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“It’s about the journey, not the destination.”: Govindarajan Balakrishnan

COO Govindarajan Balakrishnan shares how a back-to-basics approach and fuss-free motorcycle design have been key to Royal Enfield’s global success.

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Start the engine. The Royal Enfield purrs and slowly, the trials and tribulations of the day begin to melt away. More than 100 years of motorcycling genius vibrates beneath and, suddenly, it’s just the rider and the road.

Squeeze the throttle, and the motto, ‘Made Like A Gun’ is fast understood – the motorcycle accelerates forward like a bullet, gripping the curving pavement. But not too fast; this mid-sized motorcycle wasn’t built for hurrying.

It was built for enjoyment and racking up miles on the journey. Never in a rush to reach the destination, it’s all about the ride. "That’s what we call the pure motorcycling experience," says COO Govindarajan Balakrishnan.

"Every time you ride your motorcycle, the rider is one with the machine. That’s the ride that Royal Enfield provides its customers. And it’s the core brand purpose upon which this organisation has been built."

This meditative style of motorcycling is centred on the notion of an absolute connectedness between the rider and his machine along the vast terrain. Royal Enfield motorcycles are evocative, unintimidating and a pleasure to ride. This pure, nostalgic motorcycling experience is what Govindarajan says Royal Enfield customers are after.

"They don’t want to spend their lives in front of a screen," he says. "They don’t want to spend their lives reading about the experience of others. They want their own experience. It’s about the journey, not the destination."

Overcoming challenges

What does a needle factory have to do with worldclass Royal Enfield? Surprisingly, it pin points to the company’s earliest beginnings. The Indian motorcycle brand got its start in England in 1891 after two entrepreneurs – Bob Walker Smith and Albert Eadie – bought George Townsend, a well-respected, needle-turned-bicycle manufacturer.

The two renamed the company Enfield Manufacturing Company in 1893 on the release of their first bike, dubbed the Enfield. The next year, the bicycles started being called Royal Enfields and the slogan, ‘Made Like A Gun’ was introduced.

Then, in 1898, the company developed its first motorised vehicle known as a quadricycle. The name of the company changed once again to The Enfield Cycle Co – a name it used for 70 years.

Two years later, the duo decided to delve into motorsport as the public began to see it as a viable mode of modern transportation. Then, in 1901, the first Royal Enfield motorcycle was produced.

It came to India in 1955, and the rest is history. A division of Eicher Motors, Royal Enfield boasts the title of the world’s oldest motorcycle company in continuous production. The company created the mid-sized motorcycle segment in India with its unpretentious modern classic bikes.

And it all started with a small factory built in 1955 in an area near Madras known as Tiruvottiyur. Royal Enfield still carried out its manufacturing in that small factory when Govindarajan signed on as Senior Vice President in 2011 before becoming the COO in 2013.

Business growth has to be seen in conjunction with how we run our operations. Our commitment to sustainable operations plays a great role in our future success.

It was clear he had his work cut out for him, but he was excited for the challenge. "When I joined Royal Enfield back in 2011, my boss Siddhartha Lal and our CFO Lalit Malik told me that we had a huge potential globally in the mid-sized motorcycle segment and could be the leader, provided we fix a few things," he remembers.

"When the three of us sat down to figure out the challenges, we realised that in almost every area of the business, we had opportunities to make ourselves the best. We could conquer the global leadership position in mid-sized motorcycles if we overcame these challenges."

Out of all the challenges, Govindarajan chose to tackle those associated with product quality image and supply chain. He would focus on building capability and competency in product development for the long-term.

For product quality, he and his team formed what they call the Quality Management Office and funnelled all the issues from irritants down to failures. Then they formed 20 cross-functional teams, empowering each to resolve the issues.

Govindarajan invested so much time and effort here, spending countless hours with his team and travelling to the field to understand the issues from customers and mechanics. Today, when he looks back, he’s proud of what they were able to accomplish.

"The improvements on the product were very well recognised by our customers," he shares. "We started growing in sales, week on week, month on month and year on year as positive word of mouth spread. I won’t claim that this alone has created the demand, but its absence would have definitely come as a major bottleneck in our growth ambition."

