Why Royal Enfield is no ordinary motorcycle brand, but the makings of an urban legend

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The gold border on the cover of the new book by former business journalist-turned-author Amrit Raj, Indian icon: a cult called Royal Enfield, may seem to indicate that this is another part of a series of corporate golden hagiographies. But, less than halfway, it is perfectly obvious that this is not the case. Raj has been careful to include the smallest details of the struggles and obstacles as well as the efforts of a great multitude of people who have created and supported the Royal Enfield brand.

The book also combs through the occasional missteps that have prompted the brand to thoroughly rethink and then restructure its operating methods, often to the detriment of its loyal clientele. Missteps that created a lot of internal friction, but ultimately fermented the kind of change that built the company’s fortunes and paved its path for the far too crucial decade to come. In a detailed Zoom chat, Raj describes what it’s like to understand RE’s appeal and what made him take a closer look at its non-linear learning curve.

When and why did you decide to chronicle the history of Royal Enfield?
I am not a biker, but I am a keen observer of brands due to the training I had as an economic journalist. And, for some reason, Royal Enfield has always fascinated me. The idea [about writing a book] brewed for some time, but the process started two years ago. If you buy a Maruti Suzuki car, it provides you with excellent service; if you buy a Hero bike, it gives you excellent mileage. But there is nothing tangible that Royal Enfield offers its customers. The mileage is not that great, neither is the service. So what is it about this brand that appeals to people so much? I realized that more than the product, it’s the story it represents. It gives you something that other products don’t have. And you can’t quantify it.

The outlines of the Royal Enfield success story have been frequently discussed and documented. How did you make sure your account was different from these?
Royal Enfield was sold to the Lal family for a sum of Rs 3 crore, and the current valuation of the company is Rs 10,000 crore. Many people have claimed that the business was in the right place at the right time. But if you look at this number, it cannot be by pure chance. They took it from a doodhwala brand to a thousand-year-old brand. You don’t see this transition normally. And I realized it’s not just Siddhartha Lal’s story. Many people have played a role in building this brand. And this book is their story.

Do you think it was the lack of a similar product, or do you think there was something particularly appealing about the Bullet itself that made the success of the RE?
There has always been an aura around the brand, and I think that’s what prompted the Lal family to take over the business in the 90s. Everyone remembers the Bullet. Either their uncle rode it or their father did. Or they borrowed their neighbor’s bike and took him for a ride. When I was a kid, if a Bullet passed by my house, I would go out to see what it was. And even when the bike took off, the thud remained. This curiosity is part of the years of growth of many people of several generations. And that has remained an important part of the brand’s history, even though the brand almost went bankrupt in the 1980s. There was almost nothing, the plants were dead, the machines were dead. But the Bullet was a superstar.

You have written extensively on the role of former Royal Enfield chairman, the late Rudratej “Rudy” Singh. Would you say there was a chief architect primarily responsible for the brand’s latest transformation? Or has it always been a joint effort?
Over the past 30 years, the brand has had incredible leaders. And they all played their part for a certain length of time. People like Badri Agarwal, Venki Padmanabhan and Rudy – each had their part to play. Siddhartha has always been at the center of the brand, but if you overlook the role of one of these men, I don’t think the Royal Enfield story can be over. Rudy’s entry came at a time when Siddhartha wanted to go global. The company was making a lot of money and Siddhartha believed it was time to bring the brand’s roots back to the UK, where he built this tech center. When you sell 5,000,000 motorcycles a year, you can’t have technical problems. Rudy was brought in with the specific mandate that the culture of the company had to change, the way the company operated in the past would not define how it would operate in the years to come. Rudy came in and brought his marketing brains to Unilever and a lot has changed during his tenure. Sales increased from approximately 3,000,000 units to 8,000,000 units. Profitability increased to 22 percent, which was the highest in the industry.

You also mentioned the friction Rudy endured with the old guard. Something that had been speculated but not widely reported.
It happens in many companies, when a new leader comes in and wants to make some change, you still have some resistance from the old guard. For all the good work Rudy did during his tenure, I think people management could have been a lot better.

What do you think the old guard was doing differently that plagued the company with mechanical issues, which at one point became synonymous with the brand?
They hadn’t realized that what they were doing was not in line with what a typical customer would want. This is where Rudy wanted to make some changes. For example, the Himalayan fiasco that happened, when you’re nine months away from meeting a regulatory standard, you can’t use a previous generation emissions standard. If it’s a new product, it should have new technology. From Siddhartha’s perspective, the idea was not to run after numbers. But with Rudy’s approach, the demand for bikes has grown organically.

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