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The new face of Hyundai India

October 27, 2007 09:54 IST
Days after having completed the exercise for the Budget 2007-08, finance secretary Ashok Kumar Jha, a 1969-batch Indian Administrative Officer of the Andhra Pradesh cadre, got an offer out of the blue.

For a bureaucrat who was set to retire March-end and determined not to go back to any government job, the offer was worth serious thought.

Korean automotive giant Hyundai Motors, the second-largest passenger car maker in the country after Maruti Suzuki, had approached him for becoming president and whole-time director of its Indian operation. It was the long-serving bureaucrats' first ever contact with the Korean company and he was taken aback by the offer.

"Why me", he is reported to have asked the Hyundai interlocutors.

The Koreans were determined to hire him for the second-most important job in their Indian operations. They had checked out Jha thoroughly – from the Korean ambassador India and even the Chennai-based business community.

Jha took his time to mull over the offer (he also had a couple of other offers from private companies). Two months after the initial contact, he indicated his willingness. By that time he had retired from the civil service, after a 38-year long stint that had seen him hold key positions in the corridors of India's state and central administrative apparatus.

He is perhaps the only civil servant alive to have extensive work experience in foreign policy, industrial procedures, export and trade matters as well as economic affairs among other areas. His request to be allowed to serve in a private company was finally cleared on October 24 by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Jha will step into a role that BVR Subbu, a powerful and seasoned corporate campaigner, had demitted over a year ago.

The new job is a challenging one. Unlike being in the government, where proper procedure dominates decision making, a private sector role at this level is quite different.

While managing director HS Lheem, a Korean, is the top man at Hyundai India, Jha will be the public face of the company based out of Delhi.

Analysts say a key part of his responsibilities will be government relations. Automobile companies are among the most heavily-taxed in India, with the combined incidence of central and state levies accounting for over 40 per cent of the consumer price of a car.

For years now, a key component of Hyundai's business strategy has been exports. The company has tried hard to get some export concessions and in the future this will be a key item on its agenda.

Jha's expertise will be a key factor in this regard. It is perhaps no coincidence that Maruti Suzuki is headed by 1965-batch UP cadre IAS officer Jagdish Khattar, while another former IAS officer P Balendran is the head of General Motors India's corporate affairs and also serves on its board.

The new job will provide an opportunity to see how things work on the other side. While Jha is raring to have a go at it, one wonders whether his golf handicap will improve. By his own admission, it had suffered a lot while he was at the finance ministry. Wonder what Hyundai will do to it.

Siddharth Zarabi in New Delhi