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Challenge for Goliaths: how to become David

Last week, in the back-to-back swarm of meetings with heads of auto firms, there is one that is still ringing in my mind. Gautam Chikermane elaborates.

business Updated: Jan 11, 2010 13:53 IST
Gautam Chikermane

Last week, in the back-to-back swarm of meetings with heads of auto firms, there is one that is still ringing in my mind.

“Oh, no,” said Shinzo Nakanishi, managing director of India’s largest car company Maruti Suzuki, when I asked him how he felt about the company’s dominating and domineering position in the industry now that competition from Toyota’s Etios, unveiled a day before at the 10th Auto Expo and to be launched by the year end, is around the corner.

“We do not think of ourselves as the dominant company at all,” he said in his Japanese-flavoured English and good-natured laughter. “We are the David here. Toyota is so big. We are very small.” Yes, Toyota is big globally but in India its marketshare is just 3 per cent compared to Maruti’s 50 per cent. “No, no. Toyota is a big player, tough challenger. Till yesterday they were not serious in India but now they are. I met Toyota’s board members and they say that we are watching you.” His laughter lines deepened.

A day before, Kazuo Okamoto, vice chairman of Toyota, sitting with his senior team in a room behind the freshly-displayed Etios told us that India is the most important market for Toyota’s growth. “It is only in India where we could have made a smaller car than what we already have in the world and still make it affordable,” he said in Japanese that a translator made accessible. “Our aim is to achieve 10 per cent marketshare in India by 2015.” He didn’t use the word, but his body language suggested that he was visualising Toyota in India as David and had to fight Maruti the Goliath.

Between Toyota’s high-profile launches (Etios — pronounced Ee-tea-aus; and Prius — pronounced Pree-yus) and Nakanishi’s ramping up Maruti’s production to retain marketshare, lies a battle that’s beyond the market. It is a battle of leadership mindset that idolises and behaves like an underdog. To me, both are Goliaths — Toyota in the world with its stash of cash and Maruti in India with its marketshare and distribution. But both are running to embrace David.

I don’t think it is merely a brand association, false modesty or even the fact that it’s impolite or presumptuous to think that if you’re a leader you’ll stay a leader that’s driving this thought. The David culture, in fact, is not even being driven by large corporations. It is a change that we consumers and investors, armed with fragmenting markets and disruptive technologies, are forcing upon anything large — products, companies, governments.

Even the biggest disrupter today, Google, tries hard not to act and behave like the $190 billion (Rs 890,000 crore) Goliath it has become. Its president of global sales operations and business development Nikesh Arora said so at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit last year. “We keep thinking how to make great products, not the money,” he said over a drink. “We like to think of ourselves as a small, entrepreneurial company.”

In yet another meeting, Sunil Mittal, chairman and managing director, Bharti Group, a few years ago at his swanky office whose driveway was lined with Mercedes and BMWs, said he wasn’t bothered about the big boys of telecom. “My biggest fear is the small entrepreneur, sitting in his small room, working out technologies and products that will render our business obsolete,” he said in his matter-of-fact way. “Big companies are only trying to grab our marketshare.”

It is easy to behave like David when you are David. In fact, being David gives you an additional push, a moral strength to fight off someone larger, more resourceful, supremely dangerous — and that’s what makes entrepreneurship so exciting, I suppose. The challenge is to behave like David when you’re Goliath. And that seems to be the leadership attitude that’s catching up.