Cricket Ground before he relocated in 2004. It took six months to transfer his daughter’s credits from her Australian University to the one in Mumbai and getting school admissions for his son was hard.
His children struggled with the language and curriculum. “I feel like their childhood just passed them by,” he said. But Joshi, who now heads Infinity Retail, a consumer-durables retail chain from the Tata Group, feels the opportunities of working in India’s retail sector helps him ignore the tough life in India’s commercial capital.
Roopa Purushothaman, chief economist with the Future Group, moved to India in 2006. “I had been doing India-related research increasingly,” says Purushothaman. She co-wrote a Goldman Sach’s report, which said that India would be among the world’s fastest-growing economies, along with Brazil, China and Russia.
“I wanted to live and work here. Initially, it was very hard. But now I feel settled,’’ adds Purushothaman.
Kalbag claims the sector is in immediate need of between 2,500 and 3,000 middle- and senior-level managers.
“There are hardly 500 people who have that level of retail experience in India at present,” he says.