New Delhi/Singapore: A cacophony of horns, revving engines and squealing brakes fills Jagdish Khattar’s 11th-floor office in Connaught Place, New Delhi’s central business district.
The company Khattar runs, Maruti Udyog Ltd, makes half of the cars jostling on India’s roads this March morning, and every automaker on the planet is fighting to add its vehicles to his traffic jam.
This year, India’s 1.1 billion people will snap up vans, small trucks and cars — especially pint-sized models — more quickly than anyone except the Chinese, according to research firm Global Insight Inc. From 2006 through 2011, India will be the fastest-growing auto manufacturer among the world’s top 20 car-making countries, New York-based accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP says.
“Everyone is looking at India after what happened in China,’’ says Ashvin Chotai, who works in London as director of Asian automotive research for Waltham, Massachusetts-based Global Insight. “There’s no other place that even comes close.’’ Global Insight predicts that Chinese sales of light vehicles — cars, trucks and vans that weigh less than six tons — will soar 50.6% to 12 million by 2012.
In India, General Motors Corp., Honda Motor Co., Volkswagen AG and half a dozen other companies plan to spend at least $6.6 billion (Rs26,766 crore) on new factories to cash in on the nation’s auto lust. Fiat SpA, Nissan Motor Co., Renault SA and others are linking with local manufacturers.
All are betting on a country where 7 people in 1,000 own a car compared with 450 per 1,000 in the U.S. and 500 per 1,000 in Western Europe.
India’s 216 million-member middle class is rushing to make up for decades of automotive deprivation. In 1991, P.V. Narasimha Rao began dismantling state controls that had shut out foreign companies and left India with only Maruti and two other homegrown automakers: Hindustan Motors Ltd and Premier Automobiles Ltd.
Rao, who was prime minister from 1991 to 1996, kept duties on auto imports as high as 100% and encouraged foreign carmakers to set up local assembly and manufacturing plants. Auto companies began to trickle in, led by South Korea’s Daewoo Motor Co. in 1995. Customers followed, buoyed by bank loans and rising salaries.
In the year ended on 31 March, Indian passenger car sales climbed 21% to 1.38 million. By 2015, they’re expected to more than double to 3 million, according to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, which represents the nation’s carmakers.
Building From Scratch
Khattar, 64, a former civil servant who ran a government- owned cement company and sold Indian teas in London from 1979 to 1983, says Maruti enjoys advantages in luring new car buyers.
GM, Honda and others assemble cars in India, importing most of the parts. Maruti, which is 54% owned by Japan’s Suzuki Motor Corp., builds cars from scratch. It enjoys a 12% operating margin compared with a 9.3% global margin for Toyota Motor Corp., according to Bloomberg data.
Maruti’s new subcompact called the SX4 shows another of the company’s selling points. The model has two air bags, anti-lock brakes, an anti-theft system and automatic climate control. It sells for Rs689,000 ($16,980) in New Delhi. The equivalent Honda model, called the City ZX, costs Rs727,000 without any of the SX4’s frills.
“Our competitors can sell at our price, but can they produce at our cost?’’ says Khattar, wearing Maruti’s uniform of light-green button-down jacket with a small collar and matching green slacks.
Man to Beat
So far, investors are backing Khattar. “Everyone will have to beat Khattar because he knows the Indian market well,’’ says Amit Kasat, an auto analyst at Motilal Oswal Securities in Mumbai. In four years, Maruti’s stock price has soared to Rs815.1 on 23 May from Rs125, the price at which the government sold a 25% stake to the public in June 2003.
On 10 May of this year, the government sold its remaining stake for Rs23.6 billion. Shareholders, including banks and insurance companies, now own 46% of Maruti.
“He has done a great job to get Maruti among the most- profitable car companies today,’’ Govindarajan Chellappa, a Mumbai-based analyst at Credit Suisse Group, says of Khattar. “What else could shareholders ask for?’’
One thing is better roads. Outside Khattar’s window in New Delhi, Maruti 800s, the smallest car the company makes, jostle with Toyota Corollas, Chevrolet Aveos and swarms of other models — some so tiny that they could fit on the bed of a U.S. pickup truck. They fight for space with pedestrians, cycles, auto rickshaws, carts, buses and trucks.
During Mumbai’s rush hour, traffic crawls at 10 kilometers (6 miles) an hour. The 25-kilometer trip from the city’s financial district north to the airport can take two hours.
