Thursday, August 14, 2008

Within the gates of Mahindra World City

In the eyes of many, including the World Trade Organization, India is considered a “developing country.” Its democratic form of government is little over 60 years old and construction is a constant wherever you look nationwide, including in Delhi, where preparations are underway for the Commonwealth Games (think an Olympic Games for former British colonies) in 2010.

But the pace of this change can be amazing, as evidenced during our visit Thursday (Aug. 7) to Mahindra World City, a “special economic zone (SEZ)” being developed on 1,500 acres about 30 miles away from Chennai.

Located on the Coromandel Coast known for its many ports and harbors, this new city is rising from the marshland and already is home to more than 30 major companies, including Braun, BMW, Kryolan Cosmetics and the TVS Group of companies. It is India's first operational SEZ that has been approved for three different economic sectors -- services and manufacturing, apparel and fashion accessories and the automotive industry.

Like the SEZ that students visited near Delhi, Mahindra City strives to combine facilities for business with those for leisure, retail and even residential housing. The difference is that it has the backing of the Mahindra Group, a $4.5 billion conglomerate with business in autos, farm equipment, telecommunications, software, financial services and other sectors.

The landscaping is lush, yet orderly. The streets are clean and obviously contain the necessary drainage to withstand the region’s heavy monsoon rains. Unlike other growth areas I’ve seen over the last three years, there are no shanties or tents – obviously other arrangements have been made for construction workers.

Our bus pulled up to Infosys Technologies, a global IT and business services company with more than 40 offices and development centers worldwide. Take one look at its front building and it’s hard to believe that this campus is less than three years old. When it was announced in June 2006, the company announced that about 25,000 people will eventually be employed here.

Within its gates, another city is going up on nearly 130 acres. Already, there are 6,100 employees here.

In addition to office buildings, there will be the 1,000-bed hotel for corporate guests and employees, a small strip retail plaza, bowling alley, billiards hall, a cricket field and other exercise facilities. We had lunch in an enormous dining hall, whose food court contained some familiar brand names, including Domino’s Pizza (which is better here than at home), as well as a plethora of Indian food offerings. This infrastructure is necessary, given the lack of similar offerings outside the Mahindra City’s gates.

Wikipedia has an interactive map of the place online at

Last year, students from the Kelley School visited another Infosys’ facility in the Chennai area. It, too, was impressive with its sprawling campus and similar offerings, but this is a development on hyper-speed.

Back at IU Bloomington, the university administration has undertaken an ambitious goal of developing new buildings for research, the sciences, the arts, IT and residences for students. Progress for this growth at home seems slow by comparison to what we are seeing here.

One student agreed, in response to a question from one of our hosts here, “I think the campus looks a lot like a beautiful college campus from America. Probably, this would be the prettiest school and there’s a lot of schools in America.”

In many ways, Infosys and Mahindra City are analogous. Infosys was started in 1981 by seven people with just $250 (U.S.) Today, it is a global leader with revenues of more than $4 billion.

Some folks back here in Bloomington might even specially appreciate the vision which led to all this. Many of us familiar with the story of industrialist Bill Cook, who started his multi-million dollar medical products company in his east side apartment. The Cook family of companies now includes those in commercial services and real estate. Yet, it’s said that Mr. Cook remains accessible to the people who work for him. A new IU Press book this fall will reveal much about the man.

Infosys’ chief founder, N. R. Narayana Murthy, served as CEO for 21 years before stepping down in 2002. Since then, he has served as the company’s non-executive chairman and chief mentor.

Despite his place on Forbes’ list of the world’s wealthiest people, I am told that he continues to live in the same simple home he’s lived in for years and that you’ll often see him waiting in line along with everyone else in the company cafeteria.

We didn’t see him today during our lunch. But we did think this item written on a cubicle white board was most interesting: “Work is fine if it doesn’t take 2 much of your time.” A company executive explained that the company sees that it’s important to balance work with people’s personal lives.

Mahindra has successfully developed India's first World City at Chennai. After this milestone, it has two more such projects coming -- at Jaipur and Pune.

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