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Economics & Finance

Getting back to basics

Cindy Babski |

Whether in innovation and governance, private equity, or entrepreneurship, the messages in today’s increasingly global business environment are loud and clear: think differently, don’t underestimate emerging markets, and get back to basics. These were some of the main themes voiced at INSEAD’s Leadership Summit Europe 2010 held recently in Fontainebleau.

As economic and social systems become more complex, business leaders say the first order of business is to get back to basics.

In a session summarising the takeaways from panels held earlier in the day, Claudia Zeisberger, Affiliate Professor of Decision Sciences and Academic Co-Director of the Global Private Equity Initiative at INSEAD, cited one panellist as saying: “Simple is the new sexy.”

What that means, referring specifically to private equity, is a return to growth economics: create real value in companies, which is where private equity was created to be in the first place.

And where will that growth come from? Zeisberger puts emerging markets at the top of the list, adding that one panellist had pointed out that adjusting expectations of return on investment is not on the table.

In other sectors, such as entrepreneurship, all roads also seemed to lead to emerging markets. But Philip Anderson, INSEAD Alumni Fund Chaired Professor of Entrepreneurship and Academic Director of INSEAD’s Middle East campus in Abu Dhabi, says that entrepreneurs have to look at China and India a different way. “It used to be the thought was: ‘what are you going to do about customers in China and in India?’ Now, increasingly you have to think that that’s where a lot of the capital may be coming from.”

In the innovation and governance sector, Ludo Van der Heyden, the Solvay Chaired Professor of Technological Innovation at INSEAD, agrees that emerging markets are becoming ever more important in today’s global economy. He warns that Western businesses must change their mindset, or be left behind. The first thing to do is stop thinking of these markets as emerging. After 40 years, he says, they are now fully emerged. Van der Heyden also cautions that these economies are now better equipped to take care of themselves, and as the centre of gravity moves towards Asia there could be what he calls a ‘hollowing out’ of Europe and the US. Van der Heyden draws the sobering conclusion: “One should also perhaps think about the advanced economies as gradually being submerged.”

Anderson, however, had a less dire take on Europe’s global future, arguing that, “Europe is an idea, it’s not just a place.” He adds: “We would not be as trusted as we are in the Middle East if we did not have a European heritage. What they like about us is they think that we, from the start, will listen to them and take their culture seriously.”

And what about greed? It’s certainly not a popular word in today’s business lexicon, but as Claudia Zeisberger points out, greed cannot exist without leverage, and there’s certainly plenty of that to go around (for example, the high-yield junk bond market is considered to be 'red hot' again.) The conclusion is obvious: greed is still here, although we are unlikely to see the mega deals of earlier times, according to Zeisberger.

Van der Heyden concurs that greed is still here, but that, perhaps, it has taken on a different hue in today’s socio-economic environment. Greed with a conscious, as he puts it: “Greed for social impact. That should really drive business,” and governance should take the lead. “I would say governance as a force for restoring the greed, and greed for performance, and greed for impact, instead of greed for me.”

Van der Heyden is optimistic about an effective role for greed, but insists that tomorrow’s businessperson must define his or her business values and ethics before starting a career. “You have to determine your values before you leave INSEAD, because once you’re in business, you know, you don’t have time, and temptation is actually too big,” he states.

During the earlier sessions on governance, entrepreneurship and private equity at the Summit, many participants expressed anxiety over the assertiveness of government. While many people agreed that government should play a significant role during an economic crisis, that role should be limited. Zeisberger says the biggest fear is that when things go wrong, government looks to business to find a scapegoat. Van der Heyden shares those sentiments, adding: “The best way to create the partnership is not to blame us when you’re not 100 per cent (effective) either.”

What does the future hold?

After the summary session, INSEAD Dean, Frank Brown, brought together a group of alumni and a current student to forecast the business school’s future. He asked of them the question, “Within the next 10-50 years, where will we have this meeting, and what will be the theme?”

The answers were literally all over the map, ranging from Europe -- to show it’s still relevant -- to Africa, to show solidarity with a region of the world with few viable business solutions outside of entrepreneurship.

Other alumni panel members were more forward-looking. Adam Goldstein (MBA ’88J), President and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, wants the Summit to be in Miami on what would then be INSEAD’s 10-year-old, US-based campus. Jean-Claude Larreche, the Alfred H Heineken Chaired Professor of Marketing at INSEAD, has an even bigger dream: to host the INSEAD Summit on a ship off of a unified Korea, a conference which would be financed by big Korean companies, such as Samsung and Hyundai.

INSEAD MBA student, Ali Shivji (‘10J), envisions the Leadership Summit in a virtual world, where participants are represented by avatars. Kevin Ryan (MBA ‘90D), the Chairman and founder of Gilt Groupe, sees Singapore as the venue for the conference.

Themes for the future Summit include the interplay between business and government, technology, and entrepreneurship.

Dean Brown also asked the participants what topic or activity they’d like INSEAD to pursue over the next 10 years. The variety of answers reflected hopes, as well as concerns. Technology was again mentioned along with life-long learning, growth and engagement. Julie Meyer (MBA ‘97D) , CEO of Ariadne Capital, said that “we need to have INSEAD be part of de-toxifying the brand of capitalism,” focusing, instead, on capitalism as a positive tool in society.

Larreche also addressed attacks on capitalism, stressing that maximising value in a company is not the problem. The problem lies with the way the value is maximised. “The attack is on the bad application of capitalism,” he says.

Shivji underscores the same concern about the bad application of capitalism with an anecdote from a class taken earlier in the week. He said his professor laid out the options: “There are two ways to make money: one is to make the world a better place and take a small chunk of it. Or two is to screw people,” he said. It’s a personal choice. “At the end of the day, you can still make money and be ethical and responsible, but that’s a decision you have to make,” he added.
Goldstein of Royal Caribbean International doesn’t see the future of capitalism as cynically as some of the other panel members. He predicts an inevitably positive role in global business, saying that business would have no choice. “A corporation -- particularly a larger and public corporation -- will simply have to make a positive social impact to be allowed to maximise its shareholder value,” he said, adding: “I don’t believe that the customer base or the governments where the corporation is active ... will support a corporation that is obviously, and entirely, selfish in pursuing its naked interest.”