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Originally published March 27, 2012 at 10:00 PM | Page modified March 27, 2012 at 10:15 PM

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U.S. carmakers look to India as they seek growth opportunities

As U.S. automakers get back on their feet after the global financial crisis, companies such as Ford and General Motors are looking for growth and investment opportunities worldwide. Few destinations appear more attractive than India.

The Washington Post

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SANAND, India — On a baking-hot plain in western India, Ford is preparing the ground for one of its biggest investments in Asia, a $1 billion car assembly and engine plant designed to more than double its manufacturing capacity here.

As U.S. automakers get back on their feet after the global financial crisis, companies such as Ford and General Motors are looking for growth and investment opportunities worldwide. Few destinations appear more attractive than India, and perhaps no other place in India is more appealing than an emerging auto hub in the western state of Gujarat.

"We don't get many chances to make an investment of this magnitude," said Joe Hinrichs, president of Ford Asia Pacific and Africa. "It's a bet on India's future, and a bet on Ford's future in the country and the region."

With the West's economies sluggish and car markets there saturated, and with China's explosive growth beginning to taper off, India offers a mouthwatering alternative.

Passenger-car sales grew 137 percent in the past six years, but there are still only about 13 cars per 1,000 people in this country of 1.2 billion, compared with 35 or 40 in China and more than 800 in the United States.

India is the world's sixth-largest car market and is expected to take third place behind China and the United States by the end of the decade, the management-consulting firm McKinsey & Co. predicts, with annual sales growth of 12 to 14 percent from 2014 to 2020. That would bring sales of cars and sport-utility vehicles to more than 6 million vehicles and penetration of cars per 1,000 people to the sort of levels currently seen in China.

Ford has been a little slow to the party, perhaps because it had neither the financial resources nor the products to target the Indian market aggressively five years earlier.

Despite opening an assembly plant in the southern city of Chennai in 1998, Ford's market share is just 3 percent here, compared with 17 percent in the United States and 10 percent in Brazil. But as new, smaller models such as the Figo make inroads into the Indian market, the company is confident that it can make up lost ground.

This new focus on India has required something of a philosophical shift for America's big auto manufacturers, a post-downturn realization that the old ways of doing business no longer guarantee success, said Michael Dunne, president of Dunne & Co., a Hong-Kong based investment-advisory firm specializing in Asia's car markets.

Break with past

In the past, U.S. carmakers tended to launch products in emerging markets that were successful in Europe "and anticipate that customers will trade up to the higher price level," Dunne said.

"That has worked in other car markets, but it didn't work in India, which is quite price-sensitive. They have now realized, 'We've got to go to the market, we can't wait for the market to come to us.' "

That means smaller, cheaper cars and taking the battle to more-established Asian operators such as Toyota and Hyundai. It means adapting faster than ever before to rapidly changing tastes. But the potential rewards mean that this is a battle that U.S. carmakers can no longer avoid.

A decade of breakneck economic growth and a fast-expanding middle class are bringing India close to a "tipping point," when incomes in towns and smaller cities across the country reach the threshold at which car sales typically explode.

That should happen by the middle of this decade, Ford's Hinrichs said, and, "That's when we expect another dramatic growth phase."

Traffic warning

Environmentalists warn of the prospect of millions more cars on India's roads, especially in cities with some of the worst air quality in Asia. Nor is it easy to imagine how those roads will cope, congested as they already are with motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, three-wheeler auto rickshaws, ox carts, trucks and vans.

But even if infrastructure investment fails to keep pace with demand and congestion worsens, car ownership in India, just like in China, is becoming an important status symbol for an aspiring middle class.

To take advantage, General Motors set up a car factory near the western city of Pune, close to Mumbai, in 2008 and is expanding its plant at Halol in Gujarat, just a few hours' drive from the site of Ford's new factory at Sanand. It, too, is launching products for local tastes, such as the seven-seater Chevrolet Enjoy, aimed at bigger Indian families, and the Chevrolet Sail, both designed in China with the company's joint-venture partner there.

Although high interest rates flattened India's car market here last year, the company is equally bullish about the medium term.

Three brands dominate the Indian market — Maruti Suzuki, Toyota and the homegrown Tata Motors account for roughly 70 percent of passenger car sales — but GM, like Ford, thinks it can significantly raise its market share from the about 4 percent currently.

"We've made a very strong commitment to India," said Lowell Paddock, the company's India president and managing director. "There is so little growth in a lot of the developed world that markets like India, even though they may be growing less strongly than in the past, are still more attractive."

Much of the new investment in India's car industry is arriving on the shores of Gujarat, a state run by business-friendly but polarizing Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

Modi was denied a visa to travel to the United States in 2005 over allegations that he turned a blind eye to or even actively encouraged riots in 2002 in which more than 1,100 people, almost all of them Muslims, died. But Ford said the incident had no bearing on its decision.

"We don't make a political statement one way or the other, we're making a business investment," Hinrichs said. "These are multidecade manufacturing facilities that last beyond any politician's career or any individual's career in business as well."

Tata Motors is already in Gujarat, manufacturing the world's cheapest car, the Nano, on a site bordering Ford's. French automaker PSA Peugeot Citroen announced last year that it would build a plant in Sanand, while Maruti Suzuki also plans to follow.

State of Gujarat

Gujarat is one of India's richest and fastest-growing states, and Ford and GM talk enthusiastically about the investor-friendly conditions there, the stable policy environment, the lack of corruption and the tremendous infrastructure, including uninterrupted power supply, great roads and access to ports for export.

Modi makes no bones about his desire to turn Gujarat into "the auto hub" of India with consistent, pro-business policies.

"As a state, we are competing with China in the manufacturing sector," he said. "There is no red tape-ism, only the red carpet."

GM India's vice president for corporate affairs, P. Balendran, speaks glowingly of governance in Gujarat and says Modi gives foreign investors his personal attention. Riots occur all over India, Balendran said. "It is only a temporary aberration, and this being a temporary aberration, it does not impact any of the investors."

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