Next, they got to work on the supply chain. If Royal Enfield was to be best in class, he says, then the supply chain would have to be highly prophetic and powered with full agility.

"When I was trying to paint a big picture of the future supply chain back in 2011, I saw a huge opportunity in an agile supply chain," Govindarajan says. "Our team took initiative to assess the supply chain based on the capability of supply partners and in-house manufacturing, technology, value addition, total cost of ownership and make versus buy. Based on these assessments, we arrived at a four-pronged strategy."

This strategy was dependent on strong supplier relationships, technology adoption, extracting efficiencies and co-locating supply partners. "When we work with suppliers, we promote co-locating, which is where we tell our supply partners to come closer to us," he explains.

"This helps cut off inefficiencies throughout the entire supply chain. If they are located nearby, it improves agility. Rather than designing in two different locations, for example, our designers and the supplier’s designers work together at the same desk."

Thanks to his early initiatives, Royal Enfield has been making incredible progress, and its supply chain is stable and technology-enabled. Over the years when NVA (Non-Value Added) was reduced, the company shared the savings with its supply partners too. It helped tremendously in the company’s profitability.

"This journey brought us from a single plant manufacturing capability of 3,500 motorcycles per month (with a lot of product-related issues) to three plants producing 100,000 motorcycles per month and that too with high quality standards," Govindarajan beams."Our team did a fantastic job in creating a truly world-class manufacturing set-up modularly."

Simply does it

Royal Enfield is known the world over for its uncomplicated, accessible, classic designs. Its focus is and always has been on the mid-sized motorcycle category. Not too big, not too small, but just right.

Our motorcycles have won many awards globally. It’s a testimony that our products have a truly global appeal and we understand consumers.

"We don’t make motorcycles with lower or higher displacement. We don’t make beasts, and we don’t make commuter motorcycles," Govindarajan explains. "We are mid-sized, about 250–750CC. Our focus is only in that segment of motorcycles, and I fundamentally believe as a core value that when it comes to our motorcycles, less is more."

And, that’s not saying these motorcycles aren’t evolved. On the contrary; the team at Royal Enfield is constantly infusing necessary tweaks and innovations. The keyword being ‘necessary’.

"We are not adding technology for the sake of it. It has to give an experience to the consumer," Govindarajan says. That experience is rife with nostalgia of a simpler time. For example, the ‘Classic’ looks like it came straight out of World War II with its huge mudguards, spoked wheels, slim tyres, small exhaust and single seat.

Side-on views showcase its timeless appeal with its distinctively shaped Royal Enfield engine, large bulbous air-cooled cylinder head and the climbing views of the seat, tank and headlight – each higher than the other and pleasing to the eye.

It certainly stands out from the crowd of over-engineered motorcycles that saturate the industry today. New bikes are constantly churning out, each boasting more features than the last. They have all the latest and greatest technologies, but it can feel superficial. Engineering for looks alone can never truly enhance the ride.

And Royal Enfield gets that. From the disc brakes up front to the electric start, fuel injection and ABS, these modern nods only work to enhance the rider’s experience – not detract from it. "Our motorcycles have won many awards globally," he says.

"It’s a testimony that our products have a truly global appeal and we understand consumers. We give them the experience they want and make them feel differentiated. In fact, it’s one of our core values. We’re fiercely unique and can’t be following the rest of the world."

Pure motorcycling

What started in 1932, the Bullet continues to deliver the pure motorcycling experience across generations of riders. The quintessential Royal Enfield, this unique hand-painted icon, is the longest-running motorcycle in history to be in continuous production.

It stands as a testimony to Royal Enfield’s philosophy of simple design and resilient build, making it what some consider to be a living legacy on two wheels. Over the years, the motorcycling brand has added five more distinct models to its line-up.

Along came the Classic, Rumbler, the retro 650 Twins (Interceptor 650 and Continental GT 650) and the adventure-ready Himalayan BS VI. While they’re all part of the Royal Enfield family, these models also have a unique flair for enthusiasts who revere and identify with their vintage feel.

Take, for instance, the Interceptor and Continental. While timeless and visually appealing, these two models are Royal Enfield’s most forward-looking motorcycles yet. They boast a cleaner design, fewer components, less weight and easier maintenance, the latter being a real bonus for its fans.

