Mahindra's culture clash

Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., the Mumbai conglomerate that wants to sell the first Indian-made pickup truck in America later this year, has something to learn yet about American business.

Mahindra execs continue assuring their 300-plus dealers that their pickups are coming, despite three launch delays over the past year or so. They are moving slowly and cautiously. The dealers seem resigned to wait, even though some of them have their showrooms up and empty. The independent distributor, John Perez, who conceived the whole import plan three years ago, also seems resigned to wait, even though the meter is also running on his import company.

Perez concedes that it's just a difference in cultures. In India, he says, things often take longer and businesses aren't always open and transparent with outsiders about how the plan is coming along. So everyone waits, and no one knows precisely where it all stands.

The U.S. auto industry dealt with a similar culture clash in the past. Twenty years ago, American supplier executives were accustomed to winning parts contracts on the golf course. Handshakes and verbal promises carried a lot of weight.

The arrival here of the Japanese automakers disrupted that. U.S. sales executives found their contract proposals being endlessly mulled over and analyzed by committees back in Japan. The Americans tapped their feet and fumed. They accused their potential customers of giving them the run-around. They complained to their trade organizations. The trade groups complained to Congress. Congress investigated. There were trade threats. Life was tense for a while.

The U.S. market may be the land of opportunity for Mahindra and other automotive newcomers. But fair warning: It's also the land of impatience.