Butter chicken poses a risk for expansion at Birlas!

Risks for international expansion can come from the least-expected quarters and for industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla it once came in the form of 'butter chicken' being cooked in its office canteen.

The aluminium-to-telecom conglomerate Aditya Birla Group Chairman belongs to the Marwari community, where vegetarianism forms an important part of life and is a "core belief", so much so that no meat was ever cooked at the cafetarias in any of its offices and facilities and none of the company functions had wine or whiskey served ever.

This was till the time the group bought a business in Australia, where Foster's beer and barbecues form part of daily life of a vast majority of factory workers and others.

"Expanding internationally is hard, risky work. And as I was reminded the first time I saw butter chicken being served in a Birla canteen, the most difficult challenges turn out to be the ones you least expect," says 46-year-old Birla.

Birla, who runs a USD 40-billion multinational group operating in 36 countries with overseas operations contributing for over 50 per cent of revenues, further said that "if we wanted to make a mark on the world, we had to be prepared for the world to leave a mark on us."

These views have been expressed by Birla in a book titled 'Reimagining India: Unlocking The Potential of Asia's Next Superpower', wherein global consulting firm McKinsey has compiled essays by top leaders of the country.

Birla further said that there are opportunities out there for ambitious and well-run Indian companies as long as they remember that the world will change them as much as they hope to change the world.

In 2003, the Aditya Birla Group bought a small copper mine in Australia, worth only USD 12.5 million, but it presented a unique challenge to the group.

"Our newest employees were understandably worried about how life might change under Indian ownership. Would they have to give up their Foster's and barbecues at company events? Of course not, we assured them," Birla says.

As Indian companies are changing their age-old traditions, the reverse is also true for foreign companies who look to expand rapidly in India where a significant majority of people do not eat meat for religious beliefs.

US-based fast food giant McDonald's is famous globally for its beef-based Big Mac burgers, but it had to localise its menu for India. Several other western retailers have also been forced to Indianise their offerings for better sales.

However, sometimes it gets hard to separate business decisions from one's dietary and lifestyle choices. Last year, Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries group had to drop its plans to run a non-vegetarian food retail business.

Ambani himself follows a strict vegetarian diet and many of his company shareholders, a bulk of whom are from Gujarati or Jain communities, see 'non-vegetarian' business as hurting their religious sentiments.

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