To assess how global construction companies are, we use two measures: The first is depth, or what percentage of business activity takes place across international borders. The second is breadth, or how widely that activity is spread around the world.
The ENR Top 250 International Contractors survey provides an annual snapshot of the cross-border activities of the world’s largest contractors. Here, we take a longer perspective, using data from the 2005-15 surveys to analyze the globalization of the world’s largest contractors and identify actionable strategy implications.
In 2014, the top contractors earned 36% of their revenues overseas. There was wide variation by country: The top 50 European contractors earned 65% of their annual revenue abroad versus 38% for U.S. contractors and only 13% for Chinese contractors. Compared to other services, these statistics appear to be quite high, as only about 9% of value added in the service sector is traded across borders. However, the ENR Top 250 International Contractors are not representative of all construction contractors. A better benchmark is the Fortune Global 500, whose companies earned 46% of their revenues abroad.
Turning from depth to breadth, in 2014, only 25% of contractors’ revenues were outside of their home regions. Firms ranked in the Fortune Global 500 were also more globalized on this metric, with 36% interregional revenues. Looking only at contractors’ international revenues, however, 68% were interregional. Once contractors leave their home markets, they tend to do more business outside their region than within it. The interregional share of total revenues also varies widely by country. German contractors earned 79% of their total revenues outside of Europe, whereas only 9% of Japanese contractors’ business was from outside of Asia.
In the past 10 years, total revenues of the top international contractors have almost tripled, to $1.43 trillion in 2014 from $502 billion in 2004. The share of their revenues earned abroad, however, has remained fairly stable, close to its current level of 36%. In 2004, it was 33%; whereas, in 2008, it peaked at 40%.
The big change, as shown in the accompanying maps, is the rise of emerging economies both as markets and home countries. In 2004, Europe and North America alone accounted for 53% of international revenues of the top contractors. In 2014, those same regions provided only 35% of the group’s revenues.
The maps’ coded colors depict the rise of contractors from emerging economies. In particular, Chinese contractors grew their share of international revenue to 14% in 2014 from only 5% in 2004, largely at the expense of competitors based in Europe.
Before turning to prioritization among foreign markets, it is worth considering how much emphasis to place on international opportunities relative to domestic ones. Domestic markets are known quantities, and foreign markets are just that—foreign. Additionally, the data show there was no correlation between international revenue as a share of total revenue and new contracts in 2014. Globalization is an option, not an imperative.
For firms that choose to expand internationally, we have built a statistical model of 11 years of top contractors’ data, which gives some clues as to where contractors succeed internationally. The model emphasizes cultural, administrative (political), geographic and economic differences among countries in explaining contractors’ revenues in each region.
In terms of culture, we found that having a common official language was a significant advantage. All else equal, firms generate 3.5 times as much revenue in countries that share a common official language with their home countries as they do in other countries.
Since corruption is a major concern, the model includes countries’ differences in rank on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Firms tend to find it harder to operate in countries with very different levels of corruption from their home countries. For a contractor based in the United States, the difference in corruption between the U.S. and China would be predicted to cut revenues to only one-quarter of what they would be in a country with an equivalent level of corruption (such as Ireland).
Unsurprisingly, distance also matters a great deal. If one foreign market is twice as far away as another, distance itself would be expected to reduce revenues by 58% in the faraway market relative to the close one.
Economic differences are bad for revenues, as well. On average, if one country had double—or half—the GDP per capita of another, its contractor revenues were 25% lower than in a country with the same GDP per capita. This metric is worth careful consideration because it suggests that contractors in advanced countries do best in other advanced countries, whereas those in developing countries do best in other developing countries.
To succeed in foreign markets, most firms leverage strengths that are rooted in their home countries or regions. Companies from advanced economies will tend to have very different strengths from those in developing countries.
Technical capabilities can be a major advantage for firms from advanced economies, especially when they extend beyond simple quality differences to encompass integration across complex systems. As John Rice, vice chairman of GE, points out, “While [Chinese companies] might be able to steal a print of the dimensions of an aircraft engine and even make something like that … the complex interactions among the different parts of that engine and with the rest of the plane and its systems mean that I wouldn’t want to fly on [it].” Western companies also have more experience in complying with procurement and environmental standards. Countries that are working to cut corruption, for example, may be more apt to work with an advanced-economy firm with a strong code of ethics and domestic legislation that aims to curb international corruption.
On the other hand, developing-country firms also have many advantages. First, they are more likely to compete by offering services at a lower cost, with labor costs an obvious advantage. Chinese firms, in particular, also can benefit from cheaper capital equipment and, especially in the case of state-owned firms, low financing costs. Contractors from large emerging markets also can benefit from domestic economies of scale as their home countries build out the basic infrastructure that already exists in advanced economies.
Often, the greatest capability constraints to globalization are human, rather than technical. Firms from both advanced and emerging economies can strengthen their ability to succeed abroad by becoming more internally cosmopolitan. Many firms will have to boost diversity among their leadership ranks to get closer to the markets in which they seek to grow.
Locating senior leadership in key growth markets also can help. A study by the Boston Consulting Group found that firms from advanced economies that outperformed in emerging markets were three times as likely as underperforming firms to have more than one of their top 20 executives in those markets.
Pankaj Ghemawat is global professor of management and strategy and director of the Center for the Globalization of Education and Management at the Stern School of Business at New York University. Phillip Bastian is a research scholar at the center.