On a brisk grey Delhi winter morning, Siddhartha Lal takes a break from his breakfast spread to chuckle at the sunny guilelessness of youth. “How difficult could it possibly be to sell 500 more motorcycles, I thought. Just 500 more motorcycles. In any case, what was I supposed to work on if we sold Royal Enfield? Tractors?” Motive, rationale and utopian innocence notwithstanding, the moment in 2000 when Lal famously took a stand at an Eicher Motors board meeting and asked to be given a chance to save the loss-making Royal Enfield (RE) is now corporate lore.
We’re dunking 8 am espresso macchiato at the All American Diner at India Habitat Centre, and Lal has already wrapped up an early morning photo shoot. “I have phases when it comes to work, and these days are just packed,” says the MD and CEO of Eicher Motors, who’s (obviously) wheeled in here on his Enfield Classic 500. He looks the part too, in a yellow ‘Made like a Gun’ T-shirt, the trademark Continental GT-embossed short Brando leather jacket and red leather biking boots. Unkempt hair and a day’s stubble complete the look. But, Lal isn’t pretending to be anything but himself — the neo-purist. “For me, being true to the brand means keeping the idea of what makes it special intact, not the actual physicality of it. The Bullet, if we’d stuck with the physical — the cast-iron engine, gear-shift on the right, drum brakes — would be absolutely dead right now.” In retrospect, the abysmal state of affairs turned out to be an advantage. “I figured it can’t get worse. I think that’s a brilliant way to enter a business, at least for me. If you join something that’s doing terribly well, then what can you possibly do to make it better?” asks Lal.
That’s been the gist of Lal’s inside-out overhaul of Royal Enfield: a new engine and components, and now, with the Continental GT, an entirely new platform and chassis, while keeping the heritage tag unadulterated and evolving the bike’s appeal to a younger set of riders. For a brand that has inspired intense loyalty over its half-a-century existence, it’s been anything but an easy ride.
I lament the demise of the ignition breaker point-set assembly in the new Enfield line-up (which most enthusiasts loved tinkering with), and Lal gives me a desultory look. “Let’s say you’re one of them. Actually, you are one of them,” he adds after a moment’s deliberation. “If we’d catered to the likes of you, then we would never have got here. In India, what the Enfield meant to people was the look, the silhouette, the feeling you got when you rode it, the emotion around it, and we’ve made sure that hasn’t changed.”
It’s not difficult to visualise the opposition Lal faced in the early 2000s when Enfield riders swore by the cast-iron 350cc and 500cc engines that had done tours of duty virtually unchanged since the late 1950s. “It was a step-by-step process. There’s been no big-bang approach in the 15 years I’ve been running RE. We couldn’t change the platform suddenly so we made small changes to the fit and finish and brought the cast-iron engine up to a point,” he says, while admitting that selling more motorcycles was only the tip of the problem. “In 2000, there was a general slump in the industry and RE was bleeding money. We were selling less than 2000 motorcycles a month. And, when I jumped in, I realised that besides the product, everything else — the staff morale, the culture, the availability of parts, training of service personnel — needed a complete overhaul.”
Sometimes, the answers can be quite simple, as when Lal dropped by into an RE dealership in Hyderabad in his early days at the helm. “It was this dim, grimy place with peeling posters and pre-historic plastic chairs, and I was just aghast,” he says. Lal’s advice to the dealer to spruce up the place elicited the classic response so well-known to all Enfield enthusiasts: those who want to buy a Bullet will buy a Bullet. “We’d been selling only five bikes a month for a decade in Hyderabad. So, that philosophy didn’t seem to be working,” he says. Lal proceeded to open a cleaner, larger showroom with “well-dressed proactive salespeople”, and within six months, sales had gone up tenfold. “The dealer was like, ‘What the hell is going on here?’, and proceeded to clean up his act. Within a year, RE was selling 100 bikes a year in Hyderabad.”
Attitudes in the distribution network were easier to change than among the aficionados for whom any engine changes were anathema. “I had people tell me that a right-shift Bullet isn’t a Bullet at all,” he says, with an accusatory glance. By all accounts, the Enfield Classic, which was launched in 2010 and shares almost no components with its predecessor, managed to retain its authentic feel. “The cast-iron engine, much as I love it, was archaic technology and breaking at every point. Our new unit construction has the same feel. You can still ride it at 40km/h in low gear. It still has the nice sound, and it works. And, then, the CB points system, which you’re so cross about, was just so old hat. If you have a mechanical, as opposed to an electrical, system for getting your power, then you’ll always suffer if there’s a slight mismatch. And, in the modern world, people don’t want to be doing settings and working on things all the time. There’ll always be some hard-core blokes like you who want to tinker about. But, we needed to break away and make sure that those guys came along as well. We haven’t and are never going to make a Japanese clone, but we’ve got to move along.”
Lal’s ambitions for RE have turned global with the launch of the Continental GT last year. Inspired by Enfield’s celebrated model of the same name in the 1950s, the café racer features a new chassis, designed from scratch by noted British chassis-maker Harris, and a genuine mid-rev 535cc thumper. Lal reprised Enfield’s English heritage by launching it at the iconic Ace Café, in London, a celebrated haunt of gangs of Rockers in the 1950s who rode, among other bikes, the original GT. A large congregation of the global motoring press attended the launch.
The UK is an important market for Enfield, and Lal is obviously proud of the company’s new store in London. “People love it and after taking a look at the bikes, they Google us, and that’s when the entire back-story comes into play. Riders in the UK feel really reconnected with the brand,” he says. Surprisingly, he’s as focussed on the US market as he is on the British one. “Sales of the GT are good, and our international markets have actually got a big bump up this year. Really firing for us overseas are the markets in the US, the UK, Germany and France. The US used to be the biggest importer of British motorcycles in the old days and, in terms of revenue, it’s still the biggest market for motorcycling,” he says. Lal took a big stride towards establishing the brand in the US when he managed to convince Rod Copes, ex-global head of sales for Harley-Davidson, to come on board to head Enfield’s US operations in August this year.
Even though he’s still on the boards of Eicher Motors Limited (EML), Eicher’s joint venture with Polaris Industries and the commercial trucks division, Lal’s operational involvement is limited. “My work is now more project-based and focussed mostly on brand and product. I hate micro-managing,” he says.
He doesn’t need to, given the kind of resurgence RE has enjoyed since the launch of the Classic in 2010. The company sold 1.75 lakh bikes in 2013, registering a 55 per cent jump from 2012. In the past three years, while the Indian two-wheeler industry has grown at 4 per cent year on year, RE sales have gone up by more than 50 per cent. For the first time since it was acquired in 1991, optimism stemming from RE’s performance has boosted Eicher Motors’ shares. For Lal, the gamble seems to have paid off, but he seems reluctant to be classified as a renegade. “I wouldn’t call myself a risk-taker. In fact, I’m downright conservative when it comes to the financial side of the business — no debts and huge cash surpluses. We have an amazing balance sheet and we keep it that way. I don’t need to worry about how to service my debt or the vagaries of business and markets. My mind is free.” What he really means is that RE won’t make commuter bikes simply because that’s what’s selling in the Indian market, or 1000ccs that make more revenues in the international one. “We don’t want to follow markets. We want to do something new that stays relevant. It’s like the difference between a Vauxhall and a Porsche from the 1980s — dated versus the timeless. We want to be relevant to people in the 21st century, but the idea — the fun and freedom you get from riding a motorcycle — stays the same.”