Fran O'Sullivan on business

Business analysis and comment from Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan

Fran O'Sullivan: Key woos India with his charm and eye for a deal

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John Key's commercial salesmanship, flair for marketing and eye for the deal will distinguish his time as New Zealand Prime Minister on the world stage.

Key's political style has taken a while to emerge.

As he builds his reputation in international circles, his unique combination of business smarts and respectful affability are enabling him to get the ear of powerful older leaders such as India's Manmohan Singh on issues of regional economic importance.

In business-mad India, Key played to his strengths by drawing on the skills he acquired during his lengthy period in the banking world to connect with the Indian billionaires and leaders of wealthy conglomerates whose support New Zealand needs for a more pain-free entry into the bustling Indian market.

Key clearly displayed on his four-day visit that he could "play for the cameras" as well as he could do the necessary business to turn around this country's woeful economic performance.

Taking the bat against Kiwi cricketer Stephen Fleming and "directing" a scene with two Bollywood stars would have been a step too far for Helen Clark's rarefied nostrils.

It was also a marked departure from the political arsenal deployed by most recent New Zealand prime ministers who have tended to take their relative importance a bit too seriously once the major powers roll out the red carpet.

Many - including this columnist - found Key's jesting on the David Letterman show a rather cringe-making affair.

But his Indian "scenes" had a touch of authenticity.

The cricket-loving Indians have got several of our best players in their Premier League.

New Zealand will also co-host the Cricket World Cup in 2015. About 150 Bollywood films have had some scenes shot in New Zealand. Key sees Bollywood as a mechanism for attracting tourists.

The ins and outs of New Zealand's bilateral free trade negotiations will not make it past the Indian business pages until the point where India's dairy industry decides to make a public fuss.

But Key's nous for publicity got the paparazzi out at a time when Indians seemed consumed by the early arrival of the monsoon and the question of whether 78-year-old Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was now running a lame-duck Government.

So, in star-struck India, the Key style worked.

When I spoke with him on the lengthy plane trip back from Mumbai, Key was upbeat at meeting the "Richard Branson of India and the man who is potentially India's next Prime Minister".

Indian billionaire Vijay Mallya - boss of Kingfisher Airlines and dubbed the "king of good times" - has now joined parliamentarian Rahul Gandhi (the charismatic son of the late Rajiv and party boss Sonia Gandhi) as a prime ministerial fellow to New Zealand.

These are two powerful connections that Key is cementing for New Zealand's future.

When he came to power in December 2008, Key stepped into the shoes of a Prime Minister who had earned her stripes as a respected elder statesman in the Asia-Pacific.

A keen student of international politics, Helen Clark mixed up the gossip, with bone-dry policy and an acute nose for the ebb and flows of other leaders' political fortunes.

She took a stand against the invasion of Iraq. And she put troops into Afghanistan.

She also placed pragmatism over political purity to get the China free trade deal over the line; New Zealand recognised China as a "market economy", against the sentiments of New Zealand's more traditional trading partners.

Key's own preference is to mix relationship-building with business.

"You've got to play to your strengths - I like all the business stuff. Helen Clark would have spent her life reading the non-proliferation treaty - it's really very interesting ... but it's not the thing I am focused on.

"If I leave office and a whole lot of people have grown their opportunities, if we've got an FTA with India and we're doing lots more with Asia and the country's booming in exports, I will have done my job. That's the way I see it."

Clark's Government set up the cricket pitch for New Zealand's quest for an Indian free trade agreement. But it is Key and his opening batsman Tim Groser who will pick up the FTA trophy when the long innings is finally over.

Key wants to ensure India becomes another major market for New Zealand's valuable dairy exports.

He does not want to have all New Zealand's eggs in a Chinese basket. The memory of what happened to New Zealand's farm exports when Britain entered the European Economic Community colours his strategic thinking on this score.

One thing that does bug Key is the New Zealand news media's pettiness over his use of an Air Force 757 to take his official delegation - including business people and journalists - with him to India.

He says he should be in China and India every year to maximise New Zealand's opportunities.

"To be blunt, you've got to go out to sell the message to the public and business and the media that this stuff matters."

It's probably time Key front foots this message more directly. I doubt any of the 13 journalists or 28 business people who accompanied the Government's mission would have any doubt as to its value.

- NZ Herald

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