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India is Full of Aspirational Motorcycle Riders

There’s enough room for higher end motorcycle companies to grow in India provided they respect the customer, Royal Enfield ex-chief Venki Padmanabhan tells Forbes India

Published: May 17, 2013 06:47:11 AM IST
Updated: May 17, 2013 06:38:01 AM IST
India is Full of Aspirational Motorcycle Riders
Image: Vikas Khot

Venki Padmanabhan
Last Position: CEO of Royal Enfield
Education: BSc in Mechanical Engineering from Birla Institute of Technology; MS and PhD in Engineering Management/Industrial Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh
Career: Worked at Chrysler, Mercedes, and Gene-ral Motors in the US, Germany and India

Q. What were your accomplishments at Royal Enfield that will hold the company in good stead?
In terms of learning to work in India, I’ve been through lower and upper kindergarten, first standard and just passed second standard. Not quite appropriate for a second grader to talk accomplishments! I met great people, among employees, dealers and customers; and eagerly learnt a thing or two about motorcycles. Surely, I got my kicks developing and launching the Royal Enfield Classic and Thunderbird and watching our production, sales, margins and stock grow. I may have contributed a bit by eliciting a ‘can-do’ spirit in this family.

Q. How easy or difficult was it to settle down in India after having worked in the US for a long time?
Very difficult. In four years, my progress can be charted by wanting to run back every week to having the panic strike maybe once a month! It’s one thing to recreationally learn and enjoy a culture. Not having ever worked here before, learning to work in a new culture is frightfully difficult. You first learn to stop being a judge, and when that necessary threshold of humility descends, you learn to listen and sense the nuances.
I can’t begin to enumerate the big things that were staring me in the face that took me years to recognise. I’m now reconciled to the fact that although I’m happy to work here for the rest of my working life, I will never get good at it; always a bit behind. What I miss the most about the US is the unbridled, often dogged optimism and bravely innocent transparency. What I love most about India is the resourcefulness and hunger.

Q. How do you see competition playing out in the segment Royal Enfield is in?
Again, only four years in the motorcycle trade, so my view is quite limited. All you have to think of is what happened with cars, as the median car engine capacity crept up over time. Where we started in India and where we are today. Those that truly care for and understand customer needs, tastes and hopes, and adapt with precision and humility will always do well. The higher end of motorcycles in India sits at the top of a teeming mass of aspirational riders. There is a lot of room for those that respect them and care.

Q. Why are you leaving the automobile business altogether?
Honestly, it is most accidental [like] most of my jobs and career moves. As I approach 50, I find myself getting a bit bolder and a bit more adaptable. I’ve now been at EICL [since March], a 50-year-old mines, minerals and biopolymer company. I find striking similarities to time-tested remedies. I also find crisp new issues to grasp, resolve and master. For those thinking of it, just do it. If you’re skilled, brave and adaptable, they can’t keep you down for long.

(This story appears in the 31 May, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)