Companies Around The World Are Going The America Way And despite the critics, the trend isn't stopping.
By Janet Guyon Reporter Associate Paola Hjelt

(FORTUNE Magazine) – After listening to 30 minutes of America-bashing from the television audience on the BBC talk show Question Time, Philip Lader, a former U.S. ambassador to Britain under President Clinton, was practically in tears. Less than 48 hours had elapsed since terrorists attacked New York's World Trade Center, and people were shouting that it was America's fault. "The cause of all this is because the American almighty dollar keeps wanting to spread the American way to every single country," yelled one blond man in a red sweater.

Though Lader says he received more than 1,000 e-mails from Brits horrified at the lashing he took, the guy in the red sweater was right about America's influence. In the business world, at least, globalization has meant Americanization. Over the past few decades, as U.S. companies were expanding overseas, planting McDonald's arches and Coca-Cola signs all over the globe, foreign companies were quietly adopting American business practices. Jack Welch has been joined by Jurgen Schrempp of Germany's DaimlerChrysler, Franck Riboud of France's Danone, and Jorma Ollila of Finland's Nokia in preaching the supremacy of the shareholder. More converts can be identified on the New York Stock Exchange, where the number of foreign companies listed has more than quadrupled in the past decade, from 96 in 1990 to 434 last year. Since Sept. 11, at least a half-dozen more have listed, including Deutsche Bank, French energy and water company Suez, and Van der Moolen, a Dutch trading firm founded in 1892.

Will that trend continue? Or will the fear set off by attacks from a group of Middle Eastern terrorists prompt the world to reject American business ideas?

The answer to the second question is no. While some companies are pushing back against the American way of doing things, the rules of the global business game have spread too far and too wide. "Everyone reads Jack Welch's book, whether they are in Italy, India, or the U.S.," says Paola Fresco, Fiat's chairman in Turin and a former vice chairman of GE. "The only durable business model that works is American," says John Viney, European chairman of Heidrick & Struggles, the New York City-based executive search firm. "America is the only country in the world that has a business culture. Most other countries struggle. But Americans have no great strain about whether they are doing the right thing about making money, about whether it's going to shorten their chances of getting to heaven."

American dominance in the business world took hold after World War II, when companies such as IBM, Kellogg, Ford, and McDonald's began expanding overseas. "Call me ignorant, but growing up in the '60s, I thought Ford and Kellogg were British companies," says Julian Birkinshaw, associate professor of strategic and international management at the London Business School. The growth of American companies abroad introduced millions of foreigners to American business practices. But it wasn't until the fall of both the Berlin Wall and the Japanese economy--and the subsequent U.S.-led tech boom--that many foreign companies started emulating the Americans.

In the former communist lands, the conversion was driven by a herd of American bankers and management consultants who preached privatization and entrepreneurship to populations starved for new ideas as well as for Western consumer goods. The first sovereign bond issue of what was then Czechoslovakia was structured by a couple of graduates of the University of Florida's law school who happened to be working for Nomura, the Japanese bank. Outside the former communist countries, this same tribe instructed many government-owned companies that were suddenly selling shares on the stock markets. From 1990 through 2000, nearly $1 trillion worth of state-owned companies around the globe were privatized, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Meanwhile, Schrempp set off a revolution in the non-American corporate establishment by listing Daimler on the NYSE in 1993, to the horror of his fellow German CEOs, who warned that he would find SEC rules stultifying. "We wanted to be present in the most competitive and largest financial market in the world," says Schrempp. "We came under heavy criticism in Germany. But you just adjust to the rules. Initially it was difficult to do, but it makes it very transparent for our investors, and everyone in the company knows exactly what is happening, what the goals are, and what investors expect."

Since then, it seems as if every major foreign company is doing things the American way. "If I can't run an American bank tomorrow morning, you'd better fire me from my present job," says the new chairman of Germany's Commerzbank, Klaus-Peter Muller. At Fiat, Giovanni Agnelli's grandson and heir apparent, John Elkan, is being groomed to run the company by embarking on a one-year assignment with GE's traveling audit team, which probably provides America's best on-the-job business training. At India's Tata Steel, bonuses based on performance were adopted during the past decade as the company retooled itself into one of the world's dozen best steelmakers. At Danone, Riboud now measures performance using an EVA (economic value added) formula developed in the U.S. "It's a question of tools and language," says Riboud. "If I talk EVA, I will be understood all over the world." Companies are looking more American too: Royal Dutch/Shell, once known as the politburo of the oil industry, has reconfigured its offices with glass walls to make executives seem more accessible and has promoted women to encourage a diversity of views.