India’s $14 billion highway development programme isn’t keeping up — for drivers or carmakers. “We are not able to grow the way we should,’’ says Rajeev Chaba, president of General Motors India. He says India’s inadequate roads and ports are part of the reason the country trails China as a car market.
“In China, the government is supporting the industry in a big way,’’ Chaba says.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was prime minister from 1998 to 2004, started building a modern highway network in 2000. He wanted to connect the nation’s four biggest cities: New Delhi in the north; Mumbai, previously called Bombay, in the west; Chennai, formerly Madras, in the south; and Kolkata, the former Calcutta, in the east.
Sugar Cane and Fish
Since then, the government has had trouble enticing farmers to give up land. It has also struggled in finding contractors to build roads and collect tolls on unprofitable routes. In India, private companies construct roads and the government takes ownership after the contractor recoups his investment by collecting tolls for a set number of years.
Indian highways cut through small towns. Children dodge traffic as motorcycles swerve onto the main roadway from side lanes. Vendors flag cars to hawk sugar cane and freshly caught fish. In some rural areas, paved roads don’t exist; people commute in cargo carts pulled by tractors. One exception is the 95-kilometer, six-lane expressway connecting Mumbai to the city of Pune to the east.
Manmohan Singh, who’s been prime minister since 2004, is driving to make the nation a center for small-car exports even as India faces its transportation obstacles. One selling point — as it has been for the software, financial services and health care industries — is the cheaper cost of doing business in the country.
$7,500 Factory Workers
Maruti pays factory workers about Rs26,000 a month, or about $7,500 a year. By comparison, an assembly line worker in Dearborn, Michigan, makes about $57,000 a year, according to the United Auto Workers union Web site.
“India is one of the top three low-cost car-producing countries, along with China and Thailand,’’ Chaba says. “That’s primarily because of good-quality labour at lower cost. Even the cost of supervising — managers — is quite low, despite the fact that we have disadvantages on the utilities side.’’
Most car plants in India generate their own power because the supply from state-owned utilities is erratic.
Maruti didn’t start out as a model of manufacturing efficiency. In 1970, during the administration of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the government granted Gandhi’s son, Sanjay, a license to build a small, affordable car for India’s scooter-driving masses.
Ill-Fated Test Drive
The car was to cost Rs6,000 rupees, travel at up to 53 miles an hour and get 56 miles to the gallon (3.8 liters), according to Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi by Katherine Frank (Houghton Mifflin, 592 pages, $35).
In 1973, Sanjay Gandhi took journalist Uma Vasudev for a test-drive in a prototype around the Maruti factory.
“The car overheated and leaked oil,’’ Frank wrote in her book. “The suspension was appalling, and the engine noise deafening. The steering was light, and the car doors would not close securely. Engines were cast by hand, and there was no sign of an assembly line in operation.’’ The car never materialized.
Sanjay Gandhi died on 23 June 1980, after losing control of a two-seat aircraft he was piloting. In 1981, after Indira Gandhi returned to power following an electoral defeat in 1977, her government created Maruti Udyog to take over the venture.
About the same time, an aide to Osamu Suzuki, who was then president of Suzuki Motor, read a newspaper article about the Indian government’s search for a car-making partner. Suzuki met with a team from India in a Tokyo hotel.
Suzuki Steps In
“We borrowed a blackboard from the hotel and ended up discussing details such as a layout of a plant and how to set up a press shop,’’ Suzuki, who is now CEO, said in a speech at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo on 21 April 2006.
In 1982, Gandhi’s government and Suzuki set up a joint venture in Gurgaon, outside New Delhi, with Suzuki acquiring 26% of Maruti Udyog. The next year, the company rolled out the Maruti 800, which was half the size of Ford Motor Co.’s present-day Expedition sport utility vehicle.
The 800 sparked India’s infatuation with small cars. Drivers clamoured for its bucket seats, stick shift and price of about Rs43,000. For years, Indians had to pick from the Ambassador, made by Hindustan Motors, a hulking sedan that now mainly serves as a taxi or a government limousine, or the Premier Padmini from Premier Automobiles, which was a boxy four-door sedan based on the Fiat 1200 from the late 1950s.
‘Driving a Toy’
Waiting times for the 800 stretched as long as three years. Nitya Jacob, a freelance writer in New Delhi, says his family ordered one in early 1984 by paying Rs10,000. They got the car in September 1986 for a balance of Rs65,000. The family had previously owned an Ambassador.
“The 800 was like driving a toy,’’ Jacob says. “It was smaller, modern and more fuel-efficient.’’
