Karl Slym, who took over as Tata Motors' managing director a few weeks ago, has decades of experience in the car industry including his stint as the India head of General Motors. The first thing that you have to see when you walk into a company, says Slym, is which plate spins and which plate wobbles. The jovial and friendly MD, who effortlessly delivers a few lines in Hindi, wants to overhaul the image of Tata Motors by enhancing customer experience. Excerpts:
What is your take on heading an Indian company?
When I was here last time, I was heading the Indian arm of a multinational company. This time, I am heading an Indian company, which has an international presence. It is similar in certain ways, but also starkly different in others. It is great to have the experience of having worked in India earlier on my side. I have worked in other countries as well, so I can bring on board a different perspective that will not only further our domestic business but also give wings to our global aspirations. Of course, at the same time it is important that you don't lose sight of the local culture. Look around and you will see young engineers with plenty of ideas and aspirations. We need to provide them with an opportunity to be entrepreneurial while working in a company. I want to provide a structure to take this entrepreneurial spirit forward in the right direction.
How easy or difficult is it to adapt to a new organisation when you come in at a very senior level?
Leadership qualities are practically the same whether you are in one company or another. But of course, depending on the situation, priorities may change. When you walk into a company you have to see which plate spins and which plate wobbles. You have got to look at all your plates - product, engineering, design, manufacturing, people or marketing - and establish your priorities.
How has corporate leadership evolved over the years?
A lot of changes have occurred. However, core values remain the same. When I started out, a manager was expected to be honest, open, helping and good at interacting with others. I don't think those things have changed. You may have more automation and technology to make things faster. But people are still the key to any business.
What is your best decision?
To join Tata Motors. I think it was a bit of a dream to head an Indian company. Not only is the company an Indian icon, but in the process of joining it, I have also gained a mentor called Ratan Tata. I think I am blessed to have been given this opportunity.
And what is your worst?
There are no regrets. You make the best decision based on what you have in mind or in hand. Of course, there are always experiences of taking decisions that seemed best at that time and you really can't have regrets about it later.
How challenging a market is India?
The Indian market has a special feel to it. The latest and greatest products are all expected here. This market has huge potential in both near as well as long term. However, people want international products to be priced at local rates. That makes it the most exciting, and, at the same time, the most challenging market for an organisation to cater to. To elaborate further on the dynamics of the Indian market, the requirement from the product is that it should be of a high quality and, at the same time, it should be available at a price suitable for local pockets. The high consumer demand here pushes manufacturers to figure out how to do that. The way we innovate to meet that kind of a tough mandate provides us with skills that will help our international business as well.
What is your vision for Tata Motors?
Over the short to medium term, we see ourselves as a strong, number two player in the passenger car business. In the long term, we hope to become the number one player.
Our short term strategy is to bring in new products and improve services. Beyond that, we want to delight our customers.
Customers are looking for new things, and we need to make sure we continue to refresh our vehicle portfolio.
And, in some segments such as utility vehicles where we were not able to grow the market share, we need additional activity.
We are an expert in the truck business and will continue to be so, and we intend to retain our leadership. Our engineering and manufacturing capabilities are our pillars of strength and it is all about harnessing the capabilities we already have.