Even in Britain, America's partner in Anglo-Saxon capitalism, Americanisms have spread in recent years. The country's most prominent businessman, John Browne of BP--who spent his formative years in the U.S. and did his executive MBA training at Stanford University--has the title of CEO; ten years ago he would have been called managing director. Other British companies are adopting American practices such as stock options, big executive pay packages, and with them the sudden firing of CEOs who don't perform. "It is hardly surprising that U.S. practices dominate," says Browne, "because there is more business in the U.S. than anywhere else and America has been active in the practice of vocational education in business practices for far longer than anyone else."

Of course, the universal language of business also comes from the U.S. It's not just that companies such as Aventis in France, ABB in Switzerland, and Deutsche Bank in Germany use English as their common operating tongue. International accounting standards are dovetailing with those set by the Financial Accounting Standards Board in New York. A new International Accounting Standards Board, created in January, is modeled on FASB; former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker chairs the board. Even typically opaque Japan is signing on for more transparent standards. In July it replaced its part-time national accounting standards committee, in operation since World War II, with a full-time board similar to FASB.

To see the spread of American business ideas to the next generation, visit a business school. An accounting class at Insead, outside Paris, where 80% of professors got their degrees from U.S. business schools, is filled with students from Holland, India, China, Britain, Germany, and Spain. Accounting is taught according to U.S. generally accepted accounting principles, marketing classes use American examples, and even organizational behavior and business ethics courses concentrate on U.S. companies. Business schools in the U.S. are also teaching more foreigners. In the past ten years the proportion of foreign graduates of Harvard and Wharton has roughly doubled to one-third of the class.

With all this American business philosophy, it's understandable that the U.S. is a target for the have-nots of globalization. And there are signs, particularly in Europe, of renewed resistance to some American values and practices. For example, Volkswagen CEO Ferdinand Piech openly eschews the supremacy of the shareholder. Equally important, he has said, are customers and employees. Piech has also resisted attempts to make the company more open: His family company, Porsche, recently allowed itself to be dropped from one German stock market index because it didn't want to submit to quarterly reporting requirements. Porsche argued that quarterly reporting hurt its ability to invest for the long term.

The quarterly reporting practice has also been rejected by the London Stock Exchange. When the European Union asked for comment on proposed rules that would unify listing requirements for EU exchanges, the LSE said semiannual reporting was enough because British companies are required to report material events on a timely basis through the exchange's own news service. Why deviate from the U.S. and from what the EU proposed? "Why wouldn't we?" says spokesman Jamin Smith. "This is the U.K. We have strict procedures that work very well."

Few foreign business people see an outright rejection of the U.S. way of doing things, if only because the U.S. capital markets are the biggest and most liquid. But for American business values to continue to thrive, they will have to change, at least outside the U.S., and take into account goals other than simply boosting quarterly profits. Employee welfare, local cultures, environmental concerns, and nongovernmental activist groups will have be dealt with. "There is a shift in values," says Tony Manning, a South African management consultant attending a London conference where Welch was signing copies of his new book. "People are saying that their own time and life are more important than the company." Since Sept. 11, says Ken Costa, vice chairman of UBS Warburg in London, "the soft issues of business have suddenly become a lot harder."

Even so, it's highly unlikely that the globalizing business world will throw off Neutron Jack's management ethos. Take Russia. After a decade of robber-baron capitalism, its securities commission is instituting a corporate governance code based on U.S. practices of openness, honesty, and transparency. "After all the funny things that have happened over the last ten years," says Igor Kostikov, chairman of the Russian securities commission, "Russian business wants to have rules and ethics and be like normal businesses all over the world. Nobody thinks of it as Americanizing. We think of it as globalization. But we don't fight against what comes from the States."