Most big corporations follow global development trends. Where there is economic growth, there is opportunity, and the companies that can predict where growth will take place are better positioned to take advantage of it. That is the reactive approach to economic development.
In the last few years, a more powerful dynamic has gained traction. CEOs are proactively engaging with emerging market government to spur economic development and create opportunities for their companies. In the fast growth markets of Asia, Africa and Latin America, national governments are responding to a more empowered citizenship, and looking for corporate partners to achieve their development goals. Companies that fill that need effectively are doing more than reacting to development. They are playing development to win.
General Electric is a good example. Four years ago, GE initiated a strategy to compete more effectively in Africa, one of the fastest growing regions in the world in terms of GDP. GE did more than take advantage of growth as it came. The company’s leadership moved proactively to accelerate it and shape it. “If we see a country where reward outweighs the risk, we want to invest,” CEO Jeff Immelt says in Success in Africa. GE spent months understanding the development priorities of countries where it planned to invest. Partnering with those governments, the company sought out discussions at the ministerial and head-of-state level to identify and work on the country’s most significant infrastructure challenges. The results are encapsulated in a “Country-Company MOU,” which describe key challenges the country faces and the role GE will play in helping meet them. For example, the two parties identified the challenge of national electrification and committed to work together to bring $10 billion of investment and 10,000 megawatts of new power online, along with local manufacturing and training. Emerging market infrastructure is a segment many Western companies have ceded to China, but GE is winning contracts because it is playing development to win.
IBM is doing something similar in data analytics. CEO Ginni Rometty took the top job in 2012, and identified Africa as a locus of technological growth early in her tenure. IBM identified a set of “Grand Challenges” facing the continent that could be addressed through superior data analytics, including water and sanitation, energy management, financial services, transportation, public safety, healthcare, and agriculture. Last month, IBM launched a dialogue with the government of Nigeria. It was co-hosted by the Minister of Technology and included ministers from the cabinet charged with meeting the Grand Challenges IBM identified. Rometty, on her second trip to the region in three months, led the session for the company. IBM is speeding the region’s growth, and helping shape its direction. That is playing development to win.
I recently spent some time with Bob Diamond, the former CEO of Barclays. Now head of Atlas Mara, he’s positioning the investment company to play development to win. Earlier this year, they raised $325 million in the public markets and this month acquired BancABC, a bank with operations in Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. “Governments want banks who will lend to businesses and homeowners,” Bob explains, “That’s what we intend to do. The private sector is growing in Africa and we plan to enable that in multiple countries.”
Playing development to win does have costs. It requires an up-front investment of money and time to understand the growth challenges within each host country or region and to establish the government and civil society relationships needed to act on those challenges. It also demands senior management and board involvement. Companies playing development to win have CEOs traveling to the region 2-3 times per year, supported by engagement of the full management team. Furthermore, the returns on investment are long term. For a large company, it’s common to invest for a decade or more before shareholders see material earnings. The anticipated scale of new business has to be large enough to warrant that.
Playing development to win should not be mistaken for corporate social responsibility (CSR). Sustainability and core values support any great company, but expanding long-term earnings by meeting big development challenges takes more. At a company that’s playing development to win, business units are leading the effort, enabled by sales, marketing, finance, supply chain management, CSR, and social investment.
Some might see playing development to win as cynical or undermining the cause of inclusive growth. It’s neither. Cynicism would be to bet against development. The companies playing development to win need the institutions and policies with which they are engaging to yield tangible results. If the government of Nigeria fails to deliver widespread, low-cost power, the fallout for GE will be significant.
Playing development to win will be the hallmark of great companies operating in emerging markets. Over the next decade, they will be the companies addressing the most pressing challenges in countries where the potential for growth is ripe. As a result, they will shape the landscape in which they compete, attract and retain superior talent, build stronger brands and enjoy stronger relationships with customers in the fastest growing global markets.