Tough as nails, but with an impish sense of humour

Tata Motors MD Karl Slym would have turned 52 on February 9 and it seems almost surreal to think that he has already passed on.

Karl had a fantastic sense of humour. And, yet, he was tough as nails. This was evident during his days as chief of General Motors’ operations in India five years ago. The American parent had declared bankruptcy and the collapse of Detroit was hitting the headlines.

It was during this time that Karl got into the act, reassuring GM’s customers and dealers in India through an aggressive ad campaign that everything was all right.

This was when I met him for the first time, at a suburban hotel in Mumbai, and we spoke of the challenges ahead for the company.

He was funny in parts and, at the same time, dead serious about fixing things for the beleaguered carmaker.

The solution took everyone by surprise. GM decided to join hands with its long-term ally in China, SAIC Motor Corp, to extend a lifeline to India. And though Karl did not publicly say so, it was clear that this was the only way GM could have salvaged its operations here.

I remember discussing this with him even before the news was formally announced and he took great pains to explain that this alliance would not compromise GM India’s position.

“We are clear that partnerships will have to be beneficial to both parties. There is no point in a joint venture unless both companies see something better from the agreement,” he declared.

As Karl put it, if something were to materialise with SAIC, it “would not be a one-way street but something they have got that we are interested in and something we have that they are interested in”.

As this conversation took place in his Gurgaon office, a common friend popped in and told him it was my birthday.

“May be we should cut a cake for you,” said Karl amid all the high-voltage talk about a Chinese collaboration. And that is when I found out that we shared the common number 9 on our birthdays, though we were many months apart.

By this time, we had struck up an easy rapport and there would be this constant exchange of text messages when cricket matches were on, especially, when India was playing England.

Karl was from Derbyshire and we shared a love for cricket, never mind which side won the game.

We continued to keep in touch when he was relocated to GM’s operations in China and, before you knew it, he was returning to India to head Tata Motors.

“I am back home now,” he grinned broadly when we met for lunch. Karl told me how excited he was about his new role with a group he admired enormously.

Within Tata Motors, friends told me how Karl was a breath of fresh air with his easy accessibility and sense of humour. And he could be vocal, too.

Karl was confident that Tata’s car business could be put back on track and I was looking forward to hearing him make big-ticket announcements at the coming Auto Expo.

And, of course, to wish him on his birthday.

Karl Slym, you will be missed.

(This article was published on January 26, 2014)
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