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John Chacko | Going big with the small

John Chacko | Going big with the small
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First Published: Fri, Dec 30 2011. 08 27 PM IST

Updated: Fri, Dec 30 2011. 08 27 PM IST
He stands 6ft 2 inches tall, is precise in what he says, loves efficiency, is a workaholic and dislikes slackers. John Chacko is, for all practical purposes, a German with an Indian name.
Occasionally, the south Indian Malayali in him peeks through—when he discloses his love for spicy food and the fact that he studied engineering, for instance. But those passing glimpses are rare. The fact that Chacko works in an automobile company merely completes the German package.
It doesn’t surprise me that the chief representative, Volkswagen (VW) Group, in India and president and managing director, Volkswagen Group Sales India Pvt. Ltd, pines for home—and that does not mean Kerala. “We are going back (to Germany) after my stint here. I must admit, this is not home for me any more.”
Chacko’s parentage—Keralite father, German mother—and more than three-and-a-half decades in the European country where he has spent the major part of his work life, explain why he is yearning to return. Also, German, not Malayalam, is his language of choice and that’s why, after five years in India, he is still getting used to the Indian way of working—a style he says doesn’t suit his no-nonsense, direct approach.
The VW group, which sells the Volkswagen, Audi, Skoda and Porsche brands in India, has injected a surge of energy into its flagship brand since last year. Volkswagen, which adopted the top-down strategy for entering the Indian market, got into the competitive small car segment with the Polo in February 2010, followed by the mid-size Vento in October 2010.
Eight months after the Vento’s launch, older rivals such as Honda Siel Cars India Ltd, which had been at the No. 2 position in the mid-size segment for several years, ceded ground to it. The Vento’s competitive price forced the Japanese car maker to cut its City model’s price in August, helping it regain some ground in the months from April-November. The Japanese carmaker sold 23,831 units of the City, against Vento’s 23,405 units, in this period.
Dressed formally in a crisp white shirt, red tie and black suit, 59-year-old Chacko meets me in a small, minimalist, second-floor meeting room in Volkswagen’s factory, which overlooks other automobile factories on stretches of vast lands in Chakan, near Pune.
In 2006, when VW was preparing a blueprint to enter the Indian market, Chacko’s Indian roots ensured he was given charge of the project. He did the requisite groundwork and helped the Wolfsburg, Germany-based auto-maker which was aggressively scouting for new markets to enhance its global footprint, firm up its India plans.
A challenge: A self-confessed ‘difficult person to work with’, with fixed ideas, Chacko is easily put off by indirect or evasive replies. Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint.
In March 2008, he signed a contract with VW Group Sales India Pvt. Ltd and has been in India since. Chacko has been associated with the VW group for 33 years in roles that have straddled logistics, production planning, and manufacturing engineering in SEAT, VW’s Spanish car line, Audi and now, heading all the Volkswagen group firms in India as the chief representative.
Much against the wishes of his parents, who wanted him to chase a conventional academic stream, Chacko, the second of five siblings, chose to study aeronautics. The Delhi-born, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras alumnus went to the UK to pursue a master’s degree and then to Germany to get a doctorate. “Like most Indian families, there was a lot of pressure to become a medical doctor or engineer, but I managed to avoid that,” he says.
He switched to cars when he realized recognition in this industry would come faster.
Getting back to India was not easy; Chacko found it challenging to come to terms with the pace at which things move here. He found it tough to meet the timelines, which was important for VW. It was especially difficult given the state of infrastructure in Chakan; Chacko says it was, and is, an issue. “The amount of energy I have to put into my job here is much more to get the same effect,” he says.
A self-confessed “difficult person to work with” who has fixed ideas, Chacko is easily put off by indirect or evasive replies. He is still getting used to the way some managers, with a hierarchical approach to work, function. “I have now developed a sort of an antenna—when someone is saying he has a challenge, it means he is not doing it. If he uses words like could and should and so on, I know he is not doing it. You have to be so alert because they are not being direct.”
Unlike his stint in SEAT, Spain, his task was different here—not just to build physical infrastructure, but work towards a new work culture.
In November last year, when his three-year contract as the technical managing director here was coming to an end, Chacko was preparing to go back to Germany—the country he was yearning to return to. But that was not to be.
The VW management entrusted him with a bigger responsibility. The firm found in him a natural successor to Joerg Mueller to head the India operation.
Well aware of the advantages early movers have in the market, Chacko is now bracing VW for the long winding journey to the pole position in the car market. “It’s a terribly competitive market and we are late. Most of our competitors, who we take seriously, have been here for 10-15 years. We are not even present in the segment where the volume game is played,” he says, adding that any step into the future will be in the direction of strengthening the firm’s presence in the small car market.
Volkswagen Group’s market share in the passenger car segment increased to 4.8% in the months from January-November against 2.5% over the entire year in 2010. The company plans to launch at least two new small cars—the VW Up! and another small car that will be positioned below Skoda’s Fabia—some time next year.
These challenges have ensured that since his appointment as the chief representative of India operations, Chacko has been living out of his travel bag and when he’s not travelling, he’s recovering from it. One of the reasons why he pauses when asked about his interests and hobbies.
“Can’t say I have a hobby—will have to look for one,” he says, smiling.
The German-style commitment to work doesn’t give him much time for leisure travel either. Chacko prefers quick, short vacations over none. “I would rather go to a place for two days than not go at all. I always have this argument with my wife. I can’t afford a week but only two days. It’s better than nothing.”
A typical day for him begins at 7.30am and ends at 8.30pm with a quiet dinner with his wife, Irmgard, at their house in Koregaon Park in Pune. Years in Germany, Spain and other parts of Western Europe have had a great influence on Chacko but somewhere, the Malayali in him remains intact. “I love south Indian food. I like the spices,” he says.
Ask him what he intends to do after hanging up his boots and the workaholic chuckles. “I keep getting this question from my wife but I haven’t thought about it. It’s about time I do but I avoid thinking about it. I have a number of years to go and if I start thinking about it, I may go off-track.”
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First Published: Fri, Dec 30 2011. 08 27 PM IST