Talking to General Motors\' Timothy E Lee


General Motors, the iconic American auto brand, is making every attempt to resurrect itself from the lows it went through recently, such as filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, exit of top executives and the shutting of several factories across the globe.

On his maiden visit to India, Timothy E Lee, president, international operations, speaks to Swaraj Baggonkar, about the company’s early steps towards the resurrection and what role India would play towards it. Edited excerpts:

You were appointed chief of international operations in December. What are your primary objectives?

My objective is creating a future for the second century on our company’s history and I think places like India is where such histories, quite honestly, will be made. We had an extraordinarily difficult period of 2009. I lived through the daily bankruptcy process, once it was initiated on June 1, shoulder to shoulder with Fritz Henderson and others, and it was a humiliating process for the company.

As we emerged from the bankruptcy 39 days later, the company was humbled as a consequence and with the leadership now of Ed Witerker (president and CEO) in position, there is a very strong plan going forward, with a balance sheet in the US that has been repaired and with a strong product offer around the world. The best days of General Motors are yet ahead of us.   

With GM being one of the strongest brands in China which is also the focus area for the new GM, where does India fit in?

To me, India fits into a place where we have a huge opportunity to go the Chevrolet brand to create an ownership experience for our customer, and our objective is to retain our customers. We want to create a service experience which is second to none. There is a huge opportunity in India.   

Are you planning to bring in some of the popular brands within the Chevy brand to India?

The import duty required to sell the other kinds of Chevy vehicles like Corvette or Camaro is quite extensive to do it for the buying public. We will have a boutique offering for those kinds of brands but those will never be the volume products for India. Every one of those products will create its own space in India, but it will be very small in numbers.

How does GM see the Indian market in general?

I do not see India compared to any other market, looking at the opportunities we have. It is best compared to itself. The growth opportunity within the market is quite strong.

How important a role will the research and development centre of India play in your overall plans?

We have dedicated significant resources into our technical centre in Bengaluru and we will continue to grow our capability there. We have the ability to do a vehicle from bumper to bumper and we know exactly what we need to do, from a design standpoint, from a engineering execution and, perhaps the most important concept, of vehicle integration – how the vehicle comes alive between the engine and transmission, chassis components and vehicle interiors.

Is the Indian technical centre in touch with the Chinese centre?

There is certainly the flow of technical information because we have data pipelines working round the clock around the world. All our engineering centers have the same access to the data in product programmes, so there is interaction between our engineering and research centre here in India with the tech centers in Adelaide or in Michigan or in Sao Paolo.

What time frame have you set for an India-built car?

Karl Slym, president, GM India: We have set the time frame around capability, rather than having the car. These architectures are already owned by various engineering centres. We have given ourselves the plan of 2012-13 for architectural capability and then it will be for the corporation to decide as to which architecture goes where.

Lee: The sooner the better.

GM sold a little more than 11,000 units last month, while Maruti sold close to 85,000 units in the same month. It is predicted that India car sales will double to three million units by 2015-16. What market share would you rather be comfortable with then?

I would rather not give a number right now. It depends largely on how well we execute our commercial vehicle plan here. We are completely underrepresented on the CV side. It is 40 per cent of the (total automobile) Indian market and if we do not do a double-digit, then we would be disappointed.