New Delhi: When Anand Mahindra took a leadership position at the Mahindra group in 1991, the group was reeling in losses. It made a profit by selling a floor of real estate that year.

It was also a turning point in Indian history: the nation was opening its doors to foreign investment and Anand Mahindra, then deputy managing director at 36, helped the group turn a profit by threatening to cut worker bonuses and restructuring heavily.

“There was skepticism this company would not survive," Mahindra told the news agency in an interview. Twenty years later, the agriculture-to-aerospace conglomerate is raking in more than $12 billion in revenue. In fiscal year 2011, it turned a profit of nearly $700 million on revenue of $8.7 billion.

A file photo of Anand Mahindra,vice chairman & managing director, Mahindra & Mahindra Limited with a Mahindra Scorpio SUV in the background

The United States (US) market, however, has remained out of reach for Mahindra, which has three tractor plants there, but no passenger vehicles. Its plans to launch a pickup truck version of the Scorpio have been frozen due to an arbitration action filed by its US distributor.

“We plan to be there and we will," Mahindra said in a recent interview. There is no visibility on when the lawsuit might be resolved but Ssangyong nameplates could provide Mahindra an alternate route to build a presence there.

Mahindra said its aerospace unit, which has been on an acquisition spree, plans to make more buys across Europe and the US. Its defense unit, which has a joint venture with BAE Systems , is also in talks for two more JVs.

Mahindra has not always made the winning bid. It lost out to Tata Motors in the auction for Jaguar Land Rover, a turn of events Mahindra says he does not regret as Tata had to cope with the global financial meltdown soon after the expensive deal.

The group is now looking for more acquisitions. “To make a billion dollar acquisition for a group that is bordering $15 billion is not really something indigestible," Mahindra said.

Global ambition

Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M), the company that houses the automotive unit of the group, has a market value of $10 billion, ahead of peers Tata Motors, which lags just behind at $9.6 billion and Maruti Suzuki, which sits at $6 billion.

That unit generated $3.5 billion in revenue last year. Only 5% came from overseas, a sign that markets outside India remain largely untapped by Mahindra. In comparison, roughly two-thirds of Tata Motors’ revenue is generated offshore.

The Harvard-educated salt-and-pepper haired vice chairman of the storied group pre-empts the obvious question. “With further liberalization in India, huge competition around the world, a threatened western world and every multinational now making redoubled efforts to target India, can Mahindra survive, can they take a seat at the high table of the global auto industry?" he asks.

“Our answer to that is the XUV parked on the first floor," he says, referring to the new SUV that Mahindra is launching in India, Australia, South Africa, Chile, Sri Lanka and parts of Western Europe.

The XUV 500 is the first Mahindra vehicle to be launched globally. It is made in Chakan, an auto hub located about 100 miles east of Mumbai, where Mahindra has invested close to $700 million in a state-of-the-art plant.

The vehicle will be a litmus test of Mahindra’s ability to make it in the auto business overseas. Initial signs point to success: 5,000 orders in the first week have prompted a production ramp-up and delayed launches in other regions.

Mahindra, which dominates the Indian SUV market, has so far been best known for the Scorpio, its most expensive vehicle, costing $22,000 at the high end. The XUV starts off at that price.

Mahindra, who is often seen at high-profile conferences, has a Scorpio flown over to Davos when he attends the World Economic Forum.

Mahindra & Mohammed

Founded in 1945 by Mahindra’s grandfather, great-uncle and Ghulam Mohammed, the group was called Mahindra & Mohammed. When India became independent, two years later, Mohammed left to become Pakistan’s first finance minister. The two brothers renamed the company.

Mahindra, who earned a degree in film at Harvard before getting his MBA there, took the helm in 1997, when the group was known for tractors and the Jeep and generated an annual revenue of $2 billion. Toyota Motor entered India that year, “and the death-knell of Mahindra was sounded again," he said.

In the years following, he has expanded the group to include technology, hospitality, real estate, defense and aerospace and grown revenue to $12.5 billion. The automotive and farm sectors contribute the bulk – 36% and 28% respectively.

“I see growth across all the sectors we’re in," Mahindra said. “For autos, I think the biggest growth will be in Latin America… For tractors, Africa. South Asia is a very hot market for us too."

Shares in Mahindra & Mahindra have risen nearly 50% since the beginning of last year, against a 5% decline in the Indian stock market.

Rural India drives demand

The Indian auto market has been on a tear, growing 30% last year as a burgeoning and aspirational middle class rushed to showrooms, many of them families of four upgrading from two-wheelers. But India’s repeated interest rate hikes to combat stubborn inflation have hurt demand from credit-reliant buyers this year.

Still, Mahindra is the only Indian automaker to buck the downturn in sales, instead posting double-digit growth. Much of that success comes from agriculture-based rural India, where an economy growing at 8% and rising food prices are increasing income and fueling consumption.

India’s bestselling SUV, Mahindra’s Bolero, sells mostly in rural India. “The story of rural India is a lack of empowerment, perceived impotence," says Mahindra. “Villagers are being constantly threatened by an authority. The Bolero symbolizes empowerment."

Mahindra drives a variant of the Bolero called the Stinger.

Demand in rural India has also helped Mahindra’s tractor business, which has surpassed John Deere as the world’s largest tractor maker by volume. India’s tractor market grew 32% last year, when Mahindra sold more than 200,000 units.

“We see tremendous demand in rural India, which is 70% of the country," says Mahindra. Less than 10% of Indian farmers own tractors, leaving much room for growth.

Mahindra also makes trucks in partnership with Navistar, two-wheelers, sedans and electric cars with Reva. But it does not make small cars - the single most popular and competitive segment in India.

Mahindra said the company plans to make a compact SUV that would compete with small cars in pricing but would offer the rugged capabilities that have become the group’s trademark. “You go into battle with your strengths," Mahindra said.