Slow Economy, Advancing at Warp Speed

When economic historians analyze the Great Recession that began in December 2007, they are likely to discover that the pace of globalization accelerated during the slowdown.

The recession has thrown virtually everything up for grabs: entire companies, divisions, specific assets, markets, market share. And companies from all corners of the globe fortunate enough to have the wherewithal have been expanding, launching new products, purchasing assets. Other companies have been making strategic changes to position themselves to increase their global footprints.

Rather than setting it back, the Great Recession is pushing globalization forward—encouraging and in some cases forcing companies to make decisions and take actions that may have been delayed in more normal times.

Consider Procter & Gamble (PG), whose household brands include Tide detergent, Gillette shavers, and Pampers diapers. This summer, Procter & Gamble installed a new CEO, Bob McDonald, who's looking to double the company's annual sales over the next 15 years. McDonald plans to accomplish this ambitious goal mostly by increasing sales in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Going After Emerging Markets "There's no question that the basic demographics are going to take the center of gravity of our business to Asia, to Africa—where the people are, where the babies are being born," the Associated Press quoted McDonald as saying.

Royal Philips Electronics, the Dutch company, has also made a "strategic decision to scale up" its presence in emerging markets, especially its health-care business in India. Ditto Panasonic, which plans to cut back on many product features, according to company officials, so it can significantly reduce prices for low-end consumers.

PepsiCo (PEP) has announced plans to invest $1 billion over four years in China to build six new plants (one of which already has opened), to expand its sales and distribution network, and to develop more products tailored to local tastes.

Microsoft (MSFT), meanwhile, is looking to increase its presence in India, launching several new products designed explicitly for that market, including "language interface packs in 12 Indian languages." LG Electronics has similarly moved more aggressively into India, telling reporters earlier this year that it expects to increase sales there some 15% this year—despite the economic slowdown.

M&A Strategies For other companies, expansion is coming through acquisition. Far Eastern International Bank, for example, recently agreed to purchase American International Group's (AIG) Taiwan credit-card business. China Petroleum & Chemical, or Sinopec, recently agreed to buy the Swiss energy exploration company Addax Petroleum, giving Sinopec access to oil reserves in Africa and the Kurdish region of Iraq. Tata Consultancy Services recently acquired Citibank's (C) business-processing outsourcing unit in India. And Finland's Ruukki Group has announced plans to purchase the Australian platinum mining company Sylvania Resources.

The list is extensive. Oracle (ORCL), for example, made no single major acquisitions during fiscal 2009, but the company has nevertheless spent a reported $1.2 billion "buying other companies and assets during the period," according to MarketWatch.

The advance of globalization is not being driven entirely by growth-hungry companies on the prowl for well-priced acquisitions. Some companies are taking an organic route, working with companies within the rapidly developing economies to build new businesses and capitalize on the growth opportunities. For example, Qualcomm and Brazilian company Zeebo (formerly Tectoy) are jointly producing a new low-cost video-game console designed for developing markets. The $240 Zeebo console is seen as "a great, affordable alternative" to higher-end models, says iSuppli gaming analyst Pamela Tufegdzic. Already on sale in Rio de Janeiro, the Zeebo is expected to hit stores in São Paulo and Mexico City later this year and will be available in other Latin American countries and India soon after.

While the economies of the world are mired in quicksand, globalization continues to advance. Some wait, but others are seeking advantage and acting.

So what should executives do?

1. Discard old notions. Be prepared to acknowledge that the world you once knew doesn't exist anymore. You now need to think globally, as never before. Whether you manufacture farm implements, cell phones, or pharmaceuticals, your products might be made anywhere or end up anywhere. Success in the future will belong to those who can see beyond borders. The world of globality is not a place for the culturally timid.

2. Develop many options rather than a single locked-in-concrete choice. This is not necessarily the time to box yourself in with irrevocable commitments you may not be able to keep, or decisions you may later regret. Companies certainly should be looking for ways to save money right now. And if they can afford to do so, they should be shopping for factories, equipment, talent, distribution networks, and other assets that will enable them to leap to the head of the pack when cash registers start ringing again.

But making irrevocable decisions today that could cost you large sums tomorrow could be a mistake. Bold, effective leadership sometimes means knowing when to hedge your bets. The best choice right now in many cases may simply be to keep your options open.

3. Start yesterday. A few years from now, your business may look very different than today. The changes may be of your own making or might be forced on you by circumstances beyond your control. If you have any idea what changes might be in the offing, start moving in that direction now. First steps don't have to be big and bold—or public. They don't have to involve massive plans or expenditures. They just have to be in the right direction.

The Great Recession, history may teach us some day, was the time when the global economy realigned itself, creating a new cast of corporate characters that have begun to write the economic history of the 21st century. From the wreckage of the recession, victors and victims are both emerging. There will be no glory in being the latter.

Start moving and start soon.