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Tata Motors top executive dies from fall in Thailand; police suspect suicide

Karl Slym, managing director of Tata Motors, looks on during a news conference to announce their second quarter results in Mumbai November 8
Karl Slym, managing director of Tata Motors, looks on during a news conference to announce their second quarter results in Mumbai November 8

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Aradhana Aravindan

BANGKOK/MUMBAI (Reuters) - Karl Slym, managing director of India's biggest automaker Tata Motors Ltd , died after falling from a hotel room in Bangkok in what police said on Monday may have been suicide.

Slym, 51, a British citizen, had attended a board meeting of Tata Motors' Thailand unit in Bangkok and was staying with his wife in a room on the 22nd floor of the Shangri-La hotel. Hotel staff found his body on Sunday on the fourth floor, which juts out above lower storeys of the complex.

"We didn't find any sign of a struggle," Police Lieutenant Somyot Boonyakaew, heading the investigation, told Reuters.

"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."

Boonyakaew said police found a three-page note, written in English to Slym by his wife, which they were translating into Thai. "The wife wrote the note because she wanted her husband to know some personal things ... Yes, they did argue," he said after speaking with her.

The couple had been married for about 30 years and had no children.

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.

An autopsy on Slym's body was conducted on Monday, police said without elaborating.

A Tata Motors spokeswoman declined comment on the possible cause of Slym's death. A company statement on Sunday said Slym provided leadership in a challenging market environment.

Slym was driving a turnaround in the company's domestic operations. Investors worried about potential delays to these plans after his death sent shares in Tata Motors down as much as 6.7 percent on Monday in a broader market <.BSESN> that fell more than 2 percent. The stock ended 6 percent lower.

"He had been given a sort of free hand. For another professional to step in and enjoy the same confidence, with this same management, is difficult, it will take time," said Deepesh Rathore, director of Emerging Markets Automotive Advisors, based in Gurgaon, India.

TURNING THE CORNER

Slym was hired in 2012 to revive Tata's flagging sales and market share in India, the world's sixth-largest auto market by unit sales. Tata Motors is part of the sprawling software-to-steel Tata conglomerate.

"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 petrol 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.

Slym led the automaker's operations in India and international markets including South Korea, Thailand and South Africa, but he was not responsible for the Jaguar and Land Rover (JLR) luxury unit that Tata Motors acquired in 2008.

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 cant 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."

Tata Motors had lost traction in the Indian passenger vehicle market as domestic and foreign rivals rolled out new models while it mostly tweaked existing models and offered heavy price discounts.

The firm has not had a hit car at home since 1998. Sales of the Nano, the world's cheapest car which it unveiled in 2008, have been lacklustre.

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.

(Additional reporting by Swati Pandey and Sumeet Chatterjee in Mumbai and Panarat Thepgumpanat in Bangkok; Editing by Tony Munroe, Miral Fahmy and Mark Heinrich)

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