Increasingly in management circles, especially when it comes to family businesses, there is talk of going back to the founder’s mentality. Many businesses are, after all, set up by enlightened leaders with a clear vision and values. Several companies have museums dedicated to their founders, and their thoughts splashed across the walls.
In India, which has a rich history of family businesses, it’s only now that companies have begun the serious task of archiving their origin and history. ‘Business biography’ as a genre is finally picking up, with our industrialists setting aside their hesitation and penning their stories. There is much to learn from these books, as many of our pioneering entrepreneurs were also nation-builders in a way; their stories paralleling India’s own growth story. Two-wheeler giant Hero Group’s story is one such fascinating saga of enterprise, grit, determination and ambition that spans from the time of Partition to the present.
Sunil Kant Munjal’s anecdotally-rich account of the Hero Group’s origin, growth and journey is really important, because it not only brings to the fore the founders’ beliefs, but also almost serves like a course in general management. From product, pricing, branding and marketing, scaling-up strategies, managing people, setting up distribution networks and a vendor ecosystem to coping with adversity and leadership styles, the book covers the full spectrum of business-thought powering the Hero Group.
The book also plays up founder BM Munjal’s uniquely Indian concept of business dharma, that was shaped by his reading of ancient Indian texts. The spiritual subtext and layer of philosophy that describes the destiny driving the four Munjal brothers — Dayanand, Satyanand, Brijmohan and Om Prakash — is again unique.
What’s especially nice is that all this business wisdom is packaged in a highly emotional family saga — one that evokes the memorable television series Buniyaad . The way the characters and the events unfold — the little boy who runs away to a gurukul , the accident-prone uncle, the poetic uncle, the ravages of Partition, the struggle for survival, BM Munjal’s brief flirtation with the glamorous world of ‘Bombay’ before a partner cheats him, the way his family tricks him into coming back to Delhi, the shocking loss of the eldest son at the age of 42 and the family reaction — you feel like you have literally entered the Munjal family’s world and are part and parcel of their journey. To their credit, the Munjals are a quintessential Punjabi family, large-hearted and very people-oriented.
The first-person narrative really helps in building a rapport with the reader, and you feel so glad that Sunil Munjal, the youngest son of BM Munjal, has chosen to tell the story himself. The book is painstakingly put together with help from professionals, and the growth of Hero Cycles (set up in 1956 set up with a seed capital of ₹50,000) and Hero Honda (set up in 1985) also give you a glimpse of the economic and social realities of the time.
Actually, the story starts much before the setting up of Hero – 1932, when BM Munjal was 10 and lived in a town called Kamalia, about 185 km away from Lahore. This was a time when the Subcontinent was reeling under the impact of the Great Depression of 1929 and the freedom struggle was picking up. From Kamalia to Quetta, Amritsar, Agra and Delhi; then Ludhiana and finally back to the NCR, the story follows the Munjals’ journey seeking opportunity. Bicycles and sewing machines they were familiar with, and hence they gravitated into these areas.
Spliced through the book are some really interesting nuggets that will delight trivia seekers. For instance, while recounting how BM Munjal approached mistris from the Ramgarhia community to solve some knotty technical problem involving bicycle handles, the author casually mentions that spinner Harbhajan Singh and fast bowler Jasprit Bumrah, considered masters of their craft, also belong to this community.
The book covers fair ground, from production to distribution. But I personally loved the section that covers the evolution of brand Hero and the marketing thought that went into the various campaigns of Hero Cycles and Hero Honda motorcycles. The name ‘Hero’ should have been enough to sell the image of strength and reliability. But Sunil Munjal highlights how enormous toil went into building brand Hero and earning it the equity it enjoys today. From Chale Hawa ki Chaal , the first jingle for Hero Cycles crafted by a freelance filmmaker, to the iconic Fill it, Shut it, Forget It tagline for Hero Honda and a long and abiding relationship with HTA (now JWT), the journey of the campaigns is fascinating. BM Munjal was very clear that Hero’s customer was aspirational yet frugal, ready and willing to move from bicycles and scooters to fuel-efficient motorcycles, and this was the thought behind that campaign.
The use of sports to build the Hero brand (through the Hero Cup) and the right media placement of Hero spots (during the airing of Mahabharata ) all helped to make the brand a household name.
The Honda connect
The other section that I really enjoyed in the book was the one covering the association with Honda, how the partnership was sealed and why it broke up. Apparently, Honda had received 140 applications when it evinced interest in riding into India through a partnership, and how the Munjals managed to make it to final shortlist is riveting stuff. Also, the cultural differences that BM Munjal and his nephew Yogesh experienced during their trip to Japan is recounted hilariously.
So, what impressed the Japanese about the Munjals? Quite a lot of things, but Sunil highlights the fact that workers touched the feet of BM Munjal and his brothers at the factories and the culture of respect certainly must have swayed Honda.
The Honda deal was not without its nervous moments. Just as the Munjals had sewn up the partnership, came the 1984 riots in Delhi. Writes the author: “It happened at a very inopportune time for Hero. The joint venture agreement with Honda had been signed for 1984 and we had to get the venture off the ground as quickly as possible. “
The partnership succeeded, and even though the parting in 2010 was poignant, it was amicable.
There is lots to take away from this book. But ultimately, it is the philosophy of nurturing relationships on trust and mutual respect that stays with you. Apt, because Hero has always been a people’s brand.