Khattar joined Maruti in 1993 as marketing director. His first stint in the transportation industry had been from 1986 to 1988, when he’d headed state-controlled Uttar Pradesh Road Transport Corp. That company ran 6,000 buses, employed 60,000 workers and had been losing as much as Rs700 million a year for 19 years.
Khattar says that he figured the company had 10,000 more workers than it needed. “I did a calculation and found, if I added 1,000 buses, those extra workers would get absorbed,’’ Khattar says.
Khattar improved the seat cushions on 700 of the new buses, rebranded the fleet as a semiluxury one and charged 25% more than the then-basic fare of about Rs18 for the older buses. The company posted a profit within a year, he says.
Selling Tea in London
During Khattar’s early days at Maruti, the company enjoyed an 85% market share — even while making buyers wait. He says his job with India’s Tea Board, where he promoted Darjeeling and Assam varieties to British supermarkets crowded with rival teas, taught him that Maruti couldn’t continue its complacency.
Daewoo, Ford and GM were knocking on India’s door. “I told people, ‘In a few years, you’ll be running after the customer,’’’ Khattar says.
Khattar’s prediction came true in 1998. Seoul-based Hyundai Motor Co., now India’s No. 2 automaker, set up a full-fledged car-manufacturing plant near Chennai and started selling a model called the Santro.
The car wowed buyers with an interior that was 18.5 centimeters (7.3 inches) taller than the 140.5-centimeter cabin of the Maruti Zen of that time. The next year, Tata Motors Ltd, part of India’s Tata Group, unveiled its Indica.
Market Share Tumbles
The 3.6 meter-long car sported a diesel engine and sold at the same price as one of Maruti’s gasoline vehicles. The diesel- powered car attracted buyers who wanted to save on fuel costs. Maruti’s market share tumbled to 45%.
Maruti’s troubles didn’t end there. In 2000, 80% of its workers went on strike for a raise that after five years would have increased total compensation to an average of about Rs41,000 a month from Rs21,000.
Khattar refused. He brought production back to 100% by using nonstriking workers, recruits from vendors and trainees.
The strikers gave up after three months. Maruti shed about 2,000 employees through voluntary retirement. It fired others for insubordination. Before the walkout, Maruti was making about 350,000 cars a year and had 8,000 employees. Today, it makes almost twice as many cars with the same number of workers.
“That was the turning point,’’ Khattar says. “We realized we could make do with fewer people.’’
Taking on Newcomers
Now, Khattar says Maruti is in a good position to take on newcomers as India pushes to become a small-car exporter. He says the company has championed exports since the mid-1990s as a way to keep up its quality.
“You could sell anything in India in 1990,’’ he says. “You ensured quality by exporting the same cars overseas. Had we not done that, we would have been butchered when competition came in 1998.’’
Prime Minister Singh sweetened incentives for the nation’s compact-car exporters last year. His government cut excise taxes levied on small cars when they leave the factory to 16% from 24%.
The goal is to boost compact-car sales, helping manufacturers get the scale they need to make exportation economically appealing. Vehicle exports, including parts, will soar to $35 billion by 2016 from $4.08 billion this year, the Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises predicts in its Draft Automotive Mission Plan, 2006-2016, the document that outlines India’s automotive future.
‘We Can Do It’
By 2009, Maruti expects to sell 250,000 cars globally. It sold fewer than 50,000 cars worldwide in 2006.
Credit Suisse’s Chellappa says Khattar has been the biggest advocate for India’s carmakers. “When the managing director of Maruti stands up on a podium and says we can do it, a lot of people sit up and take notice,’’ Chellappa says.
First, Khattar will have to get his vehicles to India’s ports. Maruti can take 12 weeks to transport a car from Gurgaon to shipyards on India’s western coast, Khattar says. In Japan, cars are transported from factory to port in eight days.
The journey from Gurgaon begins on trucks that haul the vehicles to a railway yard. A cargo train that can carry about 120 cars arrives every three or four days. The train carries the cars 1,140 kilometers to another yard about 150 kilometers north of Mumbai. The cars are again loaded onto trucks and driven to a port. There, Maruti workers touch up any paint damage. The cars wait for ships.
‘Torture’ of Exporting
In India, it takes workers 84 hours to unload and load cargo from an average ship. That compares with an average of 12 hours in Singapore and 10 hours in Hong Kong, according to statistics from 2005, the latest available from the Indian government and port officials in Hong Kong and Singapore.
