Mahindra Auto CEO in North America to retire at month's end

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Now that Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. has won over U.S. trade regulators with the redesign of its off-road Roxor vehicle, the role of the Indian manufacturer in the U.S. remains up for debate, the outgoing CEO of its North American business said Thursday.

Richard "Rick" Haas says now is the right time to depart while India's largest SUV maker undergoes a global leadership transition and reviews opportunities on where to conserve cash and invest in projects with profit potential. Meanwhile, the company is on track to resume production of the Roxor side-by-side before the end of the year.

Rick Haas, the CEO of Mahindra Automotive North America, is retiring from his position at the end of March.

"In the short term, that's going to take the better part of this calendar year," Haas said. "Beyond that, everyone's doing a lot of soul-searching around the globe. The pandemic has caused everyone to take a step back."

Expansion of the automotive business in the United States "depends on how successful the launch of the Roxor is," he said. "There's potential the team will get back to some kind of expansion in the United States. After this, it'll depend on what the new management decides to focus on."

Haas led the way in bringing Mahindra's automotive aspirations to the United States. The company was the first new automaker to open a plant in Michigan in more than 25 years and now has more than 600,000 square feet of space in Auburn Hills, Troy and Pontiac. Viren Popli, CEO of Mahindra's agriculture business in North America, will take on Haas' responsibility for the interim.

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"Building up the business basically from nothing is frankly the highlight of a 40-year career," Haas, 61, said. "Almost nobody gets to do that, not in my industry."

Haas joined Mahindra in 2011 as senior vice president of product development with more than 30 years of experience at Ford and Tesla Inc. He returned to the United States in 2013 to start the Mahindra North American Technical Center in Troy. In 2017, he became CEO of Mahindra Automotive North America to facilitate the manufacturing, sale and distribution of the Roxor. Haas will continue as a senior adviser for the next few months to help with the transition.

The International Trade Commission in December approved design renderings for the post-2020 Roxor off-road vehicle from Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., saying it no longer infringes on Jeep's intellectual property.

The side-by-side began production in 2018. It soon got caught in a legal battle with Jeep, however, as the SUV brand claimed the Roxor's design violated its intellectual property. The U.S. International Trade Commission agreed, and Mahindra stopped production in June, laying off more than 100 employees in the Auburn Hills plant, the Roxor sales team and some engineers.

Even still, Roxor set year-over-year sales records in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the company. The ITC in December cleared a redesign of the Roxor for production and sale. The 2022 model will relaunch for availability later this year, though the timeline has not been finalized, Haas said. Retooling, however, has begun.

With the automotive group now aligning closer with the agriculture business, there may be synergies further partnership offers. About one-third of Roxor dealers sell Mahindra tractors.

"They would need to stop and take a step back and ask how any expansion would be done," Haas said. "Perhaps there could be a rural flavor with the cooperation in the agriculture business. That's something that would depend on the Roxor relaunch and how that's going to look."

Haas said he is looking forward to finishing up renovations on his downtown Ferndale home and taking a few months to think about what is next.

bnoble@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble