Opinion: The Indians are coming ... wait, they're already here

You've probably been hearing a lot lately about the Indian firm Tata, that country's largest multinational company and mega-brand.

No doubt some of you first took serious note of the enterprise after the 2007 introduction of its "people's car," the Nano, which triggered a predictable media spasm thanks to its US$2,500 retail price.

But the firm's international roots are long and deep, as Mukesh Gupta explained to me last week.

Tata was in North America "before India was India," the Ottawa-based director of strategic relations for Tata Consultancy Services said. That's over 60 years now, and counting. "We've had a very global perspective since the beginning.

"But the entire globe has been opening up for investment lately, and given the maturity that Tata has developed by being cost-efficient, that definitely has helped provide wider visibility."

Tata is a ridiculously huge business group. A web-based list of its subsidiary companies lists 21 firms – and that's just those starting with letters A to M. The rest of its roster comprises about 70 more firms, in a buffet of sectors from automotive to paint pigments to satellite TV to clean technology.

It's not even so much a company as it is a living, breathing entity, and it's snapping up western assets faster than federal governments can shell out stimulus cash. In 2000 Tata's tea division bought Tetley, causing a minor uproar in the U.K. Similarly, in 2006 Tata Steel announced an $8-billion acquisition of Anglo-Dutch company Corus Group PLC, then one of the world's largest steelmaking firms.

In 2008 it took advantage of a listing Ford Motor Co., scooping up its Jaguar and Land Rover divisions for US$2.3 billion.

Yes, Tata has been on the move when it comes to the penetration of nearly every market on earth.

Which is why it was so interesting that the oversized company hosted the fifth-annual "Tata Cup" business competition at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management last week. Telfer MBAs won last year's event, thus retaining the right to host this year's competition.

Student teams from York, Concordia, Queen's, the U of O and the University of Alberta were tasked with solving an identical business problem within a set time frame, with Concordia emerging victorious.

Just think about the optics of that for a moment. Here we have a well-regarded North American graduate business school, on one hand, learning best practices and business acumen from an Indian company on the other.

Twenty years ago – heck, even probably a decade ago – that concept would no doubt have caused some serious eyebrows to fly upward.

But that was then, and this is now. And competitions such as the Tata Cup are indicative of the growing influence eastern-based businesses and investment bodies – such as sovereign wealth funds in the United Arab Emirates, China, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Libya – are having on western economies.

The recent global economic downturn has only accentuated this transfer of wealth and power from west to east.

And while Mr. Gupta didn't comment directly on that notion, he did acknowledge that the talent gap on either side of the world is narrowing fast. "As we turn into a more globalized world, that difference continues to narrow," he said.

"And the few things that we (in India) do, I believe we do them very well."