“It’s torture exporting from here,’’ Khattar says. By 2010, railroad tracks will run from the ports directly to Maruti’s second plant in Manesar, 25 kilometers away from the Gurgaon factory, he says.
Rising interest rates are another hurdle that may slow India’s carmakers. On 30 March, the Reserve Bank of India increased the overnight lending rate for the sixth time in 16 months, to a five-year high of 7.75%.
“There will be some impact on sales,’’ Khattar says on a March afternoon at the Gurgaon plant. He keeps an office above an assembly line that produces Omni vans.
In March, India’s passenger car sales rose 2.9%, the smallest gain in 13 months. The previous March, sales had surged 23.7%.
GM, Toyota Rivalry
Even with India’s drawbacks, General Motors and Toyota are escalating their rivalry in the country as car buying slows in the U.S., Europe and Japan. U.S. light-vehicle sales will peak at 16.4 million in 2007, the lowest level in nine years, PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts.
In New Delhi on 17 April, GM Chief Executive Officer Rick Wagoner underscored India’s importance when he unveiled the company’s smallest car yet: the Spark, which is about a yard longer than the longest Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
“India is expected to be the world’s second-fastest- growing automotive market, driven by overall economic growth, rising disposable income and a rapidly expanding middle class,’’ Wagoner said.
General Motors India plans to sell 200,000 vehicles by 2010, almost triple the 70,000 cars it predicts it will sell this year. Wagoner says he wants to capture 10% of the Indian market by 2010.
Toyota, which overtook General Motors in worldwide car and truck sales in the first quarter of 2007, is also aiming for 10% of the Indian market by 2010, up from 3.7% in the year ended on 31 March. The Japanese company makes and sells the Corolla compact car and the Innova minivan in India. It imports the Camry sedan and the Land Cruiser SUV from Japan.
Toyota needs a small car to lure more Indian buyers, says Atsushi Toyoshima, managing director of Toyota Kirloskar Motor Pvt., the company’s Indian unit.
“Without that, Toyota cannot be a substantial player in this market,’’ Toyoshima says, declining to discuss small-car plans for India.
Toyoshima praises Suzuki’s insight in joining with Maruti a quarter of a century ago. “Suzuki’s decision to come to India and make mass-production cars was a big one,’’ he says. “It was a courageous move, and we are learning from them.’’
Not to be outdone by international interlopers, Tata Motors plans a Rs100,000, or $2,500, car next year. It would be the nation’s least expensive. Tata says it has the potential to sell as many as 1 million of the cheaper cars a year.
Hyundai is investing $1.5 billion in a second plant at its site near Chennai to almost double its manufacturing in India to 600,000 vehicles from 340,000 this year. H.S. Lheem, managing director of Hyundai Motor India, says the South Korean company will use India as a base to make and export small cars.
Maruti will have to ratchet up production to fend off Hyundai, Toyota and the others, says A.S. Thiyaga Rajan, managing director of Aquarius Investment Advisors Pte in Singapore.
“Khattar is not in an enviable position,’’ says Rajan, who owns shares of Maruti among the $200 million of Indian stocks he manages. “The only way they will keep up their revenue and margins is by increasing volumes. GM and Renault are going to make budget cars in India and Maruti will have a very tough time.’’
‘Testing the Waters’
Khattar says Maruti is poised to overtake Suzuki in unit sales in the year ending on 31 March 2008. Maruti sold 674,924 vehicles in the previous fiscal year. “This year, our objective is to sell 700,000 cars in India, more than what Suzuki sells in Japan,’’ he says.
Khattar says competitors don’t worry him, given his almost two decades of navigating India’s car industry. He has two plants that make vehicles from the ground up; most of the newcomers have assembly factories. “They are still testing the waters,’’ he says.
That’s changing. Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan and Renault, says he understands the advantage of building cars from scratch and acquiring local know-how through partnerships. Nissan and Renault plan to build cars in a new plant with Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., India’s biggest maker of SUVs.
In May, Ghosn announced that Nissan is designing a $2,500 car to compete with Tata Motors’ budget model.
“We want to be able to make frugal cars, not only for the Indian market but for the global market,’’ Ghosn said during an April visit to India to unveil the Logan, a four-door subcompact sold in emerging markets. “We want to be Indians in India.’’
The same goal is driving the world’s auto companies to India. They’ll find throngs of fervent car buyers, a surging auto-making and exporting market — and the burden of inadequate roads.