Dell’s Quest for Growth: to Offset Domestic Slowdown Company Chases Latin America

Friday, June 27, 2008

The shortest distance between a U.S. shopper and the product he or she craves: credit, preferably of the card variety.

For many Latin American consumers hoping to get their hands on a personal computer, the barrier is the same – or more precisely, it’s the lack of credit.

“Really, nobody but a couple companies will finance consumers,” said Peter Weigandt, head of Dell Inc.’s business in Latin America.

Dell and other computer makers are developing novel ways to tap into the rapid growth in Latin America and other emerging markets. In Mexico, Dell and Telmex launched a program five years ago that allows consumers to buy a PC, then pay for it in installments on their monthly phone bills. Because Telmex controls nearly all the phone lines in Mexico, Weigandt says, the program has had a very low default rate.

Those and similar programs are key for Dell, Hewlett-Packard Co. and other major computer makers as they look to offset slowing growth in mature markets with the boom in several developing countries.

Expanding business outside the U.S. is an especially pressing issue for Dell, which gets more of its revenue from well-established markets than its rivals. H-P generated 70 percent of its revenue outside the U.S. in its most recent quarter. Dell’s international revenue just nipped 50 percent, marking the first time Dell generated more revenue outside the U.S. than in it.

With the weak dollar and the struggling economy hurting sales in the U.S., getting more revenue out of countries such as Brazil, India, China and Russia has taken on more urgency. Developing a broader international reach will be increasingly vital for the company to remain one of the world’s largest computer makers, analysts say.

“Dell will grow faster in these markets; they’ve shown ability to do that,” said Matt Eastwood, a PC analyst at IDC. “They’re working hard to backfill in countries like Brazil, India and Russia, but the question is, will it be fast enough to offset some of the potential challenges in North America?”

Time will tell, but the challenge isn’t lost on chief executive Michael Dell, who named developing markets as one of five priorities in his effort to get his company back on pace and keep it there. That push has shown some clear signs of progress: The company’s revenue in Brazil, India, China and Russia rose 58 percent in its fiscal first quarter, accounting for about 9 percent of Dell’s $16.1 billion in revenue.

As computer makers find an eager new audience for their products, however, those customers tend to have less buying power and limited access to credit, if any at all. Add to that the wide range of government-imposed tariffs and taxes, executives say, and building any sort of profitable business requires a disproportionate amount of attention.

Perhaps no one at Dell has as clear a view of that as Paul Bell, president of the company’s commercial business in the Americas. As such, he oversees Dell’s most developed market and some of its youngest and fastest-growing emerging markets in Latin America.

Gartner Inc. estimates that technology spending in Latin America will increase to $279 billion in 2011, nearly one-third higher than the $210 billion spent there last year. The region’s projected growth rate is second only to Asia, Gartner said.

“You’ve always got to work hard to keep developing and progressing and improving the business,” Bell said. “But then the less mature businesses really need a disproportionate amount of help now, given that that’s where the disproportionate rate of growth is going.”

Bell found a similar situation in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, regions he oversaw before taking over the Americas business last year. Dell had a long-standing business in the developed markets of Western Europe, where it had established systems and experienced teams. But it also was pushing to expand further into the former Soviet bloc countries and Russia.

After seven years abroad, Bell said he was struck more by similarities than differences between developing and mature markets.

“Now, that’s not to say there aren’t some significant differences,” he said. “But I would notice that if I’d go into South Africa or Poland … the problems they’re trying to solve are the same” as in other markets.

But for every commonality, there’s a distinct set of challenges in different markets and different countries within them. Dell has created an emerging-markets group to concentrate on some of the unique situations it faces in countries where its business isn’t as well-established, and that unit “probably works more closely with our Latin American team than the North American team does on some things,” Bell said.

The group is led by Steve Felice, who has plenty of interaction with emerging markets as the president of Dell’s Asia-Pacific and Japan region. He agrees that emerging markets, such as China, require more effort and attention than established ones, such as Japan, but the soaring growth rates and potential for those markets justify the difficulty.

Despite the common features Felice and Bell note – especially regarding the technologies commercial customers want – dealing with the individual sets of rules and circumstances from country to country requires a tailored approach.

Brazil and India have a greater concentration of large businesses in fewer cities, Felice said, making it easier to target and sell to the commercial customers Dell prizes. Meanwhile, the factors that drive sales and how Dell distributes its products in Brazil tend to be much like Russia, Bell said.

All three countries have relatively high tariffs that make it difficult for outside companies to compete with local vendors. The Brazilian company Positivo has such a large share of its home market that it ranks as the third-largest computer maker throughout all of Latin America, according to IDC.

The market in Argentina behaves more like those in Indonesia, the Philippines or Thailand, Felice said, even though Argentina is a pretty large market for Dell.

“It’s not what part of the world it is” that governs how Dell approaches the market, Felice said, “but what stage of maturity the country is in.”

The consumer business can be even more convoluted. Although commercial customers tend to be more consistent in their buying patterns, a much broader host of factors influence what sort of computer a home user will buy.

For example, the level of education in Chile could help explain the quick uptake of notebook computers there, said Rafael Garcia, a Latin America PC-market analyst at IDC. The notebook penetration in neighboring Argentina is 20 percent, Garcia said, and it’s about 25 percent in Mexico.

But the common factor for any PC sale is price, he said, and companies have to offer a low-end computer because price matters.

Sergio Reyes, the general manager for Maxsol, a Mexico City computer distributor, said prices have fallen enough in recent years to make computers accessible to Mexico’s middle class. The arrival of less expensive computers and a boom in machines built at specialized Mexico City electronics markets has pushed the price declines, he said.

The largest electronics market, the Plaza de la Tecnolog?a in downtown Mexico City, is a bonanza of motherboards, video chips and pirated software. In the past, Reyes said, computer buyers could piece together a sophisticated computer there, often for half of what brand-name PCs sold for. But now many brand-name computers are selling for just a fraction more than self-built machines, Reyes said, spurring more Mexicans to buy from established stores.

“The price has gone down, and that means people are buying more,” Reyes said. “Computers aren’t a luxury for the people of Mexico any more – they are a necessity.”

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Source: Statesman (link opens in a new window)