Charles Wahab




United Kingdom


Investment banking


Jan 2019 - Sept 2020

By Charles Wahab

EMBA Chronicles: India and the Global Rules of the Game

I am sitting at my desk at home trying to get some work done. It’s been a roller coaster ride since my first (and last) blog post on the Saïd EMBA website. It’s been somewhat of a tradition through my academic career that I would contribute to the university paper, blog or other forms of publications (I even got close to publish in a “real” academic journal once).

Oxford is the third university I have had the privilege to study at, yet sadly my contribution to the word count has been limited to EMBA assignments which only ever get seen by two people and they don’t even know it’s me. Although I had to churn out the words in the thousands for those assignments, most of it is gibberish, or at least I think it is. No distinctions (apart from one, which was mostly mathematics) and constitutes my opinion on how to apply Porter’s five forces to turn around the corporate culture at large banks. Better men than myself have tried (I think Porter himself even) and failed. The only difference is that Porter probably got paid for his opinion, when I am actually the one paying to express an opinion. The irony.

I digress. This blog post started by the fact that I have not had the time to contribute to this blog and help my google search results when recruiters google me. Let’s just say with a 1-year old, a full-time job, an EMBA, and an Entrepreneurship project, I’ve been kind of busy. Well, with the unfortunate arrival of the Coronavirus I have more time on my hands (that are being washed regularly while singing happy birthday). I don’t have to commute to work, which gives me back 2 hours of my day. I loath taking the London Underground: rush hour in an enclosed tube full of people who haven’t had their morning coffee? I don’t have to do that for the foreseeable future, and given my broadband connection holds up at 9 pm after my toddler has gone to sleep and I had the chance to have what resembles dinner and get the daily dose of media dramatisation and information twisting that make panic buying worse, I can do a bit of writing.

Since our upcoming trip to Cape Town was cancelled, it’s probably worth writing a bit about our trip to India to what may turn out to be the only international trip we may take in this International EMBA program*.  The Global Rules of The Game module involved 65 of us packing it in and flying to India with Professor Akshay Mangla to learn about doing business in India, which turns out to be a little bit more complex than doing business in the West. 

We were all staying at the Taj Palace Hotel in Delhi. A hotel with as much grandeur that you can get in Delhi. It took me a while to understand the appeal of having see-through glass in the bathroom and into the bedroom, even if it was to see the TV. I later found out from a few of the lucky classmates who came back to their room after a long day of company visits to a warm bath with rose petals ready for them. The see-through glass makes sense now, except my room was a twin room. Inadequate innovation.

The first company that we had the privilege of meeting was MMTC-PAMP, a joint venture between PAMP, a Swiss bullion brand and the Indian government, to form the largest advanced precious metals processing firm, with Gold being its star product. India is an ancient culture, and gold has been used as means of holding value for thousands of years and remains ever-present in their culture as the safe-haven, with physical gold, in the form of jewellery, where there is still a level of mistrust in the banking system and digital money (something which this course made evident). To the dismay of my loyal readers (i.e. my parents, and the random googler considering an EMBA) I can’t reveal much about what we heard from their CEO, as we are bound by an NDA, however, I can say there was a competition (that our team won) and that they are experimenting with a digital transformation, which was subject to very interesting discussions with the class, on what the real purpose of this transformation was. As we later discovered, that a direct approach in India is often faced with hurdles, partly because of scale, but also because of a complex regulatory environment, and a majority non-urbanised society (the latter being the ones constituting the large portion of the gold jewellery market).

One thing I never expected was to learn how to make a real French croissant in New Delhi! Our next visit was to the French-Indian bakery “L’opéra”  production facility. L’opéra is a new breed of high-end luxury food businesses catering for the growing middle and upper-middle class in India, a market projected to be as large as 300 million by 2030.

Opened in 2007 l’opéra began in the famous Delhi Khan market, which is one of the busiest markets in the world. The Samandari family is an interesting entrepreneurial family who moved to India following their son, a former Mckinsey consultant who was in India on a project and spotted the gap in the market. He hails from a family of talented business people, as we would later discover meeting his father, the executive chairman and our host for the day. 

