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Mon, Feb 06, 2006 - Page 12 News List

Indian businesspeople fast becoming takeover tycoons

AFP , NEW DELHI

After decades of being stifled by strict foreign exchange controls, corporate India has gone on a shopping spree -- snapping up companies everywhere from Britain to Korea.

Still, the country has no home-based takeover tycoons to rival Kolkata-born "king of steel" Lakshmi Mittal, whose Rotterdam-headquartered company Mittal Steel has mounted a US$22.7 billion bid for rival Arcelor.

But with India's economy growing at a cracking eight percent, the nation's cash-flush firms are becoming global players, purchasing companies in all sectors from software to pharmaceuticals, information technology and energy.

While many of the acquisitions are small, that's seen as changing in coming years as Indian companies head increasingly abroad.

"We're really at an exciting time for Indian business," said Alan Rosling, executive director of Tata Sons, holding firm of tea-to-telecoms Tata group, India's second largest conglomerate.

"It's not just the Indian government liberalizing [the economy] -- it's the world globalizing," he said.

Firms in Indian hands include well-known British tea brands Tetley Tea and Typhoo Tea, the trucking unit of South Korea's Daewoo Group and Bermuda-based bandwidth provider Flag Telecom whose undersea cables link the world.

Last year, the value of India's 118 purchases of foreign firms totaled US$2.91 billion, said Marti Subrahmanyam, finance professor at Stern School of Business at New York University. That's around seven times the tally in 2001.

While the amount is puny by world standards, analysts say India's takeover hunger will rise as firms aim to attain critical mass to compete globally and to leverage their low-cost production base.

"There's a need for corporates in the developing world to restructure to deal with the compulsions of globalization," Mustafa Hamdy, Vienna University of Technology management professor, told a recent Kolkata business forum.

India's biggest deals last year included the US$313 million purchase by Matrix Laboratories of Belgium's DocPharma, TV maker Videocon's acquisition of the color picture-tube business of France's Thomson for US$292 million and Tata Chemical's US$112-million takeover of British soda ash manufacturer Brunner Mond. Its products are used to make glass and detergents.

India's burgeoning business process outsourcing (BPO) sector, in particular, is extremely keen on foreign purchases, eager to acquire niche skills swiftly in such areas as retail, insurance or health care.

"We need acquisitions to acquire relevant scale, capability and to plug gaps in service operatings," said Alok Mitra, chief financial officer of Mphasis BFL, one of the busiest BPO overseas buyers.

This foreign expansion flurry was impossible until recently. Indian firms were slow to hit the global acquisition trail because of tight government controls on exporting rupees as foreign reserves were too low.

In 1991 reserves sank to less than US$1 billion, creating a financial crisis that forced India to open its economy to foreigners. Now, thanks to a rush of foreign investment, coffers are brimming at US$140 billion and exchange controls have eased.

The nation's deal-making, however, is still dwarfed by its giant Chinese neighbors who pay in the billions of dollars for acquisitions rather than in the millions like India. The average Indian purchase is US$30 million which means they do not often hit international headlines.

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