Engineering the Future: Swarna Ramanathan’s Transformative Career in the Automotive Sector

Swarna Ramanathan | Partner at McKinsey and Company
Swarna Ramanathan | Partner at McKinsey and Company

In 2003, a young mechanical engineering graduate from India embarked on a journey into the complex world of the automotive sector. This individual, now widely recognized as Swarna Ramanathan, Partner at McKinsey and Company, started her professional journey as a CAD/CAE engineer in a tier 1 supplier. She meticulously developed vehicle subsystems and parts digitally, subjecting them to rigorous virtual simulations. A significant turning point unfolded when General Motors established its tech sector in India, and Swarna, with her engineering prowess, played a pivotal role in setting up diverse functions in manufacturing, engineering and styling.

Her career trajectory took an international turn, with roles in the US, Germany and Sweden, leaving no stone unturned in the realms of automotive design and engineering. In 2011, Swarna, driven by a relentless pursuit of knowledge, pursued an MBA from INSEAD, France. The subsequent chapter led her to McKinsey and Company’s automotive practice in Frankfurt, where she seamlessly blended her engineering background with a comprehensive business lens.

For the past 5-6 years, she has been at the forefront of intriguing developments, finding herself in the most exciting phase of her career. As a McKinsey Partner, Swarna ardently supports clients in navigating the transformative trends within the automotive landscape, be it OEMs, suppliers, dealers, or players in infrastructure and energy.

Leadership in Flux

In the dynamic landscape of a technology-driven industry, leadership takes on a distinctive role—one that Swarna has mastered. “A lot of my leadership style has developed and grown over time, and I have learnt to adapt it to the situation at hand” she reflects. Swarna’s journey began with leveraging her influencing skills to foster collaboration among engineering colleagues and designers at GM. The early days were marked by the art of persuasion to align diverse perspectives on design themes at the studio.

The tipping point in passenger EV adoption occurred in the second half of 2020,” Swarna notes, recalling a pivotal moment for the automotive sector. Despite the economic challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, EV sales and penetration have continued to surge in major markets. Swarna’s leadership style evolved in tandem with the industry’s transformation. Today, her role extends beyond the studio, propelling her into leadership and board meetings with her clients.

Now my job takes me to more leadership meetings and board meetings at clients,” Swarna shares. In these settings, her mission is clear—to advocate for the digitization and electrification opportunity and guide clients on execution. Swarna stands at the forefront of change, guiding her team through a rapidly evolving sector. Her story resonates with leaders navigating the intersection of tradition and innovation, showcasing the adaptability and resilience required to thrive in today’s technology-driven business landscape.

Inspiration Amid Complexity

The pace at which technology is evolving is incredible. Swarna’s daily motivation stems from engaging in conversations with clients spanning various sectors. Automotive OEMs are securing battery suppliers and innovating supply chains. The energy sector is grappling with the challenge of meeting increased demand for electrons, while fuel retail explores installing chargers on forecourts and beyond. Retailers are strategizing on how to market and sell vehicles to consumers through digital channels.

Swarna emphasizes the complexity of the issue, noting that the boundaries are blurring between the sectors. It is this multifaceted challenge that fuels her inspiration and she embraces the opportunity to learn something new every day. This mirrors the interconnected and ever-evolving nature of technology and business, providing insight and inspiration across diverse fields.

Collaborate to Accelerate

Swarna emphasizes that at the heart of EV adoption is cross-sector collaboration. In a recent report on EV charging infrastructure, she co-authored, envisioning a cumulative €240 billion investment by 2030. “60 percent, or €130 billion, would support the planning, engineering and installation of new public and private charging points,” she states. The comprehensive plan includes upgrading power grids (15 percent) and expanding renewable-energy generation capacity (25 percent). Homeowners shoulder private charging point costs, potentially offset by government subsidies. Public charging points emerge through private operators or local utilities. Grid upgrades incur distribution fees for end consumers.

