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How an Indian woman is driving change at ZF

Murali Gopalan | Updated on January 12, 2018

Leading the charge: Mamatha Chamarthi, Chief Digital Officer, ZF

As Chief Digital Officer, Mamatha Chamarthi has her hands full at the German company

Mamatha Chamarthi remembers the day only too well. It was April 2016 and she was visiting India following a death in the family.

This was when she received an email from her employer that Stefan Sommer, the Chief Executive Officer of ZF, wanted to speak to her on the phone. “I was naturally anxious and wondered if something was wrong,” she recalls.

What followed was an anticlimax when Sommer called from Germany and offered Chamarthi the position of Chief Digital Officer reporting to him directly. He also wanted her to be in charge of the ZF Technology Centre being planned in India.

Sommer was aware that Chamarthi was going through a grieving period and gently added that she could take her time to think about this offer and discuss it in person with him when she was in Germany next.

No wonder then that she is all praise for Sommer as a human being. “He is the best boss I have ever worked for. He has given me so much room and is truly grounded and compassionate,” she says. It was also a tremendous acknowledgement of her calibre especially when ZF had acquired TRW a little over a year earlier.

Chamarthi was Chief Information Officer of TRW in the US and naturally wondered what was in store for her specially when ZF also had its own CIO. The elevation put all those doubts to rest but the bigger challenge lay ahead.

“I began getting more involved with the Technology Centre project as the leader in organising the entire team and planning the specific date of launch,” she says. ZF had already looked at Pune and Bengaluru as options while Chennai was also on its radar as part of the due diligence.

This was then Chamarthi met Telangana’s IT Minister, KT Rama Rao or KTR as he is better known, at his Hyderabad home. “He was really aggressive in promoting his city with tax incentives in a special economic zone,” she says. “He asked what we required in terms of people and said his government would go all out to help.”

This set Chamarthi thinking seriously about Hyderabad as the base for the Technology Centre. The team had visited Bengaluru, which is home to ZF’s fellow German competitors, Bosch and Continental. “The traffic in the city was chaotic and it was taking forever to travel from Point A to B,” says Chamarthi. “We were also worried if it made sense to have ZF in the same place as Continental and Bosch in terms of brand presence.”

By the end of the day, it was important to be part of an ecosystem, which offered a better quality of life with a more responsive government in place. The other positive about Hyderabad was that a lot of good engineering colleges were coming up, which meant ZF would have enough access to talent.

Team spirit

The decision was made with the ZF board approving of the location and an MoU was signed with the Telangana government to establish the Technology Centre. What Chamarthi was particularly pleased with was the fact that there was no ‘I’ in the team driving the India project. There were 21 of them from Germany, the US, Poland and Pune who worked in tandem as a global unit.

“This team had full time jobs and still volunteered to be on this project as an additional responsibility. Each of them was very focused and energetic with support coming in from our top executives in Germany,” she says.

The ZF board was convinced that with software content increasing across key domains, it was critical to access a large pool of talent. Eastern Europe was an option for sure but limited in terms of scaling up and this is where India came out tops.

The management also realised that ZF had a product presence in India but a minimal engineering representation in contrast. “Worldwide, German engineering is revered and it was important to establish our competence/competitiveness as part of the expand India plan,” says Chamarthi.

The inaugural of the Technology Centre in Hyderabad earlier this year was a tribute to the hard work everyone within ZF had put in to make this project a reality. The next step is to expand its scope in Pune while a few acquisitions could also help grow the India footprint.

The cerebral base at Hyderabad will carry out work both for the German parent’s global operations as well as India. The first project will be to localise the nine-speed transmission for the Asian market.

Employable graduates

“We are also looking at engineering experts from Germany and the US to create a curriculum in some schools across India where they can also come in as guest lecturers. Talks are already on with some institutes,” says Chamarthi. The idea is to make ready employable graduates even if they chose not to join ZF.

Going forward, the plans include kicking off a start up incubator at the ZF Technology Centre.

KTR has also set aside a 40-acre parcel in Hyderabad, which can house a test track similar to MCity in Michigan, US. “He wants us to take this concept and replicate it in Hyderabad,” says Chamarthi. “ZF and the Government of Telangana will need to play an anchor role to attract the automotive ecosystem into Hyderabad.”

It has been an astonishing journey for this woman who had studied in Tirupati and had also worked as market research analyst for a small firm. She headed out to the US in 1994 for her masters in computer science and software engineering.

After relocating to Michigan with her husband, she reasoned that she stood a good chance of getting into an automobile company with her IT background. Chamarthi still recalls being interviewed at Chrysler with her three-month old son on her lap when he suddenly began crying.

“The interviewer was a mother herself and asked me not to worry but call her when I was ready,” she recalls. Chamarthi was back the next day with her son in tow and bagged the job! She has not looked back since then.

Published on May 25, 2017

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