These motorcycles pass the SPAF test, named after two of the most common parts that require attention on a motorcycle – the spark plug and air filter. Many modern motorcycles have these in hard-to-reach spots, meaning an entire section must be stripped down in order to uncover them.

In a Royal Enfield, however, these parts are easy to access, thanks to the motorcycle’s simple design. Meanwhile, the Himalayan is all about versatility and comfort. This bike, with its low seat height and perfectly placed handlebars and foot pegs, unites the rider with the motorcycle in a comfortable upright posture.

Ready at the drop of a hat, the Himalayan features mounting points in the front and back and an LCD instrument cluster that makes tracking maintenance and miles feel like a breeze. And, the Classic 500 with its power, fuel efficiency, reliability and simple, yet gorgeous, styling is in a league of its own.

Drawing on an old-school, post-war design built around a dependable engine, it’s a machine that hits home on the simple pleasures of motorcycling. It’s the perfect mix of tradition and modern technology.

‘Made Like A Gun’ regardless of the make and model, Royal Enfield is a brand that needs no introduction. Its motorcycles have a cult following from enthusiasts who revere their vintage character and the unique thrum of their engines.

In a review of the 2018 Royal Enfield Himalayan on Thedrive.com, Eric Brandt lauded the bike for its pure motorcycling experience. "Part of the fun of motorcycling is in the raw, visceral experience it creates that can kind of be cheapened on an over-engineered bike.

Our suppliers are not seen as an external agency, they are seen as an extension of Royal Enfield.

With the Himalayan, it’s just you and the road … It’s up for pretty much anything. And isn’t that the point of an adventure bike?" he said. On YouTube, fan Anurag Sharma declared his affection for Royal Enfield motorcycles, saying, "It’s not just a motorcycle, it’s an emotion."

And Swamy Saranam chimed in, taking to the comments, writing, "When you start up, you forget everything and feel so high like a legend with its beat." And Royal Enfield nurtures its community of enthusiasts, launching accessories, hosting owner events and organising bike trips – even to Tibet and back.

This is a brand for the people. Surprisingly though, when Govindarajan first signed on, there was a myth that not everyone could own a Royal Enfield motorcycle. The motorcycle was hugely popular, and everyone wanted one.

But there was a disconnect. And it was something he took to heart. These iconic motorcycles weren’t meant to be an experience privy only to the rich. They were meant to be enjoyed by everyone.

"I had to see what I could do to get rid of this myth," he shares. "Royal Enfield is an inclusive brand. It’s not exclusive. We want our products to be both aspirational and affordable."

So, they got to work, looking at all of the customer-facing points to see where they could improve the product in both quality and price point.

"We started from scratch and went back to basics, improving the product quality at the base," he says.

"Together with our suppliers, we identified all of the issues and worked to kill the negatives attached back. We brought the motorcycles back to a level where everyone could own one."

Knowing consumers are price sensitive, they looked at all the ways they could control costs. Instead of taking something away from the product, giving a lesser motorcycle to the consumer, the team found ways to value engineers.

And they did it across the supply chain, removing as many inefficiencies as possible. "That landed us as a very profitable company," Govindarajan says.

"Today, everybody looks to our organisation as a benchmark. It’s fundamentally because it’s a good experiential package that we offer in terms of the cost, quality, brand and the way the whole product actually gives an experience to the consumers."

Going global

And, it’s an experiential package that is only getting better. While Royal Enfield is a world leader in motorcycle manufacturing, it knows it won’t stay that way if it rests on its laurels.

To continue long into the future, it’s important to stay focused on product development and aware of emerging technologies. For this reason, the brand created two cutting edge technology centres – one in India and the other in the UK in Leicestershire.

We’re fiercely unique and can’t be following the rest of the world.

"The first products we launched with this new 350-person team and tech centre were our Continental GT and Interceptor models, which are the twin cylinder 650CC motorcycles," he says.

"They won the best motorcycle award across the globe, almost everywhere we launched." Their launch is one of the first steps in Royal Enfield’s desire to become a truly global brand.

