Dilip K. Sundaram began his career as an accountant, and received his MBA from the Simon Business School at the University of Rochester, NY. He joined Mahindra and Mahindra in 2010 and is currently the President of Mahindra Korea. He was recently invited to sit on the Seoul Foreign Investment Advisory Council (FIAC) and is also the Chairman of the Indian Chamber of Commerce in Korea.
1. Congratulations on your new appointment. When did you first come to Korea?
I’ve been here 4, 4 ½ years now. I’ve been loving it. I’ve had wonderful experiences here – in the assignments that I’ve worked on and with the Korean people I’ve met.
2. Forbes ranked Mahindra among the top 200 most reputable companies in the world. But for those people who aren’t familiar with The Mahindra Group, or for those who only know about the SsangYong outfit, would you please briefly tell us a bit about the company and which business fields Mahindra Korea will be involved in while in Seoul?
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. We are in the automotive and farm sector businesses as well as in information technology; aerospace and defense; and holidays and leisure through Mahindra Holidays. We’re in automotive components; energy; and solar power. In Seoul, Tech Mahindra [the information technology business of Mahindra and Mahindra] has tremendous potential. Also, Mahindra recently acquired Peugeot Scooters. We reviewed these operations and found there is enough potential to double our dealerships in the next twelve months to capture 20 percent of the import leisure bike market here. And we’re also talking with Korean aerospace and defense companies to develop those businesses. We are very excited about the potential here.
3. You were selected this year as a new member to sit on the Seoul Foreign Investment Advisory Council (FIAC). What made you decide to join the council – Was there a specific motive? And how does it feel now that you are a member?
I was honored to be asked to join the council because this council can really help the mayor and the Seoul Metropolitan government in taking foreign investment forward, in assisting them with ideas and initiatives that will bring in more foreign investment to Korea and into Seoul particularly. I hope that I’ll have the opportunity to interact with the other members and make a positive contribution. I am also the Chairman of the Indian Chamber of Commerce in Korea, which means I don’t just sell India to Korea. It also means that I sell Korea to India. Being a member of FIAC is just an extension of that. I’m selling Korea, and Seoul, to all foreign investors, not just to Indian investors. These two roles are completely interconnected in that way.
4. What are some of the most unique aspects of running a business in Seoul, as compared to other cities? Please share some of your experiences with us.
The language challenge has been unique, but this can be mitigated in two ways. One is having great help but even with great help and colleagues – they need to know you and the way you think so when you say something they can understand exactly what you mean. That takes getting used to on both sides. The other thing is, when you’re dealing with the outside, you get to eventually recognize the problems that you’re going to encounter. Being mentally and intellectually prepared for these problems and becoming very careful in how you say something helps to avoid being misunderstood. You get used to just being careful about how you communicate. Once you overcome that, life gets very easy. Working in Seoul is not difficult. Seoul is one of the most efficient cities in the world and probably one of the safest. It is very easy to live here.
5. You mentioned that you are now also Chairman of the Indian Chamber of Commerce in Korea. What major areas are the Indian corporations branching out to in Korea?
Over the years, Tata came in with Tata Daewoo – that was in automotive; Mahindra came in with SsangYong – again in automotive; then there was Novalis in aluminum. Then of course some IT companies came in. But today, there’s a lot more interest in electronics and pharmaceuticals. I would say that’s India’s midterm interest. The immediate term interest is how to get Korean companies to invest in India. There is interest also in heavy manufacturing and shipbuilding. Korea is the world leader in shipbuilding and India has probably the largest shipping market in the world, so it just makes sense for Korean companies to take advantage of the dockyards in India and build ships there with Indian labor at less than half the cost. That would be a win-win for both parties. So those are the areas that we’re looking into at this time.
6. India enjoys a reputation for producing outstanding human resources not only in India but worldwide. What do you think is the reason for that? What is the ratio of native Indian to Korean employees in Mahindra Korea? What differences are there between the two types of staff?
India is similar to Korea in the sense that the focus of Indians is on education. That is a fundamental factor in how these leaders are molded. India is family oriented so as you start working with a company you build a family around you – in the company, which gives you the support to rise up. The two cultures are similar. One thing with my Korean staff is that they are very efficient, very process-oriented. The Indian staff are able to be very flexible to the demands of the project as it’s happening. We don’t have many Indian expats. This will all be staffed and run by Koreans. That is really the objective. We are still too small at this time to talk about ratios, but as we grow, our vision is that this would be an entirely Korean run operation, with maybe a couple of expats here.
7. Are you involved in any activities outside of work? What do you like to do when you’re not working in Seoul?
Yes, very much so. I play golf. I’m not very good but I’m an enthusiastic golfer. I try to get out as much as possible, though not as often as I would like. The most recent thing I’ve started that I find most exciting is learning Taekwondo. I just started a few months ago and I’m proud to say I’ve graduated to a yellow belt. I’ve still got a ways to go but I count every day, every belt as a blessing, as a gift. And everyday I’m excited to go to my Taekwondo class. I live in Korea; and there’s a Taekwondo class just two minutes away from my house. I felt it would be a shame if I didn’t learn something so Korean.
8. Apart from getting your yellow belt in Taekwondo, what do you consider to be your greatest achievement in Seoul so far? What is on your list of goals?
I was a part of the team that helped SsangYong turn around. That was the most gratifying for me. I came here initially as Co-Receiver of a company in bankruptcy. Here was an iconic company. And its situation was heartbreaking for Koreans. My role turned into a CFO role, and working with such a dedicated, loyal team that wouldn’t give up, that would never say die taught me resilience. They went through the worst and they still had hope. I learned resilience from them and I worked with that team and that is probably the most gratifying work that I’ve ever done in my life. I’m very grateful for having had that opportunity.
9. Do you have any advice to give to prospective investors who are considering Seoul as their investment destination? What factors should they consider before they commit?
Yes, first of all, Seoul is a great investment destination; it’s a great place to live. But do not come here with any short-term motivations. Make sure that you’re here for the long-term. Only then will you really see the benefits of your investment, will you see the return on your investment. This is not a short-term tourism destination; this is a long-term investment destination. And that is how investors should see it.
10. Finally, please give us your thoughts on how Seoul can become an even better investment destination for foreign corporations.
As a foreign investor here in Seoul, I would like to see the Seoul government take a lead in promoting business amongst foreign companies, perhaps playing a role in offering some contracts to foreign companies. The Seoul government along with other provincial governments could work out a scheme by which they offer certain pieces of business to these foreign companies who clearly want to work here but are finding in difficult to get adequate critical mass, which you need to take off but which requires effort and support. That is really where I think the Seoul Metropolitan Government can help.