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June 26, 1999


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Marketing Guru Relishes Unusual Challenges

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Aparna Narayanan in New York

Jagdish Sheth When a graduate student on his way to the University of Pittsburgh found his baggage was stolen en route to America, he went to a department store to buy new shirts and, in true Indian style, tried to bargain with the salesman.

"Five dollars? What about $ 2.50?" Jagdish Sheth remembers asking naively nearly four decades ago.

But cultural adaptation came swiftly to Dr Sheth, who was born in Burma to Gujarati parents and received a bachelor's degree in commerce from the University of Madras in 1960. And his interest in marketing -- whether a shirt or car -- led him into an MBA from Pittsburgh in 1962,and a doctorate in 1966.

While pursuing a Ph D, Dr Sheth was on the faculty of Columbia University, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr Sheth has contributed influential books and key articles in the areas of consumer behaviour, customer satisfaction, global competition, strategic thinking and relationship marketing. He has been a consultant to government leaders in our region and to major marketing corporations around the world.

Currently a Kellstadlt professor of marketing at Emory University's Goizueta business school, he is considered by many experts to be one of the most articulate and successful marketing professors and researchers in America.

His 1969 book The Theory of Buyer Behavior with John A Howard is considered a classic in the field. The same year, he started teaching at the University of Illinois. In 1984, he moved to the University of Southern California, where he started the Center for Telecommunications Management.

"Jag Sheth is a world recognized scholar with a wonderful ability to relate to students and business executives," says Tom Robertson, dean of the Goizueta business school.

What endears Dr Sheth to students and his listeners is his earthy approach to weighty subjects.

At a recent TIE -- The Indus Enterprise -- conference in Silicon Valley, while speaker after speaker spoke about computers and information technology, Dr Sheth chose to break the mold and speak on-an innovative Japanese toilet.

"You sit on it and it does everything for you," Dr Sheth told his audience, urging them to invest in and market unconventional products.

Given a rapidly aging population in Japan and America, he said home appliances for the elderly, such as sophisticated toilets that can even check blood sugar, hold hopes for big profits.

A man of eclectic interests, he relishes analyzing off-beat subjects such as new-fangled toilets, and what they reveal about the direction of industrial growth in the new millennium.

Some of his interests include the changing demographics of advanced countries, the geopolitical realignment of nations, and emergent technologies -- and their impact on the world of business. Indeed, his breadth of knowledge in markets and financial trends has the American financial and mainstream media flocking to his door.

He says he enjoys financial forecasting, but more importantly, "when you look at trends, you look at policy issues for the government. It benefits industry and society."

In 1992, the American Marketing Association awarded Dr Sheth the PD Converse Award for his lifelong contribution to the discipline of marketing theory. It is among the many awards he, the author of over 200 scholarly papers, has received.

Much in demand, he takes a pride in his approach to teaching.

"I believe students learn not just from me, but also from each other," he says. "Our MBA candidates have a wealth of work experience and represent a great diversity of nations. I engage them in a dialogue among themselves, both in the classroom and in group projects."

His students go beyond the assigned textbooks and conduct their own electronic research that will supplement the text or create controversy. "As an educator, I provide my own insights using unique conceptual frameworks," he says, adding, "My goal -- the value I add -- is to articulate a viewpoint that students won't see elsewhere.

"For example, I propose that a geopolitical realignment of nations is taking place, and three major economic blocks are emerging. The economic rivalry will replace military rivalry, and weapons for economic warfare will be knowledge products and intellectual rights.

"Also, I have developed a theory about competition called 'The Rule of Three'. When students go in for job interviews, they are able to use these unique viewpoints and apply them to the company and the industry for which they are interviewing."

In The Rule of Three, written with Raj Sisodia, of George Mason University, Dr Sheth argued that in any mature market, three giant companies generally wind up with at least 60 per cent of the business.

The big three automobile companies cut costs a total $ 8.5 billion last year. Those sorts of savings are key to determining which companies will survive in the next millennium, say Sisodia and Sheth.

The writers find supporting examples for the Rule of Three in a variety of businesses: McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's in the hamburger business; Michelin, Goodyear and Bridgestone in tires; Kellogg, General Mills and Post in cereals.

Dr Sheth is often asked about his teaching experience at a comparatively less known business school.

"Goizueta is smaller and more intimate compared to large MBA programs. That brings a sense of collegiality," he says.

"Also, given the small size, we have significant presence of international students who have four to five years of work experience and unique educational backgrounds. They come with their own distinct 'stripes'. They also have worked in different contexts. A sales manager in India has very different experiences from a sales manager in the US, China, or Venezuela. Those contexts matter."

Additional inputs: A P Kamath

New Japanese toilet prime example of entrepreneurship: Professor Sheth

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