The two motorcycles boast a more powerful motor than their predecessors meant to appeal to riders in the UK and US. But with engine sizes of 650CC, the Interceptor and Continental are still smaller alternatives to brands like Harley-Davidson, which often tout motorcycles exceeding 1,000CC.

The goal is to carve out its own niche abroad, warming global riders to Royal Enfield’s distinctive mid-sized motorcycles. And, it’s working. "In the last two years, the response from the consumers has been outstanding," Govindarajan says.

"We never wanted to push our products onto the consumer. We always wanted to draw them in. We want them to look at our products and think, ‘Wow, this is good’, and, ‘I want this’. To an extent, that’s what we’re seeing in the countries we’re focused on."

In my view, if everyone feels that the strategy is co-created, then the success rate will be very high.

Taking the company global via the CKD (Completely Knocked Down) route means the motorcycles are exported in parts and not as one assembled unit. Once they arrive in the target country, the imported parts are then assembled at a local factory.

"We are looking at establishing other sites through the CKD route too, meaning we have small manufacturing sites across the globe," he explains. "We’ve made the decision as an organisation that we will be present, respect the law and give employment to the countries that require it. We will live the life of the consumer in those countries and make the motorcycling experience that we’re able to offer to Indians available to our global customers too."

Just as Govindarajan helped grow the mid-sized motorcycle market in India, he sees an opportunity to do this globally as well. "There’s a huge potential," he says.

"But the potential has to be exploited. We are the leaders in the domestic market and we can open up and grow the mid-sized motorcycle market globally too. "In order to do this, we have to understand the market, tune our products for that particular market and back it all up by CKD," he continues.

"We have seen growth in India through hyper local outreach, and network expansion through studio stores and are confident of our next phase of growth in the international businesses. And I think this growth in terms of percentages is going to be very high."

Part of this tuning is branching Royal Enfield into the buzzy new world of electric-powered vehicles. "The motorcycle is catching up and Royal Enfield has a team of experts working to explore the opportunities in this space. While we will definitely not be the first movers in this space, we will certainly be ready at the opportune time to address the changing trends, if any, when they show up," says Govindarajan.

"The technology and concepts used in electric vehicles is also coming up in the motorcycle industry. So, we’re looking at both ends of the spectrum – one being the current technology and the other, the consumer experience. We are looking at what new technologies should be adopted. It’s always our goal to make the very best products that can give the best experience to the consumers. And now we’re ready to do this on a periodic basis, globally every year now."

Looking towards the future, Govindarajan says Royal Enfield will be adopting more and more technology like IoT to gain greater control over its manufacturing processes. "I have to be focusing on creating enough scalability inside the organisation and also enough testing and infrastructure so we’re ready to face any disruption that comes up."

Living the brand

Royal Enfield ensures every one of its employees lives and breathes its brand purpose. The company deeply believes that its culture should reflect its customer-driven purpose of providing a pure motorcycling experience.

It’s only when its employees imbibe the core values of living the brand – being fiercely unique and knowing no boundaries – that its true purpose will be realised, Govindarajan says. For this reason, the employees at Royal Enfield, including Govindarajan, are privy to their pick of the line-up.

"We encourage every employee to ride our motorcycles and we reserve a few hundred of them just for this purpose," he says. "And since I am at a senior level, I can take one bike on rotation. So, once a fortnight, I go to the plant and pick a motorcycle off the conveyor line and take it home for a ride."

Not just for fun, he says doing so also lets him connect more to the brand and the customer. "It helps me understand how the manufacturing is delivering quality," Govindarajan explains.

"Plus, I’m also connecting with the motorcycle. As of late, I’ve been using the recently launched Interceptor with 650CC twin cylinders. It’s the bike I prefer for my weekend and longdistance rides."

Beyond the motorcycling test drives, all of the employees are also given five days of annual paid leave to get out and enjoy their bikes. And, perhaps the most exciting perk of being an employee is the fact that they get first dibs on newly launched products.

Strong partnerships

Being successful requires many things from a great product to continual innovation, strong leadership, a legacy of greatness and more. However, quite possibly the most important piece of the success puzzle is strong partnerships.

