Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairman and managing director, Biocon Limited, brought in her hands-on experience, along with Sanjay Nayar, chief executive officer-India, Citigroup Inc, and Pulak Prasad, managing director, Warburg Pincus India.
The panel was rounded off by Tarun Das, chief mentor, Confederation of Indian Industry, whom moderator, John Bussey, editor, The Wall Street Journal Asia, described as having made business his 'life work'.
Nayar sent the tone of the discussion by opening with talking about how the Indian entrepreneur has "never had it so good", with tariff and non-tariff barriers coming down and reasonable cost of capital. "His confidence is high and even small and medium companies are coming into their own," he said.
While agreeing with this, Mazumdar-Shaw pointed out that what business in India is hampered by slow regulatory procedures and no timely execution of reforms. She spoke specifically of patents, which are critical in a field like pharma-biotech, where India could do very well in research and development but gets hampered if those procedures are not patented fast enough.
"This becomes the greatest challenge -- how do we act on our advantages, if we are slowed down by regulation," she said.
Das was of the opinion that Indian businesses are just beginning to enjoy globalisation and now have to get used to adapting different strategies for different markets. He pointed out the great transformation from protectionism -- "having the government tell you what to manufacture, and how many pieces to manufacture" -- to becoming an open, increasingly global economy.
Addressing the issue of the government's role, he cautioned against having a policy framework of any sort. "The last thing we need is more commas, semi-colons and 'provided this' and 'provided that'," he said.
"Exports are neither necessary nor sufficient to be a global business," said Prasad, who stressed more on the capacity of a firm to be able to compete "in any foreign market like a local player." Indian firms, he said, should guard against treating labour cost advantage as their primary competitive advantage. "Soon, labour costs are going to escalate," he warned.
The creativity and inherent competitiveness of the Indian entrepreneur was one of the focal points. "You let them loose in any market and they can compete," said Das. The panel discussed the necessity for Indian firms going global to be able to use local staff in other countries and, possibly, expat staff in domestic operations.
"We have to be able to learn to use people better," felt Mazumdar-Shaw.
She also spoke about the lack of physical infrastructure -- "we have to address this issue very soon" -- and slow legal processes. Nayar added to this by saying that many global firms would choose not to come to India simply because "they cannot get the goods to the port and on the ship on time." Bussey joked about how he was stuck in traffic on arriving in Mumbai and wondered if the conference should be called 'Parking Global Business'.
Consequently, there was a discussion on whether India has missed the opportunity to be a manufacturing hub because of these infrastructural problems. Das thought not, but Nayar and Prasad cited examples of how some global businesses chose to go elsewhere, simply because infrastructure in India was not good enough.
Mazumdar-Shaw pointed out that in this context, specialised and skilled labour was India's greatest strength. "Opening more centres of the Indian Institute of Science, Indian Institute of Management and Indian Institute of Technology is one great step towards harnessing this," she said.
The verdict seemed to be that Indian businesses have what it takes to go global. All they need to do is get the government off their backs, fix the chinks and they can figure out the rest along the way.
As Das, being ever optimistic, put it, "There are many hassles but business with India is always rewarding."