10 Questions with Dilip Sundaram

10 Questions with Dilip Sundaram President of Mahindra Korea and Chairman of the Indian Chamber of Commerce in Korea (ICCK)

Mr. Dilip Sundaram came to Korea 4 1/2 years ago with a specific mission; to help pull Korean automotive company, SsangYong Motors, out of bankruptcy. The company behind the SsangYong Motors buyout was Mahinda – an Indian conglomerate with a 16.9 billion dollar global federation of companies in over 100 countries. Mahindra Korea was established in 2013 and Sundaram was named company President in August.

Before coming to Korea, Sundaram worked for companies such as United Technologies Corporation and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Sundaram has an MBA from the University of Rochester. He considers America home but has lived and worked in seven different countries including Australia, China and Spain. Now he’s busier than ever. On top of his role as President of Mahindra Korea, he serves as the Chairman of the Indian Chamber of Commerce in Korea (ICCK) and is a member of the Seoul Foreign Investment Advisory Council (FIAC).

Sundaram insists Mahindra Korea deserves to be known in its own right, not simply as the acquirer of SsangYong. 10 Magazine caught up with him and learned about his plans to bring positive change and growth to the potential-packed Korean market.

1. You’re a busy man. Tell us about your adjustment to the position as President of Mahindra Korea and your role in the ICCK. 

It has been a busy two years since we established Mahindra Korea. My role as the CFO of SsangYong was very operational, whereas success in my current role as President of Mahindra Korea is directly correlated with public relations and ensuring that Koreans get to know Mahindra in a positive light. My position as President of Mahindra Korea and the Chairman of the ICCK go hand in hand. ICCK’s primary role is to educate Korean businesses on the attractiveness of India as a ma rket for Korean products and as an investment destination.

2. Mahindra has its hand in a number of industries. Explain Mahindra Korea’s current endeavors and its future plans to move past the automotive and manufacturing sectors.

As far as products that are coming into Korea, Mahindra just bought Peugeot Scooters and we are focusing on that company. There is enough potential to double our dealerships in the next year or so to capture 20 percent of the import leisure bike market here. We also have Tech Mahindra, the information technology business of Mahindra, and we are aggressively looking to expand that business. Those are the two businesses that are at the forefront right now. Some of the businesses that could be taken from here to India are aerospace and defense.

3. You came to Korea 4.5 years ago as a trustee to SsangYong Motors, which was in bankruptcy at the time. How did you approach the SsangYong situation? Where are you now?

Part of Mahindra’s success lies in a philosophy called “Mahindra Rise.” which rests on three pillars: accepting no limits, alternative thinking, and driving positive change. If these three pillars cannot be met, Mahindra will not enter into that business. SsangYong had been in bankruptcy three times before Mahindra acquired the company. Mahindra acquired it on the basis that it would not accept any limitations. Of course, you can’t execute a turn around by doing the same thing and expecting a different result. So we exercised alternative thinking to drive positive change and keep an iconic Korean brand in business. This is a perfect example of Mahindra “Rise”. I think we have made tremendous progress over the years, and I was fortunate to be part of this transitional process at the beginning.

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4. What is your vision for Mahindra Korea?

My priorities are very clear — I want to make sure that Mahindra is one of the most admired brands here in Korea. If I have accomplished that in my tenure I would consider that to be a grand success.

5. How does a foreign company like Mahindra become an “admired brand” in a country with a lot of loyalty to Korean brands?

Mahindra is one of the most admired brands in India and Mahindra’s aspiration is to be one of the most admired brands in the world. So this is only and extension of that. For us I think the path is very clear: we want to bring in alternative thinking — we don’t accept limits. So we would never accept Korean loyalty to Korean brands as a limitation to our aspiration. We want to be a part of the Korean fabric of life.

6. India has the fastest growing economy in the world. Why is it particularly important for Korea and India to be doing business together right now?

Particularly now that China’s fortunes have declined a bit, India really stands out. For India to continue their trajectory of growth, they need investment, and that investment could come from Korea. Korean companies are already well invested in the U.S. and I don’t think Europe or China are great investment destinations at this time – so that leaves you with India. India is probably the best investment destination that any Korean business could have if they want to globally diversify. That is the reason why India and Korea must engage.

7. You say part of your role as a member of the ICCK is to “sell Korea” as an investment destination. How do you do that?

It offers a strong market, well-developed processes, and systems and the people are very hardworking. The people are very efficient and execution excellence is really foremost in Korea.

8. What has been your most interesting discovery about the Korean consumer market?

The great thing about Korean consumers is that they are market innovators. They are trendsetters. For example, a lot of the fashion houses introduce their products here first. Companies know if something is not successful here — it will not be successful anywhere. I’ve seen that in a lot of different products here. Koreans embrace innovation and new technologies more readily than any other place in the world and that definitely did surprise me.

9. What would we find you doing on a random Saturday?

I have been learning Taekwondo for the last six months. Out of a class of 30, two of us just got yellow belts. It was a four year old and myself but both of us are very proud of our yellow belts. My wife and I travel around Korea and I have a border collie who demands a lot of my attention. I am also a huge history lover and I read a lot. Would you believe it if I told you I was reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar all over again?

10. You’ve worked all around the world — what has been your biggest challenge working cross-culturally? What are some take-aways for our foreign readers working here in Korea? 

I think fundamentally it is understanding the cultural nuances. When you’re working in a different culture you need to understand how people are going to judge you. In America, you could leave at closing time and people will not mistake you for it. Whereas in a different country, where the culture is to stay late, people will consider you less hardworking. People are trying to interpret what you’re thinking — not just what you’re saying. The challenges are not in the words that are spoken, it is in the unspoken where the challenges occur.

On Saturday, November 21st, the Indian Chamber of Commerce in Korea (ICCK) will be hosting their annual charity ball at the JW Marriott Hotel Seoul. Please refer to our November Business and Networking Editor’s Pick for more information.