Pawan Goenka: The auto pilot

The executive director of Mahindra & Mahindra on happy accidents, long friendships, and the luxury car they’re planning to launch

Pawan Goenka. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/ Mint
Pawan Goenka. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/ Mint

A conversation with Pawan Goenka is always a delight. Not because he is Indian automobile industry’s Carlos Ghosn—who single-handedly built what is today’s Renault-Nissan Alliance—and Anand Mahindra’s go-to man, but because he is full of stories and a great storyteller.

After a 90-minute interview at Mahindra Towers in Worli, Mumbai, as Goenka, executive director of auto conglomerate Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd, plans to wrap up for the day, I ask him to tell me how it all began.

A self-confessed introvert, Goenka studied at the Hindi-medium Shree Jain Vidyalaya in Kolkata. His family had moved to that city from a small village, Harpalpur, in Madhya Pradesh. That meant his English was far from impeccable. But Goenka didn’t let that clip his ambitions.

After graduating in mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, Goenka enrolled at Cornell University in the US for a PhD. He has been a hot hire in global automotive circles since.

His first employer, General Motors, which he joined days before he was to join AT&T, helped him polish his English. Years later, the Delhi-based Lal family’s Eicher and Mahindra both offered him jobs, in December 1992. He joined Mahindra.

“Everything is an accident. It was because of Air India, my mother and Babri Masjid.” Goenka says about the start of his association with Mahindra & Mahindra. Dressed in a white shirt and a navy-blue suit, he relaxes into a chair in the empty office as it pours outside.

After numerous phone calls asking him to wrap up the interview, he looks at his watch, and maintains this will have to be the last story.

When he was in the US, Goenka would come to India once every three years for a holiday; it was on one of these visits that he applied to a few companies for jobs. They called him for interviews.

“My mother was very possessive; whenever I was in Kolkata, I couldn’t go anywhere else. I had to be with her. She allowed me to go for the interviews only if I could go in the morning and return in the evening.” So Goenka looked at the airline schedule. Air India was on strike, and running a skeleton programme.

“The only place I could go from Kolkata to some place and come back the same day was Mumbai. And the only company in Mumbai that had invited me was Mahindra.

“The day I came here (Mumbai), there was a Mumbai bandh because of the Babri Masjid demolitions.”

To Goenka’s surprise, a young 30-something Anand Mahindra was still on time to interview him. Goenka, was in his late 30s then, had already made his mark by designing FLARE, a piece of software for GM that housed all the engine component designs of the automaker (it is still in use). He was impressed by Mahindra’s vision and accepted their offer.

"When Pawan Goenka is not thinking about automobiles, he can be found watching movies or playing cards. Goenka, who is not a member of the CEO club or the party circuit, lives in Mumbai with his wife, who volunteers with cancer patients, and two children."

Siddharth Lal, the Eicher Motors Ltd chief executive who single-handedly revived one of the world’s most loved brands, Royal Enfield, still rues not being able to hire Goenka. “We, too, had made an offer to him. You can ask him about that,” Lal once told me.

Goenka continues the story.

“Just three days ago, I was going through some of my old papers in an old file where I found a piece of paper where I had written down the Eicher offer and the Mahindra offer. I had come for a CTC of about Rs3 lakh at Mahindra at that time, leaving a job of $120,000 (around Rs80 lakh now; at GM),” he says.

Goenka joined Mahindra in 1993 as head of research and development and helped turn it from a company that was known for making tractors into an auto conglomerate. Mahindra went on to make some of the most rugged utility vehicles, such as the Scorpio and the Bolero. Mahindra bought the beleaguered Korean automobile company SsangYong and, with Goenka leading the way, turned it around. Today, keen to make its mark globally, it has branched out into two-wheelers, commercial vehicles, passenger vehicles and premium vehicles. Mahindra now wants to build India’s first luxury vehicle under the Pininfarina brand—an Italian design house that they acquired last year.

From being called the father of FLARE at GM, Goenka is now known as the father of the Scorpio.

And indeed, long before Anand Mahindra hired him, GM had realized his potential. It was Goenka’s first job, and he spent 14 years there. “GM happened in a very funny way. I have not told this story before,” he tells me.

In 1978, Goenka was to confirm his joining at AT&T on a Friday and he got a call from GM on Monday. He appeared for the interview on Tuesday and had the offer letter in hand on Wednesday. Getting a job in the US in those days was difficult; most companies wouldn’t offer a job to non-residents if they did not have a green card. Goenka was on a student visa, and GM was initially no different.

But then the head of department changed. “He found my application and told HR, I want to interview this guy. So they said, ‘But he doesn’t have a green card.’ He said, ‘That’s your job. My job is to find the right people. You find a way to get him a green card’.”

Goenka has come a long way since.

“If you look at leading promoters in India today, I probably know half of them. At some point in life, they have approached me,” says Goenka. But he has been with the company for 23 years now, and, most importantly, found a friend in Anand Mahindra.

“The more people you know, the better it is. There is no doubt about it. Right? But I think what matters more, perhaps, is the depth with which you have a relationship with a friend. A superficial relationship will probably only get you so far. An intimate relationship would be much more helpful,” Goenka says.

He turned 63 on 23 September and has two years left at Mahindra unless a special resolution extends his tenure.

“You have made me say a lot of things... You should ask Anand about this one,” Goenka says.

“Any regrets?”

“About moving back to India, absolutely no regrets,” he says. “Personal life, there are always things that you would think of, you know.... I wish I had done something different. Frankly, if I was to start my kindergarten today, I would probably try and become good in one sport, and one skill. I have no musical skills and sports skills. So that’s what I would want to focus on, if I was to start over again.”

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