There’s an old saying that goes, "If you want to go fast, travel alone. If you want to go far, go together." Royal Enfield has chosen the latter. The company didn’t get to be the world’s oldest motorcycle company in continuous production by going solo. It’s relied on strategic long-term partnerships for its abundant success.

"Our suppliers are not seen as an external agency, they are seen as an extension of Royal Enfield," says Govindarajan. "I fundamentally believe that when you become part of our supplier fraternity, you are very important to us. Having said that, some are very strategically important and some tactically important. But we do view the importance of each one.

"We work with our strategic supply partners on year-on-year improvements. Together, we see what can improve," he says. "We also have training with them on a regular basis, so they feel like they’re a part of Royal Enfield. When there are launches, we invite them as our friends. And, we look to them on sustainability."

For Royal Enfield, it’s become more and more important to be a responsible manufacturer in regard to the health of the planet. "Protecting Mother Earth is a window through which our business has to be seen," Govindarajan stresses.

"Business growth has to be seen in conjunction with how we run our operations. Our commitment to sustainable operations plays a great role in our "As a manufacturer, we must meet all the government regulations on air and water pollution, as well as factory inspectorate compliance needs," he continues.

"However, we always go one step further. Since we brought in sustainability as one of our strategic initiatives last year, all of our plants are now water positive with zero discharge and zero nonrecyclable plastic usage."

The Miyawaki method was used to establish forests at all of Royal Enfield’s manufacturing sites. Also called the Potted Seedling Method, it is an afforestation technique that uses native species to create dense, multilayered forests. Pioneered by Japanese Botanist Akira Miyawaki, this approach helps to ensure that the trees grow faster, and the resulting plantation is much denser than usual. This overall density has been linked to lowering temperatures, making soil nutritious, supporting local wildlife and sequestration of carbon.

Royal Enfield has also made strong strides towards carbon neutrality, planting a Miyawaki forest at all of its manufacturing sites. It also installed a solar power system in two of its plants and is working to harness enough renewable energy for 80% of its energy requirements.

"At the design level, we make sure all of our designers do a check on the material selection to ensure we use only recyclable material at the end of the life of the product," he says. "I’m personally leading this entire initiative to be the responsible manufacturer who protects Mother Nature for future generations."

Leadership style

To "jump start" his day, all Govindarajan has to do is head to the office. He gets a jolt from going in, seeing his team and colleagues and figuring out the day’s plans. "Every day, I spend some time on our new products’ progress and interact with the designers and our engineers," he says.

"It’s a good energy booster, which keeps me going for the day." And when he’s not thinking about Royal Enfield, he’s riding a Royal Enfield. Govindarajan lives the brand, and his passion shines through in his leadership.

He subscribes to the belief that to become successful, it’s imperative to help others succeed. "When the leader is coming with a win–win mindset, all of his team members tend to collaborate and build on ideas together – it brings out the best in everyone," he says.

"So, in any conflicting situation, that’s what I always look for, the win–win." In regard to strategy, Govindarajan relies on collaboration. "In my view, if everyone feels that the strategy is co-created, then the success rate will be very high," he shares.

"I always tell my team that meticulous execution and being honest about it with single-mindedness will be the success of the strategy. It can be fully achieved if the team genuinely feels that they were a part of creating it. That will make everyone more passionate about seeing the success."

Summing up his leadership style in four words – authentic, transformational, empathetic and supportive – it’s no surprise that Govindarajan says he makes sure to spend extra time creating an atmosphere where everyone’s views are heard.

"Every year, we do two workshops digitally with everyone across the organisation to discuss what we need to achieve now and for the future," he shares. "We also host town hall meetings every month with our employees to hear about the progress, and we take their input into consideration in order to constantly improve."

And, when the day is done and the long work week is over, Govindarajan unwinds by going on a weekend joy ride with his wife – an absolute "must" in his book.

Whether it’s the Classic 350, the Thunderbird 500, or his latest love, the twincylinder 650CC Interceptor, he hops on and takes off, getting lost in the classic riding experience. Joyfully racking up the miles, he’s not worried about the destination.

It’s all about the ride. It’s motorcycling in its purest form, and that’s the magic of owning a Royal Enfield. It’s not just a motorcycle, it’s a way of life – pure and simple.

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