Karl Slym has barely sunk into a large armchair in the discreet stillness of the bar at the posh Trident Hotel, near Delhi, when a hotel employee fusses about, trying to make him more comfortable than he already is.
Except, I don’t think that’s really possible.
The 46-year-old is probably the most at-ease managing director I have met.
For someone who has been in India for only five months, the British chief of General Motors (GM) India seems quite at home. And as if on cue, he orders a Kingfisher beer, tells me he’s seen OSO (Om Shanti Om), asks me what I like about Jaipur and whether I remember the song that goes Dhan-dhana-dhan. Since I haven’t seen OSO, can’t recall much about my school trips to Jaipur and have no clue about Dhan-dhana-dhan, I’m at a loss for words.
Slym isn’t. He can even say “theek hai” (it’s okay), but with a slight mid-England accent. Relieved that I can claim a victory over at least his Hindi, pronunciation and all, I’m impatient to find out how he got to where he is today.
Born in Derby to a family that worked mostly with the railways, Slym went to the local school and paid for his college fees in part by designing press tools for machine parts. But five years into that, he got bored with the job and instead became a trailer designer and manager.
On a roll: The travelling manager is a mean hand on the drums and a karaoke mike. (Jayachandran / Mint)
And that, at age 26, was his breakthrough moment. “That gave me the opportunity to do everything from design to development and from business to finance—it was a really nice opportunity to do something that widened my horizons although it was a small company,” says Slym.
Three years into that, and Toyota Motors came to Derby to set up a car manufacturing plant. Slym was picked to join as senior manager. Toyota, eager to train all its senior recruits in the Toyota Way—a management philosophy that includes the famed Toyota Production System—flew its hand-picked staff to Japan for training. Slym marks that trip as the longest period he had been away from his wife Sally.
In typical Toyota fashion, for the first four weeks of that training, Slym was moored to the assembly line, sticking parts into cars every 57 seconds as a vehicle rolled into place. “I just thought, ‘What are they doing to me? I was a senior manager, and here I am putting parts into cars—every single day.’ Then, after the initial days of shock, horror and fright, you realized the worth of that experience—providing real understanding from the ground up.”
At the end of the four-week period he was appointed group leader, and returned to Derby, prepared by his training. He hired staff for the plant and got it up and running. Even today, the Toyota plant at Derby is one of the biggest employers in the area.
At this point, I can’t but help wonder aloud whether Toyota, assembly line robotics and all, wasn’t his biggest career break, and not the trailer job.
An unflinching Slym answers, “Not really.” The trailer job, he argues, happened because “someone took a leap of faith in me, and I have never forgotten it. Twenty years later, I still thank him for the things he let me do because I certainly didn’t have the experience and he took a chance with me,” he says of his relationship with the owner of the trailer-making firm.
His break with GM, his current employer, however, came in 1995, on “one of those days when you’ve had a bad day and the phone rings”. Slym had an interview offer from GM for a job based in London. Slym and his wife hesitated—both of them had spent all their lives in Derby and to them London was an unthinkable 100 miles from home.
Still, Slym went along for the interview and then landed a job based in Eisenach, in eastern Germany, much further than the London they had been unwilling to move to. And that, it seems, was the year the peripatetic Slyms emerged from their Derby cocoon.
A year later, GM decided it wanted to open a plant in Poland and picked Slym as the director of manufacturing for the facility in Gliwice. Though he’d learnt German in his previous assignment, all he managed to learn to say well in Polish was “Please, thank you, two beers, and sorry—the important things in life,” as he describes them.
The move to Poland also happened when some of the cornerstones of his management style became apparent—that ultimately, it was about people and how one communicated with them. “As long as you are open, language doesn’t become a barrier,” says Slym.
Two years on, it was time to move again—this time to GM’s plant in Oshawa, Canada. It is one of the largest car manufacturing facilities in the world and, as an assistant plant manger, Slym had to work with the Canadian Auto Workers Union, arguably one of the toughest unions in North America, in what was primarily a union town.
Slym rose to become plant manager whose task was to keep the 14,000-strong workers’ roles aligned with the car maker’s, and quell the disharmony between them. “At the end of the day, the goal is one, it’s common—it’s getting people to realize that.”
As a manager, his plan was simple. He would meet the union leadership every week, as he did the management, and discuss with them what had been spoken at the management meetings, so it would “open up the picture of what the business was” and, how best to go about it “because they (the union) were in a role to support it”.
At the end of his stint there, the union broke with tradition and attended the first-ever management-level farewell do and presented Slym with a gift, a “humbling experience” and a highlight of his stint.
Impressed with his track record, GM picked Slym, then 39, for a Sloan fellowship atthe Stanford University for a business degree.
A scuba diver, drummer and karaoke singer, Slym jokes that he was worried he wouldn’t return to a job after his fellowship. But he was moved to the Ontario plant in Canada as president, before being made to pack his bags yet again.
“If I’m honest, we didn’t even know where Korea was on the map,” quips Slym, who came back on board as part of the strategy team of GM, Asia-Pacific, when he moved to Seoul.
And then came India, on the eve of his birthday, barely 18 months after Slym had moved to Korea, unpacked and put up his feet.
Slym will also be the sixth chief of the Indian operations in eleven years. GM has made some inroads into the Indian market, but not enough, just yet. In Asia, India is GM’s second largest market and the company is setting up research facilities here, along with a design, engineering and manufacturing centre, making it a long-term play for the car maker. But, GM also has to sell stacks of cars and compete with established brands including the makers of the cheapest car in the world.
Slym seems to have a plan for the crowded marketplace. Confessing that he is a devil for detail, he says his key role is to make sure that everyone associated with GM stays motivated. For someone who has lived in eight countries in 12 years, and seems to effortlessly slip into new roles, I can’t help feeling that he’s got it all worked out.
As I take leave of K.J.S., as he likes to call himself, I wonder what other Indianisms he has up his sleeve. At any rate, I’m signing off as A.M.
Born: 9 February 1962, Derby, England
Education: Master of Science in Business Administration from Stanford University, California, USA
Hobbies: Music; and travelling with wife Sally
Currently Reading: ‘The New Age of Innovation’ by C.K. Prahalad and M.S. Krishnan
Favourite Sports: Football, cricket and beach volleyball on holidays