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The Winning Card

Shailesh Mehta offers some tips on how to "turn lemons into lemonade" and details his company's plans for India:

The Winning Card
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You have just entered the Indian market with a joint-venture company. How do you rate your chances of success there?

We won't be looking at credit cards for a while. Initially, we will be offering consumer financial loans or what are called non-banking financial services—like installment loans and revolving lines of credit. And when the insurance sector opens up, we will certainly want to go in there as well.

To what extent will your marketing strategy and approach in India differ from those you have so successfully employed so far in the US?

Even as we speak, our office in Bombay is conducting market research to find out what will appeal most to the Indian client. Our approach in India will be our usual one, driven by behavioural studies of consumers. Another thing we will definitely examine is popular opinions and beliefs versus actual behaviour. For example, it is a commonly-held belief that Indians don't like to borrow. But we will examine whether in reality, Indians behave like that. We will also look at affordability levels and work out the most efficient payment systems.

To what extent does the current nebulousness of the political landscape in India faze you?

Some of our top directors have expressed doubts, in view of the ongoing rhetoric there. But I keep pointing out that a lot of our present political leaders (in India) still carry the memory of British colonial rule. Their fear of liberalisation—that India will be ruthlessly exploited—stems largely from that memory. This is the reason why we, like many other American companies, are going in a much smaller way than we might have done. We are being cautious so that our capital does not get stuck in India.

How can you—an American now, with a jetsetting lifestyle—be so confident of your reading of India?

The basic trend has been set: India is opening up and will continue to do so. Political trends will always come and go. To me, liberalisation seems pretty irreversible now. In fact, I think India's problems will be far greater if anyone tries to pull the stops on that process now.

What is it, according to you, that Indians lack and would do well to cultivate?

Pragmatism. This is one faculty we Indians have a particularly tough time with. Then, there are perceptive skills—they are so simple, it is amazing how many of us don't acquire them. In a different environment, you have to adapt, sensitise yourself to your surroundings. It could be something silly and simple like—should I have a mouthwash after a garlic lunch?—it may not be important in India, but if you're in a place where you want to make it and it matters, then you have to do it!

A secret formula for success?

No matter how smart you are, you need to cultivate the knack of converting difficult situations into opportunities. As I say, turn lemons into lemonade.

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