American car maker General Motors Co. (GM), which sells the Beat, Spark and Cruze models in India, is focusing more than ever before on designing vehicles specific to local conditions and tastes. Tim Lee, president for GM’s international operations, says the company should be judged by its technology and customer-focus in India. Those attributes drove the century-old GM to a successful initial public offering (IPO) in the US in November, about a year after it emerged out of bankruptcy.
Lee said in an interview he is committed to bringing more cars to India, such as the Chevrolet Camaro, after GM figures right-hand drive options for these. Edited excerpts:
You were appointed chief of GM’s international operations in December 2009, a tough period for the company. Now that the firm has had a successful IPO, how do you look back at the journey so far?
All the cars and trucks we have in the market today, all of these products did not just happen from the day we emerged from the bankruptcy. They happened over a long period of time. But what we have today is the New GM, which is a mix of old and new. We have a new business, which is based on designing building and selling the world’s best vehicles.
That investment thesis was understood by the investing community to the extent that we had more buyers for the shares of the stock than the number of stocks. We were able to take stock price up a little bit. We talked to our government and the shareholders and raised the number of shares, which we offered to create the largest single IPO in the history of the business.
Immediately after GM came out of bankruptcy, you were given charge of emerging markets such as China and India. What are your plans for India?
This engine announcement (the company launched its first engine developed by its Indian unit on Thursday) is an exact example of what I am talking about... We took an existing engine and redeveloped it for the Indian market with our team in Bangalore. That is a significant change and we will continue to (do it) over and over again. Future products that might come from GM or SAIC (Motor Corp. Ltd, GM’s Chinese joint venture partner), I can tell you those products will be aimed at engineered and developed for the market condition, fuel condition and customers’ tastes in India... I want to have a sustainable and profitable business so that we can employ more Indians and develop more products and dealers who will be profitable along with our company.
You have been in India for more than a decade, but are still trailing to your nearest competitor by a huge margin.
What we have said as a group is that we look at both the market growth as well as our own growth, and so we have great opportunity with market growth in India. And we also have great growth because of the product portfolio we have today in terms of sheer growth. Our team is focused on profitable growth in India and we play for margin and not for share. So, market share is not an objective; profitability is. Market share is the end objective. So, with business results here, I think that would be quite strong. But is this the largest growth rate, which we (are) going to have? I don’t know.
We have strong operations in all the emerging markets, and if you think about the story today that should be the recognition of the technology of General Motors and the customer focus, specifically here in India.
No other company has a Chevrolet Volt (GM’s hybrid electric car). Nobody. If you had a chance to drive a Chevrolet Beat you will be unbelievably impressed with the ride in handling and the overall performance of the car. So, it’s a statement by the company about the technology capability of the company. I think probably over time we will be looked at more as an engineering manufacturing company and not necessarily a customer-focused company. And a great example of that change is right here in India.
When will we get to see Volt on Indian roads?
We will take a look at bringing in Chevrolet Volt with a right- hand drive at the right time and the right moment.
Will SAIC models have the Chevvy brand?
On the car side, all the cars we will sell will have the Chevrolet brand to go with, no doubt about that. But as far as commercial vehicles are concerned, we are studying options and opportunities.
When do you plan to bring Chevy brands like Corvette, Malibu or the Camaro to the country?
Well, we made a visit to our key dealer in Delhi this morning. And on this front, I made a promise to him that as we go through the development phase for a next generation Camaro, we will figure out a way for a right hand drive for a Chevrolet Camaro. I have made that commitment.