Tata Motors executive Karl Slym dies after Bangkok hotel fall

Slym was beginning to make long-term changes at Tata. Photo credit: Reuters
UPDATED: 1/27/14 11:25 am ET - adds closing share price

MUMBAI -- Karl Slym, managing director of India's Tata Motors, died on Sunday after falling from a hotel room in Bangkok.

Slym, an Englishman who joined Tata Motors in 2012 after a 17-year stint at General Motors, had gone to Bangkok to attend a board meeting of Tata Motors Thailand.

Thai police on Monday said early findings indicate that Slym committed suicide. "We didn't find any sign of a struggle," said Police Lieutenant Somyot Boonyakaew, who is heading the investigation.

"We found a window open. The window was very small so it was not possible that he would have slipped. He would have had to climb through the window to fall out because he was a big man. From my initial investigation we believe he jumped," he said.

Slym, 51, was staying with his wife in a room on the 22nd floor of the Shangri-La hotel.

Leadership vacuum

Tata Motors shares fell 6 percent, the most since Jan. 24, 2013, to 348.25 rupees at the close Monday in Mumbai trading.

Slym's death creates a leadership vacuum at the maker of the sub-$3,000 Nano car at a time when the country's passenger-vehicle industry is bracing for its first fiscal year of sales declines in more than a decade.

"His death comes at a time when the company seems to be close to turning the corner," said Anil Sharma, an analyst with researchers IHS Automotive. "It comes before his efforts bear fruit. We should be able to see the results in a year or two."

Tata Motors recently introduced a new gasoline engine for its passenger vehicles and was planning to launch a hatchback and compact sedan this year, the first all-new Tata-branded passenger vehicles since 2010.

In an interview last year, Slym said he was seeking to breathe new life by adding improvements into the egg-shaped Nano and that Tata Motors overhauled its manufacturing process to ensure fewer problems after cars roll off the assembly line.

GM career

Slym was born in Derby, central England. He began his career as a general manager at Toyota before moving to GM in 1995. He held various roles with the U.S. carmaker in locations including Poland, Germany and Canada.

He was hired in 2012 to revive Tata's flagging sales and market share in India.

"Karl was providing strong leadership at a challenging time for the Indian auto industry," Tata Motors Chairman Cyrus P. Mistry said in a statement.

Slym led Tata's operations in India and international markets including South Korea, Thailand and South Africa, but he did not look after the Jaguar and Land Rover luxury unit. Ralf Speth heads the bigger and more profitable Jaguar Land Rover, which Tata Motors bought from Ford Motor Co. in 2008 for more than $2 billion.

Before joining Tata Motors, Slym was executive vice president of SGMW Motors, China, a General Motors joint venture. Before that he had headed General Motors in India. Slym oversaw the sale of a 50 percent stake in GM India to SAIC of China and announced the company's plans to enter the light commercial vehicle market in India.

Cricket and Bollywood

Friends described Slym as a jovial man who loved cricket and Indian films. He was also active on Twitter, often promoting Tata Motors products and avidly commenting on sports.

On his Twitter profile, Slym described himself as a "Britisher who just can't stay away from India!! Crazy for most sports and loves to know what's going on everywhere!! And hearing from everyone!!"

"He was quite an affable, chilled-out, cool guy. He loved cricket and Bollywood like any Indian," said Hormazd Sorabjee, editor of Autocar India and a friend of Slym's. "From his point of view, at Tata Motors there was definitely light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

Thai police said they were called to the Shangri-La hotel around 7:45 a.m. on Sunday after staff found Slym's body. They woke up Slym's wife, who looked shocked when she was told what had happened to her husband. Police found a three-page note, written in English, which they were translating into Thai.

Reuters and Bloomberg contributed to this report

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