New Delhi: UK-born Karl Slym, president and managing director of General Motors India, (GM) is happy to remind everyone he meets about England’s recent win in the T20 World Cup—“the first time the team has ever won a World Cup”, he grins. Slym’s own experience in India has been a fairly hard grind in the past two years.
As the ripple effects of the financial meltdown spread across the world, car sales slowed in India and the US parent declared itself bankrupt. But things started looking up in 2009, and the company got a new partner in Shanghai-based SAIC Motor Corp. Ltd which bought a 50% stake in GM’s India operations. Next year, the company plans to launch a range of light trucks and cars from SAIC. Edited excerpts of an interview:
Local footprint: Slym says Chevrolet has enough brand recognition locally, but its commercial vehicles will need a separate network, customer base and so on. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
General Motors has had a good year with the Beat doing well. Are you closer to your goal of achieving 10% market share?
I may have mentioned to you before that if everybody gets 10%, the market will be 170%! So you’ve not heard me talk market share as much as you’ve heard me talk volume. When we talk about launching new cars, we look at the share of the market we can get. We know we’re coming into new segments like commercial vehicles, which opens up a whole new market for us. I’m going to double my volume this year from the 69,000 sold last calendar year. We plan to triple this volume by 2012.
When do we see the first Wuling trucks on the road?
You won’t see them as Wuling, of course…
Will they have GM branding?
Let me talk about the process first. It will be similar to that of Beat or Cruze. We take a global car and bring it to Bangalore. We have 18 months to change the suspension, raise the ground clearance and modify the calibrations to make it ‘OK’ for India. The same will happen with the commercial vehicles. Our partner has them (the commercial vehicles) already.
Now we’re working on their Indianization and then we’ll brand it something locally. I’d like to keep it under Chevrolet as I think the brand has enough recognition locally. But it will need a separate network, customer base and so on.
What’s it like working with the Chinese? There are now some Chinese board members in GM India.
These people who’re helping us now as partners were very prominent when I was dealing with China. So they are not new faces or partners to me. As far as dealing with JVs (joint ventures) is concerned, I was heading the Suzuki-GM JV in Canada for three years. I worked in Korea, which is GM DAT (Daewoo Auto and Technology Co.) and I was head of quality for Asia-Pacific, which included China. With all good joint ventures, there has to be something that each partner sees as benefit. If I think I’m bringing in everything, then that’s not a good partnership.
What role does GM play in the JV?
Their role hasn’t changed really. The only thing that’s changed is the amount of ownership. The previous parent provided us with the products and the empowerment to run Indian operations. Now 50% empowerment to run the operation comes from the earlier parent. The new parent provides us with similar empowerment. From an operations point of view, I hope you don’t see any difference.
Where do you see GM in India in five years?
Currently we play in only 60% of the market. Now we have the other 40% opening up with our light commercial vehicles. We have the capacity built into our business. We want to continue growing our local footprint. We have a research and development centre in Bangalore, we’ve got a creative design centre. We’ve got supplier development. We’ve now got a stamping plant. We have also got our own power train plant. Our dealer network has grown to 203 and will be at 300 by the end of the year.
General Motors has an aggressive plan to source components from India. How close is it to its $1 billion (around Rs4,700 crore) target?
I reviewed this on Friday (14 May). So I know that we’re at $550 million contracts issued till date to Indian suppliers for business for GM outside India. External markets are not exactly booming, so from a timeline viewpoint there could be some lag (on the $1 billion figure), but from the intent there’s no lag.
The focus on the Chevrolet brand has helped GM in India. Will you introduce more brands in India or stick to Chevrolet?
Earlier we were GM, Chevrolet, Optra, Opel, Daewoo. You would have noticed we’ve stopped using GM. You don’t hear us talk about GM. If you see our advertising it doesn’t talk about GM. If you go to our dealer, he doesn’t talk about GM. We’ve made an effort to stop the confusion. It’s all Chevrolet.
It’s been over two years since you moved to India. What’s it been like?
It’s been enjoyable. There have been some moments, of course. Last year was a roller- coaster ride. Some of the decisions we made—we can look back on them and smile that they were good things to do and they turned out to be the right thing. But at that time they were stressful things. When we thought how do we go out (when GM declared bankruptcy), I said I would be the face. We decided we can’t have Saif Ali Khan telling them don’t worry about Chevrolet. It had to be me.
What car do you drive?
I have a Captiva and an Optra. The Captiva is great for commuting for me. In the back seat I can plug in my laptop and work. It’s very comfortable and nice for long-distance travel. That’s when I would use the Captiva. The Optra is more for my wife.
You also play the drums. Have you played them professionally?
No. They’re electronic drums so I can put headphones on and avoid disturbing my wife. But I have all sorts of drums. I have a Korean drum, I have a drum kit, I have tablas. For the tablas I need lessons (pretends to play the tabla on the table). I can make some noise, but I can’t play them. I used to play the trumpet a long while ago, I used to play football a long while ago. I’ve played cricket since I got here.