Indian auto majors tap foreign talent to enhance R&D efforts

As Indian buyers get more demanding, firms are poaching engineers from abroad to overhaul their products

Tim Leverton of Tata Motors. Photo: Reuters
Tim Leverton of Tata Motors. Photo: Reuters

New Delhi: Tim Leverton, 57, joined Tata Motors Ltd in 2010 to realize a vision he shared with then chairman Ratan Tata and then managing director Ravi Kant—to reinvent the firm and turn it into a global giant.

Before joining Tata Motors, Leverton was chief engineer overseeing the Phantom project at Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc, and group engineering director at JCB Inc., the US-based maker of earth-moving equipment.

Markus Braunsperger, 53, joined Hero MotoCorp Ltd in 2014 to tackle a technology challenge at India’s largest maker of two-wheelers, leaving behind a sterling career as research and development (R&D) head at BMW Motorrad, the two-wheeler unit of the Munich-based luxury car maker.

Leverton and Braunsperger are part of a pool of top foreign R&D executives drafted by Indian auto makers, which are looking to fill the gaps in their product planning cycle in a market that has become more demanding as buyers constantly seek out products tailored to local conditions amid rapidly changing regulatory norms.

With years of experience behind them, these men have been tasked with re-engineering the product line-up and enhancing the public image of their Indian employers.

Braunsperger, who worked on a whole range of BMW products, is chief technology officer at Hero MotoCorp, where he said he gets a wider canvas and the opportunity to work on products priced at a fraction of what a BMW 3 Series costs. “That’s the challenge that attracted me the most,” Braunsperger said.

Leverton has spent more than 30 years in the auto industry and spearheaded the development of nine vehicles in the course of his career. He joined Tata Motors as head of advanced engineering.

“I came into the company as part of a process that was being led by (Ratan) Tata and Ravi Kant at that time. It was a process of reinvention of the company. To be able to deliver that, they had to change the company. We had to do something differently and I will have the chance to contribute to that,” Leverton said.

Ratan Tata retired at the end of 2012 and is now chairman emeritus of the Tata group; Kant retired in mid-2014. In 2008, Tata Motors acquired Jaguar Land Rover Automotive Plc.

Not too long ago, India was a seller’s market and the design and development of new products wasn’t a priority for auto makers. That has changed over the years as the market grew from 5.2 million units in 2000-01 to 20.46 million in 2015-16.

For the foreign engineers, the opportunity to work in India and on new product designs, which could be deployed in other emerging markets as well, dovetailed with their own markets reaching a saturation point.

The overseas talent pool in the Indian auto industry cuts across nationalities. There are German, Japanese, Austrian, French and American engineers at work.

Steve Harris (left) of Harris Performance with Royal Enfield boss Siddhartha Lal.
Steve Harris (left) of Harris Performance with Royal Enfield boss Siddhartha Lal.

There’s Malo Le Masson, Hero’s head of product planning who joined from Nissan Motor Co.’s Infiniti division, where he served as global head of products (long-term strategy); Markus Feichtner, former executive director at Austrian engine maker AVL, is now head of engineering development at Hero.

Mark Wells of Xenophya and Steve Harris of Harris Performance Products are global names in designing concept motorcycles and accelerating their performance. They now work for Royal Enfield, which acquired their companies.

Karl-Heinz Servos worked at Volkswagen AG and was instrumental in developing the Touareg SUV. He is now responsible for joint development of products between Tata Motors and JLR. The first Tata-JLR product is expected to be introduced in 2018, Mint reported in 2013.

The list is long. Hero managed to retain Hiroyuki Miyo, who designed the first-generation Splendour motorcycle, when it parted ways with Honda Motor Co. in 2010, ending a 26-year partnership. Another Japanese, Mitsuo Kitada, serves as head of vehicle integration and chassis development at Hero. Previously, he worked at Honda and Yamaha Motor Co. and has invented and patented systems such as a vehicle-starting clutch-control device, a drive system for automobiles and an engine-cooling system for motorcycles.

Indian firms have a lot more to gain from the hiring than the expatriates will from their stint in India, according to Anil Sharma, principal analyst at consulting firm IHS Automotive. “It is important in terms of sensitizing their own workforce about what’s happening globally. It is a game-changer. The biggest tailwind will be that these people will sensitize the mindset of Indian promoters and will make them understand the importance of investing more in R&D.”

He cited a recent announcement by McLaren, which outlined a plan to spend 25% of annual revenue on R&D. “That’s a big figure... Maybe Indian companies need to take a leaf out of that,” Sharma said.

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