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The irony is striking.

The Indian unit of Montreal-based Info-Electronics Systems Inc. (IES) is in the business of installing, integrating and maintaining sophisticated electronic instruments, such as radiometers and other gear, to help weather experts minutely monitor climate conditions and make accurate forecasts.

But its own business climate is far from predictable.

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IES, founded by Dr. Harinder Ahlwalia, who earned a PhD in electro-magnetics from the University of Manitoba after studying at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in New Delhi, has a small clutch of high-tech experts who work on a project-by-project basis. It operates in a dozen countries, including India as of 1995, when the founder bet on the expanding economy.

S.P. Kataria, a friend of the founder from IIT who runs the Indian operations as general manager, says the company starts by educating would-be customers on the complexities of a deal, often for long periods, unsure whether it will get the contracts.

Customers are mainly state agencies such as the Indian Air Force, Central Water Commission or the Coast Guard, and the mother of them all, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), which gets valuable satellite-fed data and serves as a regulating and co-ordinating agency. The agencies often only broadly know what they want, but when it comes to receiving, storing, sharing and analyzing data involving increasingly sophisticated equipment, competing vendors help guide them in drafting the tender terms and conditions.

"There is nothing that I can be guaranteed," says Mr. Kataria, adding that contract pitches sometimes takes years of time, energy and attention that may not yield fruit.

The contracts are roughly worth 50 million to 200 million Indian rupees ($1 million to $4 million). Most of the advanced instruments come from global vendors and they are imported into India, while some local firms chip in with other equipment. After installing them, Info Electronics occasionally inspects and supports the systems.



While losing a contract may be part of the game in any industry, problems for the Indian unit of IES come in the form of government procedures that are sometimes not followed. Mr. Kataria points out the company lost a contract to a cut-rate competitor despite quoting only $3,000 for a piece of software that averages $25,000 on the global market.

But losing the deal was not the only issue. As it turned out, the potential client, the IMD, discovered the previous vendor had not shared vital source code and documentation critical for getting the organization's computer systems to communicate. (India is currently in the process of switching from analog meteorological data to a digital mode powered by shared computer networks.)

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In the absence of the right documentation, IES says its hands were tied.

The upside is that the Canadian company is respected for its expertise and it is being courted for what it says could be a fruitful business relationship. Another big advantage for the company is that the parent firm carries worldwide credibility, which helps with regulatory matters in India and getting key suppliers and partners to play ball.

Special to the Globe and Mail

Narayanan Madhavan is associate editor of the business news pages of Hindustan Times, a leading Indian daily newspaper. He has previously worked for Reuters, the international news agency, as well as The Economic Times and Business Standard, India's leading business dailies. Though focused mainly on business and economic journalism with a strong focus on information technology and the Internet, he has also covered or written about issues including politics, diplomacy, cinema, culture, cricket and social issues. He has an honours degree in economics and a master's degree in political science from the University of Delhi.

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