Ashok Leyland, Shenu Agarwal says, is only the second company that he’s worked in. Unlike many CEOs who have moved several companies, Agarwal, the 53-year-old Managing Director and CEO of Ashok Leyland, was for almost 30 years a one-company man with the Escorts group in New Delhi and in the US. Agarwal was the president of tractors and agri-machinery company Escorts Kubota, when he made the transition in December of 2022 to the trucks and bus maker.

It’s just the second day of the new year, and Agarwal kept his promise of meeting us after he completed a year in office. We meet Agarwal for a working lunch and conversation at the plush executive lounge of the Leyland office tower at a prominent corner on Chennai’s Mount Road, where traffic surges around in an incessant flow.

Our first volley to Agarwal is on how the transition has been from North to South India, as well as from an agri-biz company to a trucks and bus maker. Agarwal is thoughtful when he says that customer dynamics, of course, is different, but competitive intensity in buses and trucks, where there are three major players, Tatas, Volvo-Eicher and Leyland itself, is as much as it is in the tractors business — which has around 17 players, including major foreign ones.

Though it’s been a little over a year, Agarwal is still settling into the Leyland culture. “Although I worked for 30 years in the previous company — and this is only my second company — it’s not so much the dynamics of the business but the cultural dynamics of the company itself, to be able to understand and manoeuvre or change it in a particular direction, is a bigger challenge. And that takes time, to get the right relationships and understanding,” he explains.

This is Agarwal’s first stint down South to work and he’s liking the pace of life in the city. It takes only 11 minutes to get to the office, he says, whereas in Delhi, to his office in Faridabad, it would sometimes take him almost two hours of travel.

“I have travelled widely in the South too, but this is my first time living here. I was based in Delhi for about 14 years and before that in the US for nine years, all with the Escorts group,” he says.

Ask him how it’s been after working at an aggressive group such as Escorts, to work in a relatively conservative company like Leyland, Agarwal counters, “I don’t think Leyland is conservative at all, but the brand perception is of us being conservative. One of the tasks is to change that. From being a South-India focussed company to a national company and then a global one is a journey that we have to take. And, it’s happening, but we may need to speed it up.”

Shifting gears

Agarwal says that a shift is happening in the business that it generates from South and North. “Even overseas, even if it’s small, we are happy that we are in many more markets now than we used to be. The international markets are subdued but our penetration is much more than what it used to be.”

While the South is still generating a lot of revenue for Leyland, the Northern markets are growing faster. The pie is larger in its non-traditional markets. “We have grown the pie in North, East and Western markets. We used to be 15 per cent in the North and 45-50 per cent in the South, which we are still maintaining, but in the North we are now at 25 per cent, hitting close to 30 per cent. So, the market share is growing. I am not talking about the numbers, but about the perception — what people see in us, rather than what the numbers portray,” says Agarwal. Switch Mobility, an e-vehicle subsidiary of Leyland, operates around 300 buses in Bengaluru and 48 double decker buses in Mumbai.

Lunch is served, a simple yet tasty meal. Pulao, a paneer dish, some dal and a delectable potato fry. As we tuck in, we ask Agarwal what else needs to be done for the Leyland brand?

Agarwal gives a lengthy explanation. The need of the hour is to make Leyland future-ready, looking far beyond today’s horizon to see what technology will be like 15-20 years later and how those changes will require Leyland to be more agile and innovative. “We have five values in Leyland which we reiterated last year: trust, customer-centricity and partnership — we are good on this as we did a senior leadership survey recently on how leaders are behaving around those values and we got good scores. The other two are agility and innovation — we need to bring a lot more changes there,” elaborates Agarwal.

These are important, Agarwal repeatedly stresses, to be relevant and lead or participate in the coming changes. Agile, he says is making quick choices; “And we have many more with all these tech changes, we have to be quick to make decisions; right or wrong, time will tell,” he adds.

Road ahead

Leyland, he says, has been innovative as it started working on electric buses in 2011, when no one was even talking about EVs. “Innovation is there in our roots but the ability and acceptance of failing fast and resurrection — that spirit should be invoked. What matters is can you come back fast and try out new things,” he adds.

Technology for EVs is changing rapidly. For the ICE engine, apart from modifying it for emissions, nothing much needs to be done. “In the next ten years, evolution of EVs is going to be fast; it’s been two years since we put our electric buses in the market and we have already changed the battery chemistry thrice. And we may have to change it again in the next two-three years. Now work is going on in sodium batteries and other chemistries,” he elaborates. Agarwal himself spends a lot of time in technology development and with customers, gleaning their pain points.

As we’re served some gulab jamun and ice cream, we switch gears and ask him how he and his family have taken to Chennai. Agarwal, who studied at NIT Kurukshetra and earned an MBA from Duke University in the US, says that he likes the culture here; people are competitive, but they take time out to relax, socialise, indulge in art and music. “I am learning. Maybe in another couple of years, I will get a better understanding of what Chennai is. So far, I like it, more peaceful, with more things to do.” Along with his family, he likes to indulge in the plentiful varieties of dosas that Chennai’s famous eatery, Murugan Idli, has to offer.

Agarwal says, for him, unwinding is all about spending time with family — “For busy executives like me, the best time is those little moments we get with our family.”Agarwal says he has never really planned for the long term, even financially, but things have worked out well for him.