Dealerscope 2018 Hall of Fame Inductee: Dinesh Paliwal
Coming into the role of President and CEO at a new company is no easy task, no matter what industry you’re talking about. There are so many nuances and personalities that you have to learn how to navigate—as well as the company culture and the new industry that you have to get used to.
Now, imagine trying to do all of that while also being the first person at the helm to not have a last name that matches the name of the company. That’s the exact scenario that Dinesh Paliwal faced when he was hired as President and CEO of Harman International in 2007, succeeding company co-founder Sidney Harman.
“He founded this great company in 1953, built an amazing portfolio of brands, built himself deep into the professional audio world,” Paliwal said. “Of course, he got into automotive—he had the foresight and vision that automotive would be a big market, so he got in in 1999. The rest is history. Today, we are the icon when it comes to professional audio in cars or in venues. We are the leading company who supplies to the digital cockpit in the automotive industry.”
What Harman got when it hired Paliwal is an individual who has a global presence about him. After leaving his home country of India as a 23-year-old, Paliwal earned multiple master’s degrees in engineering (from the Indiana Institute of Technology) and applied science and engineering and an MBA (from Miami University in Ohio).
Upon finishing school, Paliwal began his global career path, moving from office to office around the world. In total, he’s lived and worked in six countries of four continents—China, Switzerland, Australia, India, Singapore, and the U.S.
“That has very heavily influenced who I am today and how I operate, how I build the teams I build—very global, very transparent, very respectful,” he said. “Those things are very synonymous with our values that we have in our company.”
It also plays heavily into his management style. In particular, he noted that having the courage to move from country to country helped him become comfortable when it came to taking risks in life. There’s really no bigger risk than uprooting one’s life and settling down in a completely unknown culture.
“The number-one risk was when I left India. That was my comfort zone,” he said. “Coming to the U.S. when I was 23, I knew nothing about where Miami or Ohio was, what were the values of Americans, how would I fit in. Would I even speak the language right with a heavy accent all over the place?”
Risk, Paliwal warned, often carries with it a negative connotation—one that often leads people to think that the individual is careless or loose in their thinking.
“Risk-taking is all about calculating and preparing very hard,” he said.
The Samsung Deal
Without taking some of those calculated risks, Paliwal might not have accomplished some of the amazing achievements he has throughout his 22-year career—particularly in the last 10 years at Harman.
When asked what has stood out to him, a humble Paliwal pointed to “building the best teams, best boards, and a culture of transparency and openness” at each stop along the way to Harman.
But one that stands out above all that to the CE industry is, without a doubt, the recent partnership formed with Samsung. A little over a year ago, the Korean firm announced that it had agreed to purchase Harman International and bring it under the Samsung banner.
“I’m a firm believer that no company, whether it’s Google, Microsoft, Apple, or Facebook, no one company can do it alone. So, Samsung’s acquisition of Harman couldn’t have happened at a better time,” Paliwal said. “With Samsung’s deep innovation, R&D, and deep balance sheet, I think we are able to catapult and leapfrog many of these areas (AI, self-driving cars, etc.) that would’ve taken us a long time.”
The process of completing the deal, while thought to be complex and complicated from an outsider’s perspective, was the exact opposite, according to Paliwal. “From my vantage point, good deals happen fast and happen happily without much struggle.”
There had been rumors of various tech firms looking to acquire Harman around that time, but as Paliwal put it, Samsung was the first to approach about any possible acquisition offer.
“Our first face-to-face meeting was September 8, 2016, and we announced the deal on November 17, in nine weeks. That’s quite remarkable,” Paliwal said. “As soon as we announced, a Samsung executive and myself, we traveled to our top 10 customers worldwide. Started in Detroit ... and we had such a strong endorsement, 100 percent endorsement. They said two things: One, ‘Hey, thank you. The automotive industry needs scale, they need depth of innovation, and a strong balance sheet—Samsung, you bring that. Harman, you bring the credibility and the competence and the expertise around what automotive needs, so this is a marriage we will embrace if you guys can execute.’”
Keys to Success
Deals like the Samsung acquisition are a testament to Paliwal’s leadership style and that corporate culture he’s set up among his leadership team at Harman. But the ability to do that extends well beyond corporate culture.
“Good leaders are well-traveled, well-immersed in different cultures, and have respect for people of different colors, genders, and geographies,” Paliwal said. “My leadership style has emerged and evolved over time. I had rough edges when I was in my 20s and 30s. I always thought that I was the best person around and that I could do better than anybody. Quickly [as I traveled from country to country] I realized that I would never be able to scale anything that I do unless I had the best people around me.”
Paliwal also said advice he received from Dr. Harman has stuck with him throughout his career.
“Two things I still remember and I tell people about: He was a big-picture guy. He always saw very deep beyond the horizon. And he used to get philosophical, but he was a well-read person. I always like to think big, because if you do not think big you cannot dream big and you cannot tell people how to create a vision,” he said. “Second, he believed in people. He was very trusting, he built great teams, and people would start to follow him. I don’t want people to follow me, but building that kind of trust is what made people work for him as a leader.”
Additionally, Paliwal credits his attention to maintaining a proper work-life balance to his success in his career. Spending time with his wife of 31 years and two now-college-graduated children has helped keep him grounded, but also on his toes at times, he said.
“Work-life balance doesn’t mean that you need to work X amount of hours, then you don’t work X hours. Work-life balance starts with a strong family,” he said. “And family doesn’t mean you need to have lots of children—it’s whoever, your partner, your parents. In my case, it’s my two kids and my wife, and they’ve been an incredible source of energy and critique. Because I follow the same approach at home that I do in the office, and that means I invite a lot of critique—my children still correct my English, and my wife still reads more than I do. I learn a lot from them, I love them, and I trust them.”