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Published: February 26, 2008

 
 

Twenty Hubs and No HQ

Currently, most companies attempt to “go global” in one of two ways: centralization or decentralization. Those that decentralize configure themselves with a single headquarters, four or five regional offices (perhaps one each for North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East and Africa), and separate managers for each country. They let the country managers make most decisions, becoming the locus for all marketing and government relations and for some of the manufacturing in that nation. Often, the country managers tailor products and services to meet their population’s needs. This structure tends to produce huge bureaucracies and unnecessarily complex portfolios. One consumer products firm has introduced more than 50 variants of tomato soup just within Europe. Even as these companies overextend themselves in some markets, they restrict themselves in others, marketing only to some customer segments (often just the wealthiest) and writing off the lowest 50 percent of income earners.

Other MNCs centralize. They seek a unified approach to all markets around the world. But centralization is equally problematic. For example, there are more than 50 countries in Africa alone. If a large, remote corporation tries to manage all these countries with one approach from headquarters, rather than responding to the specific needs of local markets, the lost opportunities could be immense.

The gateway–hub structure represents a third alternative: a hybrid that reduces the tension between global integration and local responsiveness. Corporate leaders who are based in business unit–style organizations in selected gateway countries have a natural base from which to extend their footprint into nearby markets.

It is relatively clear which countries are the most promising gateways. The International Monetary Fund classifies 31 countries as developed (or industrialized) nations, but just 10 of these countries account for 90 percent of the economic activity and 70 percent of the population of the industrialized world. These countries are the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands. With those 10 countries serving as gateways, it is possible to provide products and services to customers in all the other countries of the industrialized world.

Similarly, in the developing world, 10 countries — China, India, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, South Korea, Indonesia, Turkey, South Africa, and Thailand — represent 3.1 billion people (70 percent of the population and 80 percent of the economic strength of the developing world). These 10 countries have several qualities that make them valuable as gateways to the regions around them. They have a large current market for goods and services, and a much larger potential market. They are also well equipped as producers of goods, with quality and innovation that can compete with, or surpass, those of Western nations. They have workers available, both at low cost and with a high-level skill base. They can provide global firms with a reasonably well-developed logistical and educational infrastructure: roads, ports, power, and schools. They also have an emerging institutional infrastructure (laws and regulations), and a societal willingness to be part of international regulation and trade. Many of these countries are equipped to serve as a base for R&D, manufacturing, and back-office activities. Finally, each gateway country is naturally aligned to its surrounding nations.

Together, the 20 gateway countries — 10 from the industrialized world and 10 from emerging markets — account for about 80 percent of the world’s economic activity, and 70 percent of its 6.6 billion inhabitants. An MNC could most effectively expand its operations around the world by making it a priority to set up hubs in these gateway nations. The hubs would have authority over most of the managerial elements of business: supply chain management, product development practices, product launches, marketing, branding, acquisitions, and recruitment of talent. The leaders of the hubs would then report directly to the office of the CEO, meeting regularly as part of the most senior executive team.

 
 
 
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