Karl Slym's 'to do' list at Tata Motors


Tata Motors should have been the undisputed heavyweight of Indian automobiles by now. With its Safari and Sumo vehicles, Tata Motors presaged, by many years, the rise of the SUV. In the Nano, it offered the promise of a revolutionary automobile in design, function and affordability, one that would have Indians hopping off their motorcycles and scooters in favour of it.

Yet, none of those things has happened. In fact, Tata has had to weather the affront of seeing Mahindra & Mahindra pip it to the third spot in the list of the biggest passenger vehicle (PV) manufacturers in the first quarter of this financial year. Consequently, Tata Motors has made one wise decision — to hire Karl Slym as managing director, a man responsible for turning things around at General Motors in India by introducing the ‘Beat’ here, a car which significantly boosted the American auto maker’s sales. Slym will need a lot more tricks in his bag, though, to make things sizzle at his new place of employment.

Un-aspirational brands
There are many things amiss at the company that Slym will have to address. First, the company’s latest product offering, the premium crossover Aria, has failed to embed itself in the imagination of car buyers. So, while M&M is booked solid for the next few months for the XUV500, Aria volumes have dwindled to a few hundred units between April and August this year. The Aria and the personal pickup vehicle, Xenon, posted sales of only 284 units in between April and August this year, a fall of 78 per cent, against the 1,263 units sold in the corresponding period last year.

While Tata vehicles are sturdy, priced competitively and come in diesel versions, their extensive use by fleet owners and taxi operators has deterred customers from owning the Indica, the Indigo and the Sumo for personal use, say industry observers. According to industry estimates, Tata Motors registers nearly 60-70 per cent of sales in the PV segment for use as taxis. While this ensures a steady stream of business, the use of Tata vehicles in the commercial segment has dented the image of Tata as an ‘aspirational’ brand among car buyers.

“Some of the existing products in the passenger vehicle portfolio are not preferred by private consumers. Most of them are aligned for the commercial use and the slowdown has affected sales of tourist taxis,” says V Ramakrishnan, senior director (automotive practice, South Asia, West Asia and Africa), Frost & Sullivan.

Flagging sales
Tata Motors has also failed to cash in on sports utility vehicle Safari, despite it being launched in the market four years before the Scorpio. Then, there’s the Nano, a car that should have helped the fortunes of the company sky-rocket. It’s not as if the car didn’t break new grounds. “The Tata Nano taught us innovation,” says Ing Bernd Bohr, global chairman, Bosch Automotive Group. “We had to reduce costs dramatically for the project and did a lot of reverse engineering to meet targets.” The learnings are now being leveraged in more established markets in Europe to improve functionality of products being manufactured by Bosch. The car, in fact, did herald a new age of technology for the Indian automobile industry.

The sales results, however, were underwhelming. For one, the company has sold 209,441 units (till August 2012) of the Nano since its launch in July 2009 — much lower than the expected sales of 20,000 units a month. “The Nano has to be re-energised. It is imperative that the company develops a new pipeline of futuristic products and creates a strong customer preference for the Tata brand,” says Ramakrishnan.

These anaemic results have spread to other auto brands within the family. In the previous financial year, while the Indica range showed a modest growth of around eight per cent to 105,706 units, sales tanked by over 12 per cent to 77,733 units for cars belonging to the Indigo family. An analyst at a Mumbai-based consultancy firm who did not wish to be named says, “The issue is because of the price spectrum across which it has positioned its products. Tata Motors is locked at a particular end of the market. The centre of gravity has shifted upwards from the entry-level segment, and manufacturers who could not go across the range of products on offer in the passenger vehicle segment, felt the pressure on volumes and margins.”

The new messiah?
It is at this time of ebbing fortunes that the country’s largest automotive company has looked east and roped in General Motors veteran Karl Slym as its managing director. Slym, who had been serving as executive vice-president of Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SIAC) and Wuling Motor (GM’s largest operations in China), will lead the company’s operations in India and in markets including South Korea, Thailand, Spain, Indonesia and South Africa.

Slym has to contend with a company that has remained a legacy in the commercial vehicle (CV) industry. While M&M evolved from making tractors and expanded presence in the utility vehicle market in the country, Tata Motors is in transition, grappling with its brands and products, trying to figure out what should be prioritised and where the company could go.

From 100 per cent in the 1990s, M&M’s farm equipment division today contributes 34.5 per cent to the total sales revenues. Sales of CVs account for over 60 per cent of total sales revenue at Tata Motors. “It would be a personal challenge for Slym – who has limited experience in the segment – to ensure that the venture remains profitable,” adds Ramakrishnan.

Most of all, Slym needs to figure out a way to woo individual customers. “They have to identify legitimate and credible ways to make people see them differently, both in terms of product and branding and re-engineer their image”, says a senior executive at a leading brand management firm.

The fightback
Tata Motors is trying to use everything in its arsenal to stage a comeback. While the company did not share specifics of scheduled launches, industry sources say that Tata Motors is working on a refurbished Safari Storme, inspired by its upscale Land Rover range. Scheduled for a launch in the coming months, it is expected to be lighter and more spacious. On the cards, is a stripped down version of the Aria crossover that will be substantially cheaper than the current one, priced at Rs 12.61 lakh for the BSIV version (ex-showroom, Delhi).

The company is also working on a diesel-driven Nano, however, it is unlikely to be launched soon. Slym had been closely involved with the launch of a diesel variant of small car Chevrolet Beat at GM India which substantially boosted sales for the company. With him taking the reins from October this year, the diesel Nano may hit markets sooner and engineer the beginnings of a reversal of fortunes for the company.

The petrol-powered Nano clocks sales of 5,500-6,000 units a month and makes up 20-30 per cent of Tata Motors total passenger vehicle sales. Diesel-driven vehicles, led by the Indica hatchback, constitute 70 per cent. For now, Tata Motors is aggressively expanding independent sales outlets to extend the reach of the car. “Currently, there over 750 Nano sales outlets and during the course of the financial year, we will further expand in small towns”, informs a company spokesperson.

That’s good news from a distribution standpoint but until the company addresses its main problems — an ageing line-up and a wilting brand appeal — outlets will remain a side issue.