Mr. Samandari giving us an executive presentation

Mr. Samandari led us through a tour of their four-story factory, where we were briefed on each operation from logistics, ingredients and supplies, packaging and finally to where the master bakers were hard at work making various treats that could have been anywhere in a corner street of Paris. I could not help but observe some similarities with the famous patisserie Angelina in France to which my mother-in-law adores their speciality chocolate gateau (so do I). 

Charles at French-Indian bakery “L’opéra

Wouldn’t you be this happy in a fridge full of cake?

We learn many things at SBS about frameworks, business theories and strategy, however, successful businesses have some basic fundamentals that they all share, and attention to detail is one of them: from the best quality ovens and machinery, hand-picked experienced bakers, to meticulous packaging and beautiful decoration, what L’opera knows is that they are not just in the confectionery business but in a game of culture shift. 

After many cakes and tasty macaroons, coffee and a very friendly chat with the chairman’s wife, also a decorated businesswoman, evident by her pictures with former French Presidents on the office wall, we listened to Mr. Samandari tell us the story of how they began, and how the business has grown to where it is today. “The first challenge we faced was to educate Indian customers that we did not sell cakes in Kgs,” he explained. They seem to be doing well with the culture change, as they have 6 branches in Delhi and a pilot in Mumbai. Apparently what makes croissants so good, is that they are actually many layers of dough folded many times together that make it so fluffy. A croissant is in fact a fractal, it’s about 50 croissants rolled over each other, with layers of butter in between, that melt creating that crunchy taste. They say in Arabic “seek knowledge at the edges of the world.” Who knew I’d see how a French croissant is made in India.

Charles at French-Indian bakery “L’opéra

The famous croissants

Charles at French-Indian bakery “L’opéra

…and macaroons

Back at the hotel, the war of the roses had continued, with a couple more of our female classmates arriving to a bath of roses (and rumour has it on-demand foot massage). All I could look forward to was maybe my former colleague Arijit crashing in my room after he decided to drop in and join our class evening drinks at the hotel bar. Ari had left London to become an Entrepreneur back home in Delhi, and today leads WeddingWire India. Weddings in India is big business, with a market estimated at $50 billion a year. That evening was classmates Bryan and Sebastian’s birthdays, so the night didn’t end early, but rather with a slight shoulder pain for hoisting the birthday boys on our shoulders. Professor Mangla also joined in on the dancing and festivities, accompanied by his wife, both dressed in traditional local Indian attire.  

The last place we visited was Vedica scholars, a unique educational programme specifically designed for women in India to give them the equivalent of an MBA degree and put them in the driving seat of their careers and to enter into the workforce. We listened to the director of the 18-month program, their own Kathy Harvey, and had the opportunity to ask questions to her as well as the current students who were also in attendance. The interesting thing is that this program is not certified by the Indian Educational body as an MBA program, however, the recognition it has received, and the employers who have sought to hire it, students, from Google to Amazon, give it the only legitimacy that matters: employability. Things again, work differently in India. We mingled with the students over snacks and nibbles and added each other on LinkedIn, before we made our way back to the bus.

Hema presenting the Director with a token from the class

Hema presenting the Director with a token from the class

The company visits were pre and post discussed with the professor at the hotel, along with a number of esteemed guests who gave us their thoughts on business in India. The obvious thing that scale in a country the size of a continent and a population equal to two continents, is a key factor in doing business, however, over regulation, and the fact that more than 70% of India remains un-urbanised, logistics, supply chain and industrialisation are still major challenges in India, as the majority of the population still live in villages. The challenge is that often much of the products and services that constitute modern businesses that we learn how to run as MBA graduates, take for granted modern infrastructure as basics (electricity, roads, transport, etc) are a given when this still has a way to go in India. Nevertheless, they will become one of the largest economies in the world in my lifetime, and that’s where the opportunity for growth like nowhere else in the world is.

*Note from Saïd Business School: Due to the global pandemic, the trip to Cape Town is planned to be supplanted by an optional study trip later in the programme. Future international modules are currently scheduled as planned.
Our Classmate Anuj organised some amazing tours for the class.

Our Classmate Anuj organised some amazing tours for the class.

For more information about the Oxford Executive MBA click here to visit our website.

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