Swarna underscores the shift from an automotive-centric perspective, declaring, “This is not anymore an automotive-only question.” Instead, it necessitates collaboration spanning utilities, renewables, fuel forecourt operators, automotive OEMs, grid operators, and government authorities. The €240 billion investment signifies the shared commitment required across sectors. Swarna’s insights illuminate the intricate web of partnerships essential for the widespread adoption of EVs transcending traditional industry boundaries for a sustainable and interconnected future. Her call for collaboration emphasizes the collective responsibility in shaping the future of electric mobility.

Innovation Across Continents

I try to keep myself abreast of the latest in the sector by reading a lot aboutwhat is happening with investments, regualtions and technology trends around the world,” shares Swarna. Her commitment extends beyond borders, delving into global perspectives. “Not just Europe specific but also Asia and the US,” she emphasizes. Swarna collaborates extensively with international colleagues, particularly from the US, China and India, within the McKinsey Centre for Future Mobility. In this collaborative space, they exchange valuable insights, innovations and emerging business models from each region.

Recently, Swarna embarked on an insightful journey to China, engaging in an EV safari with local colleagues. “To experience firsthand the battery charging and swapping technology,” she notes, underlining the importance of immersing oneself in the field. Witnessing the rapid innovation by indigenous players in China, Swarna’s approach reflects a commitment to understanding diverse perspectives and staying at the forefront of advancements ensuring her insights contribute to the global conversation on the future of mobility.

Norway is another great example to learn from”, she emphasizes. Norway’s charging infrastructure is expanding rapidly to meet its growing demand. To date, more than 22,000 public chargers have been installed to service the more than half a million EVs on the country’s roadways. In a recent publication, she concludes that examining Norway’s charging infrastructure development illustrates that investors and operators who consider and apply now the experiences of early-adopting EV markets can better position themselves as leaders in the swiftly transitioning mobility space.

Unveiling the Carbon Quandary

In a recent piece of research work our automotive and sustainability practice did, we saw that Tailpipe emissions from cars, trucks and other road vehicles account for around 75 percent of all carbon emissions from mobility—approximately six gigatons of CO₂ per year,”

Swarna highlights a significant environmental concern. This alarming statistic equates to nearly 15 percent of total global CO₂ emissions. However, Swarna sees this challenge as an enormous opportunity for business leaders. The new EV value chain in Europe would be worth some €91 billion. This revelation sparks a vital conversation about the intersection of technology and sustainability, urging business executives to recognize the impact of their decisions on both the environment and the economy.

The Triad of EV Adoption

Swarna recognizes the intricacies of the global landscape and she notes that It is indeed a complex environment across regions and countries. To decipher the adoption rates, she outlines a three-dimensional approach applied universally. ‘Supply of vehicles is a critical factor, in evaluating powertrain technologies and the evolving supply chain for batteries and components by region. Regulations emerge as another pivotal dimension, acting as a catalyst for EV adoption. Swarna notes the private sector’s response to regulatory incentives, which fuels investments in factories and infrastructure. Lastly, ‘Consumer sentiment and pull’ form the third dimension, where Swarna conducts surveys worldwide, gaining firsthand insights into drivers’ experiences, impressions and assumptions about EVs.

Acknowledging the unique nuances of each country, Swarna conducts interviews to capture the diversity. “Putting these 3 dimensions together helps us understand the level of adoption, investments and future-looking growth opportunities by region,” she states.

Changing Lanes

I am a strong believer in Diversity and Inclusion,” Swarna affirms. In her leadership role, she ensures diversity across ethnicities, countries and genders within her teams. Recognizing the global nature of E-mobility, Swarna values the contributions of team members from diverse backgrounds, stating, “They add their bit of nuance to the problem at hand.”

Championing initiatives to increase women’s participation in the sector, Swarna draws on her own experience in a male-dominated field, sharing, “This is very close to my heart.” At every opportunity, she passionately communicates the excitement of being part of the sector, aiming to inspire and encourage more women to join. At an early age she created a group for women colleagues to network while at GM India, and has continues to delve on this topic as a passion,  at McKinsey, she runs leadership programs for women from the automotive and energy sectors.