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Karl Slym: A jovial person who won the hearts of many

January 28, 2014 17:17 IST

Karl Slym: A jovial person who won the hearts of many

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BS Reporters in New Delhi/Mumbai

Most find it difficult to imagine a frown on Karl Slym's face.

Did life's pressures get too much for the 51-year-old? Those who knew Slym vouch that he never came across as morose, defeated and taciturn - the conditions that can prompt suicide. 

On the contrary, he was affable, gregarious and always motivated. Even in moments of crisis, Slym's sense of humour remained intact.

In mid-2009, when he was heading General Motors India and the car maker had filed for bankruptcy in the US, he was joking with a Business Standard journalist how England were a better cricket team than India (they weren't). 

If there was tension in the company, none of it showed in Slym's square office in Gurgaon. His table was empty and uncluttered.

And he was an avid talker, certainly not the brooding types - the meeting went on way beyond the scheduled time till his associates came in to say they could not wait any longer. The situation was dire but he hadn't allowed it to become a pressure cooker.


Photographs: Courtesy, Tata Motors

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Karl Slym: A jovial person who won the hearts of many

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On June 1 that year, when the bankruptcy news broke, Slym did almost a dozen television interviews. By the end of the day, he was tired but unruffled.

He had anticipated this development, and his crisis plan was set in motion right away. Vendors were briefed, dealers were met and employees were given some pep talk. On-ground promotion was pumped up and Slym began to talk about new launches.

Film star Saif Ali Khan was yanked off the Chevrolet ads and Slym came in to assuage the fears of buyers. The advertisement showed Slym with his right hand on his heart. "I haven't removed it from there since then," he had said. Sales fell but did not crash. Slym worked round the clock.

A few months later, in December, Slym clearly had the crisis behind him when he met another Business Standard journalist over lunch at the Gurgaon Trident. 

Over sushi and teppanyaki, Slym recounted how he got a German name: His older brother was Kevin and he was supposed to be a sister, Karen.

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Photographs: Reuters

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When a boy was born, the Slyms named him Karl - to maintain the integrity of the K series.

Slym met his wife, Sally, at the insurance office after he had crashed his car as a 19-year-old.

The two had celebrated their wedding anniversary in September at the island of Lombok near Bali.

Slym, also a scuba diver, had placed a giant concrete heart in a reclaimed coral reef to mark the occasion. Most find it difficult to imagine a frown on Slym's face.

Slym loved sports - cricket, football, rugby and rowing. He rooted for the Derby County football club, and, many years and several kilogrammes earlier, had kept goal for a "real team; not one in my backyard, but not a professional one". 

Those who worked with him remember him as a team player. After every press meet to launch a new car, he would take pictures of the photographers with the new car because these were the people who never got into the limelight. It was a sensitive heart inside a big body.

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Photographs: Reuters

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He was also an Indophile. It was the seventh country the Slyms had moved to. "It would normally take a week or two to acclimatise in a new country," Slym said. "It took longer in India - there were more things to get used to."

But they settled down soon. Slym is learnt to have even bought a house for himself in one of the Delhi suburbs. While Sally collected saris (Slym called it the "most elegant piece of clothing a woman can wear"), Slym loved to click pictures of the Kolkata trams.

That's because his father-in-law was overseeing a tram museum in England and was even planning to write a book on those.

One report said Slym felt that in his last birth he was a Kerala-born Malayali called Ramakrishnan and his profession was related to vehicles.

In 2011, Slym was posted by General Motors to China. But a year later, he was back in India, this time as the head of Tata Motors - he came two weeks before his contract started.


Photographs: Reuters

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Inside Bombay House in downtown Mumbai, where Tata Motors is headquartered, Slym was thinking big - how to jump up the ladder to the second spot -, though the company's domestic business wasn't doing too well.

Its market share in cars was falling, and the commercial vehicle business was down, thanks to the economic slowdown. Many thought Slym was being over-ambitious. But that didn't curb Slym's optimism and inborn buoyancy: He soon declared his goal was the top slot in the pecking order.

But there were changes visible even to the casual observer. Slym got into a public spat with Rajiv Bajaj (of Bajaj Auto) over quadricycles. He also became less accessible. Journalists often found that he wouldn't respond on the social media. That was not the Slym of old times, but it was no indication that the man had gone over the edge.


Image: Bombay House
Photographs: Courtesy, Tata Group

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