Jan. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Thai police said early findings indicate Tata Motors Ltd. Managing Director Karl Slym, head of the carmaker’s Indian operations, committed suicide.
“The preliminary investigation indicates that this may be suicide,” Police Lieutenant Somyot Boonnakaew, who’s leading the team probing the case, said by phone today. “We don’t think it’s murder because there is no trace of a struggle.”
The 51-year-old executive, who was in Bangkok with his wife to attend a board meeting of the company’s Thai unit, probably fell out of a small window from his suite on the 22nd floor of the Shangri-La hotel, Somyot said. While investigators are still determining the precise circumstances of Slym’s death, a letter was found in his room and authorities haven’t concluded whether it’s a suicide note, according to Thai police.
Tata Motors fell 6 percent, the most since Jan. 24, 2013, to 348.25 rupees at the close in Mumbai trading. For India’s biggest automaker, Slym’s death creates a leadership vacuum at the manufacturer 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 declines in more than a decade.
Slym, who joined Tata Motors in 2012 after a 17-year career at General Motors Co., was in charge of the company’s India business and sought to spur demand for the Nano, once marketed as the world’s cheapest car, by repositioning it as a second vehicle. Ralf Speth heads the bigger and more profitable Jaguar Land Rover operations, which Tata Motors bought from Ford Motor Co. in 2008 for more than $2 billion.
“Karl was beginning to make long-term changes at Tata Motors,” Vikas Sehgal, managing director for the automotive sector at Rothschild & Sons in London, said in a telephone interview. “His loss will be felt deeply by Tata Motors.”
While Tata Motors was seeing a recovery in overall earnings -- profit surged 71 percent in the three months ended September and analysts estimate net income doubled last quarter -- they were driven by the Jaguar Land Rover operations. Tata Motors’ standalone operations that were headed by Slym posted a loss during the latest fiscal half as products such as the Nano failed to attract customers.
Minari Shah, a Tata Motors spokeswoman, said no decision has been made on Slym’s replacement.
Slym’s wife, who was staying with him at the hotel, will be interviewed today, Somyot said.
Slym’s room has no balcony and has a wide window, which can’t be opened, that has views of the Chao Phraya river, and a small window next to it, which can be opened to let in fresh air, Somyot said. Slym may have fallen from the smaller window, he said.
“It would be difficult to force him out of such a small window,” Somyot said.
Studying all the evidence will probably take about two weeks, Somyot said. Pornchai Suteerakune, commander at the Institute of Forensic Medicine, told reporters today that Slym died from his fall yesterday.
At the Shangri-La hotel this morning, some foreign visitors were lounging by the main swimming pool, while in the lobby people wearing suits and ties were heading into business meetings.
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.
Tata Motors is the automotive arm of the Tata Sons Ltd. group, a business empire headed by Cyrus P. Mistry that includes more than 100 companies in industries ranging from steel to call centers and chemicals.
“Karl was providing strong leadership at a challenging time for the Indian auto industry,” Mistry said in a statement yesterday.
The Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, which has forecast a drop in passenger-vehicle sales this fiscal year, said this month the industry was still going through a rough patch as an economic slowdown damps demand for cars and SUVs.
Slym was born in Derby, central England, and graduated in 1984 from his post-secondary education in production engineering at the city’s University.
He started his career as a general manager at Toyota Motor Corp., before moving to GM in 1995. He held various roles with the U.S. carmaker in locations including in Poland, Germany and Canada. Following his move to India, he was featured in GM’s advertising campaign in 2008 to 2009.
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.
Slym was the second GM executive to be appointed managing director at Tata Motors. The company previously hired Carl-Peter Forster in 2010 from GM in Europe. Forster quit after less than two years at the company.
Slym, who was a soccer and cricket fan, is survived by his wife, Sally, whom he married in 1984.