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Houston startups planning to go global need to prioritize adaptability, researchers find

Firms looking to expand globally need to ensure that their organizational resources are adaptable to new markets. Getty Images

When foreigners invest in emerging markets, the prospect for those markets' local businesses looks bright. The payoffs for a country's companies can range from injections of foreign capital to better managerial talent, technological sophistication and international know-how. But does foreign investment ever push local firms to venture into international projects of their own?

Rice Business professor Haiyang Li looked closely at the ripple effects of foreign investments, and concluded it all depends on the local businesses' adaptability. That — and their appetite for risk.

Together with Xiwei Yi of Peking University and Geng Cui of Lingan University, Hong Kong, Li launched a large-scale study of Chinese manufacturers to better understand how multinational investment in domestic companies influences the global market.

The subject was ripe for analysis. Over the past decade, more and more companies in China and other emerging markets have been testing the waters of direct investment in other countries in sectors as varied as food and beverages, apparel, electronics and transportation equipment.

Li's team hypothesized that these emerging market companies were leveraging benefits that foreign investment had ferried into their home markets. This investment, the researchers theorized, had brought in useful resources and skills, which helped ease the local companies into international business markets.

To confirm this, the team needed to test whether the converse was true: Might information gained from foreign investors actually dull a local firm's interest in branching out overseas? Maybe the risks of that type of venture — which are higher for firms in emerging markets — would seem too stark.

To find out, the researchers first vetted the literature on inward and outward investment activities. How, they wanted to know, did domestic firms interact with foreign players in the technology or product importing process? In equipment manufacturing? In franchising and licensing, mergers and acquisitions and activities such as setting up subsidiaries?

Working with a global research company, Li and his colleagues next surveyed 1,500 Chinese businesses in the food, clothing, electronics and vehicle industries. (Firms in finance, banking, natural resources and business services were ruled out because of their government ties, and also because such organizations usually use fewer resources, which made them harder to evaluate.)

Each company that took part in the survey rated how much they engaged with foreign investors in activities such as importing products and services or forming joint ventures. They also indicated if dealing with foreign direct investment had brought them foreign capital, advanced manufacturing know-how, managerial experience or competitive insight into overseas business.

The researchers also measured the "fungibility" of these firms' resources — in other words, how easily could their organizational, cultural and technological resources be adapted to various geographical settings?

Finally, managers rated how risk-prone they thought their firms were.

After Li and his coauthors processed the answers, they found several links between foreign investment in domestic firms and local companies' internationalization efforts.

First, there was a positive relationship between the local gains from foreign investment and a firm's interest in internationalization projects. While this effect was indirect, it was amplified when foreign investment gave a firm new capabilities that made it more adaptable. In other words, the Chinese companies whose contact with foreign multinationals made them more adaptable in general were better positioned to prosper in ventures abroad.

This stands to reason, the researchers note. That's because by its very nature foreign investment sparks awareness of new opportunities: every business trip, plant visit or negotiation with foreign partners is a hands-on lesson in international trade.

But the researchers also uncovered a significant downside to foreign investment for local Chinese firms. When a project was considered high-risk, such as a merger or establishment of a wholly owned subsidiary, the local firms were less prone to venture abroad. This adverse effect was worse for firms that labeled themselves risk-averse, probably because exposure to foreign investors only made the risks of internationalizing clearer.

These findings add important detail to the way foreign investment can affect their local partners' own international plans — for good and ill. Already, businesses in emerging markets are used to optimizing resources, wrangling diverse idioms and artisans and adapting logistically to get their products to market. That nimbleness, Li and his colleagues propose, should also be seen as a globalization tool. For businesses in emerging markets, the researchers conclude, day-to-day technical ability is actually less important than cultural and organizational flexibility — and applying lessons learned from foreign investors to their own projects abroad.

In other words, for firms in emerging markets, globalization is not just a path to new markets. It's a way to study interactions with foreign firms while on their home turf – and learn how to apply those lessons abroad.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Haiyang Li is Area Coordinator and Professor of Strategic Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

When companies plan to restructure, it makes a difference if the new CEO is hired from inside or outside. Pexels

Star Co. is a hot mess. The business is bloated and sprawling. Its stock is tanking. Profits are down. It's clearly time for a new CEO.

But where to look — inside the company or outside? It's a decision every restructuring company faces.

Cenovus Energy tapped an outsider in 2017. General Electric, the same year, went with a longtime insider. Though it's too soon to know yet for sure, which one likely made the right choice?

Rice Business emeritus professor Robert E. Hoskisson, with coauthors Shih-chi Chiu, then at Nanyang Technological University (now at the University of Houston), Richard A. Johnson of University of Missouri, Columbia and Seemantini Pathak of University of Missouri-St. Louis, set out for an answer: Where is the best place for a restructuring company to get its next CEO?

According to conventional wisdom and some past research, change is more likely under an outside CEO. He or she can start fresh, armed with a greater mandate to shake things up.

Recent evidence, though, suggests that outsiders may actually have more trouble succeeding. That's because they lack the institutional knowledge to make the most informed choices, and the existing relationships needed to ease change with minimal pain. Insiders, this research shows, have the advantage of key "firm-specific" knowledge on everything from customers to suppliers to workforce composition.

To pin down an answer on whether it's better to stay inside or go outside, Hoskisson's team decided to look at corporate divestiture — asset sales, spinoffs, equity carve-outs — as a proxy for overall strategic change. (It's already well documented that a new CEO makes organizational changes such as personnel changes and culture shifts.)

Next, they distinguished between scale and scope. The scale of a divestiture reflects magnitude: How many units were sold? The scope reflects diversification portfolio adjustment: Does the company have fewer business lines?

Focusing on 234 divestitures at U.S. firms that voluntarily restructured between 1986 and 2009, the authors defined a new inside CEO as having been in that role two or fewer years, and with the company previously for more than two years. They defined a new outside CEO as someone who had been at the company for a maximum of two years in any role.

Heading into the analysis, the researchers expected they would reach different conclusions for scale vs. scope. And the results were just that.

New inside CEOs, they found, did carry out more divesture activities than new outside CEOs. Not having as much inside knowledge, the outside CEO was more likely to prefer a simpler divesture plan, one that didn't require evaluating each unit or asset. Instead, the professors hypothesized, an outsider was more likely to follow investors' general preferences about firm strategy.

"When a higher magnitude of corporate divestures is required, internal successors are more astute than external successors in accomplishing this objective," the researchers write. On the other hand, when a company wants to shrink the diversified scope of a business portfolio, "external successors are more likely to bring their firms to a more focused position."

The researchers also suggested future lines of study about new CEOs and strategic change. What happens when firms want to buy and sell at the same time? Does the CEO selection process itself affect restructuring scale and scope? And does an inside chief executive who won a power struggle against a predecessor perform differently than an inside CEO named in orderly succession planning?

In the meantime, the findings are clear. If your corporate board is hunting for a new CEO, it may pay to go for the fresh face. But depending on your goals, your best option may also be a top executive sitting at a desk a few steps away.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Robert E. Hoskisson is the George R. Brown Emeritus Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.