Karl Slym - People Don't Hold Back in India

GM India head Karl Slym says that he gets to hear the good, the bad and the ugly about Chevrolet when he travels

Published: Dec 7, 2011 06:27:22 AM IST
Updated: Dec 7, 2011 08:10:07 AM IST
Karl Slym - People Don't Hold Back in India
Image: Amit Verma

Karl Slym
Designation: Managing Director, General Motors, India
Past Career: Started at Toyota as a senior manager, moved to GM in 1995 and has held various roles across geographies like director of manufacturing in Gliwice, Poland. He then went to GM in the US and Canada and later became head of quality, APAC-Seoul
Future Strategy: To exceed customers’ expectations
Interests: Music, Bollywood, cricket and traveling

I came here four years ago from South Korea. In my old job, I was in charge of quality for the APAC [Asia Pacific] region, which included India and that meant a visit for the first time [to India] during that job. However, when we visit on business, it is very different from living in the place. We go from airport, hotel, factory, and that’s it. Whereas, it is very different when you are living here.

Four years ago is when I first arrived with my household goods and my wife and started living here. Both my wife and I have said that India is the most difficult country to get used to. There are some things you fight and you don’t accept when you get here.

For example, just getting something fixed in the house. ‘What time will you be here? I will be there at 10 a.m.’ So then I wait till 10 a.m. Then we realise 10 could be 4 o’clock, four days later as opposed to 10 a.m. on that day. We waste so much time waiting for people and that is very frustrating. Eventually, you stop believing that if someone says 10, it does mean 10, and you arrange it around when it can really happen so you can enjoy the rest of your life. That’s one small example of things you decide to work around.

Normally, it takes two to three weeks to set up our house and start living a normal life. But here it took probably two months before our setup became okay.

However, the opposite end of that is, this would be the most difficult country to leave now.

We do immerse ourselves. We have one house in the world and that’s in India. We don’t have my wife going to her hometown every six months.

My wife has 32 sarees and she used to get help to drape them, but now she can do it on her own. This is me being the Bollywood king [shows a photo of himself dancing in a kurta]. We like Bollywood movies and music. That is important. If you do that in a country, then you are not looking for your next trip out. You are viewing your life here and it’s not like ‘I’ve got this much time before my next trip to my hometown’. I’ve not been to England, which is my home country, for two and a half years.

We don’t have cooks or anything like that. That’s one thing we didn’t embrace. We’ve been married 27 years, we don’t have kids and we’ve never had anybody in our house. The thought of having somebody in the house doing something we normally did for 27 years... we couldn’t get our head around why we would want to do that.

On the working side, everyone’s got their own business in India whether it’s selling chole baturas or aloo tikkas on the side of the road or something else.

If you can tap into this entrepreneurial spirit to improve your business, then that’s great. It is what we call kaizen or continuous improvement. I heard about it and witnessed it as a visitor, but now we’re able to harness that for the benefit of all of us.

I knew I had a very good enthusiastic team. Our Bangalore engineers turned the GM Europe piece [Chevrolet Beat] into a fuel-efficient car that’s suitable for India. They are so motivated and excited about doing those kinds of things for India.

As far as timing is concerned, I’m still the first one in the office in the morning and even if I come in late, I’m probably the first one to leave at night. There are hours for everything: But here, it is common to start later, finish later, eat at some ridiculous time.

The first party that I went to, I had snacks at 10 p.m. I thought we had finished. So at about 10:30 p.m., I told the host, ‘we should be heading off’ but they said no, ‘you should eat dinner,’ and I thought, ‘dinner, what did we just have?’ That was the snacks…it’s 10:30! Dinner in England is at 6 o’clock.

It is seven days a week here and there is no off time. Although [physically] the factory functions for six days, our [working] days are definitely seven days. I travel quite a lot because I have to balance four sides: Bangalore, Pune, Vadodara, and home [Delhi] as well.

The thing that I actually like, which is also a requirement, is that people want to see me, which is not necessarily the case in any other country that I’ve worked in. I would not have seen a dealer in many of the other countries, whereas here, I know all the dealers.

The employees want to hear me and talk to me. I have a Web chat that is open to all employees. I do employee meetings every quarter, face-to-face. I never go anywhere without seeing the dealers. I’ve been on the road for the last two months, meeting dealers, but that’s an expectation [that dealers will meet the head of management].

Over here, I never travel without this [points to the Chevrolet pin on his jacket] so that someone on the plane will say, ‘Oh! You’re from Chevrolet,’ and they’ll tell me [their feedback]. There’s no holding back in India: They will tell me it’s good if its good and they’ll tell me it’s bad if it’s bad. But they tell me, so I get to hear the good, the bad and the ugly and I think that’s great.

How can you change a company if you are only listening to your top level management? If you listen to what the customer feels, enjoys, it would help not only the customer, but the employee and that’s why I have ‘Chat with Karl’.

Which industry is the most crazy industry? Cars. Which country is the most volatile for the industry? India. If you put the two together you can’t go to sleep. It is very exciting.  

Also, another thing I’ve had to learn from the business part is there is no one time of the year that is a good time. Diwali will come and it’ll be bang, Onam the next in the South. Then there’s Navratri in Gujarat. We have a calendar for festivals. [Here], Tuesday is [considered] a bad day if you are getting metal.

I look forward to playing a role for GM in the largest market in the world [he’s moving to GM China next year] and a market that is witnessing an explosion in all aspects of the auto industry, not just volumes but also content, technology etc. My experience in India has been so varied. The highs and lows that we have navigated through have included some fantastic experiences that I can look back on and also use for future capability.

India has been a wonderful experience both in business and in my personal life. It will be an extremely difficult place to leave. India will stay with my family and me for the rest of our lives.

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(This story appears in the 16 December, 2011 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Bipin Zacharia

    Mr.Slym has been phenomenal in GM's success in India.He has done it at a time whem GM was facing bankruptcy in the U.S.Even though customers has a doubt on GM's credibility at that time but Karl's exceptional leadership has catapulted GM's numbers in India.

    on Dec 20, 2011