Brijmohan Lall Munjal: A Hero for Life

Brijmohan Lall Munjal
Founder director and chairman, Hero Motocorp
Age:  90
Interests outside of work: Yoga, movies
Why he won this award: For building Hero Group into the world’s largest cycle-maker and Hero Motocorp into the world’s largest two-wheeler manufacturer (by volume) and now rebuilding it after the breach with Honda

Brijmohan Lall Munjal is no stranger to adversity. For a man who found his feet in post-Independence India and, today, has a personal wealth of more than $2.2 billion, he would have faced challenges of varying hues and magnitudes. But, even for the battle-scarred nonagenarian, nothing would have compared to the events of two years ago.

Having built his life on relationships, looking upon the Hero Group as a large family of suppliers, dealers and employees working together towards a common goal, the bitter disintegration of a pivotal association would have stung.

In 1984, Munjal had joined hands with Japanese major Honda to manufacture motorcycles in a country that did not think beyond scooters. He was hesitant—he wanted to make scooters. But Honda wasn’t willing. For that, they had already found a partner in the Firodias (makers of Kinetic). But, as fate would have it, Hero Honda and its motorcycles gave everybody a run for their money and, by 2001, beat Bajaj Auto to become India’s largest two-wheeler manufacturer.

In the years between March 2000 and March 2011, Hero Honda’s (now Hero Motocorp) revenue grew from Rs 2,118 crore to Rs 20,787 crore; profits increased from Rs 192 crore to Rs 1,927 crore.

But, inexplicably for the industry, on December 21, 2010, Hero Honda split up. It was a bitter separation.

We bought Honda’s stake,” Munjal tells Forbes India at his office in Vasant Vihar, New Delhi. “They didn’t tell us that they want to leave. We told them that if they, themselves, are here to make motorcycles then they become competitors. How can a competitor and principal be the same?”

The fallout of competitiveness can be ugly, uncomfortable: Dealer poaching, negative communication and other practices that are, unfortunately, far too common. But, for Munjal, all of this was unthinkable. Trust and respect in business have always taken precedence over profits or market share.

For instance, despite the spin the world likes to give his relationship with Rahul Bajaj, chairman of the Bajaj Group, Munjal has immense respect for him.

“Bajaj started two-wheelers much before us. But not one dealer can accuse us of such practices. Rahul Bajaj and I are still friends. I have always had respect for, and from, him,” says Munjal. “I think about this a lot. Business is just business. He is running it to make a living. I am running it to make a living. Why do people start thinking that because they are competitors, they must be enemies?”

Bajaj reciprocates this sentiment, saying he has a lot of affection for Munjal because of his old-world values and ethics that are tough to find in today’s youth. “Not that I am deriding this [the present] generation but I have always called Mr Munjal a guru, not because he is older to me but because of his wisdom and common sense. Did he say that we are ‘still friends’? No question of ‘still’. We are friends. And he is the best example of a chairman in any auto company in India,” says Bajaj.

That is high praise from a worthy competitor. And it is not for nothing—Munjal’s journey at Hero is an extraordinary story of entrepreneurship in the face of adversity. Moreover, it is the tale of a man who has lived his life on the principle that if you work hard and be good to people around you, success in business will, inevitably, follow.

Munjal was born in 1923 in Kamalia, in Pakistan’s Punjab district. He doesn’t talk much about his early days, except that his parents have had the biggest influence on his life. “Both my father and mother are my idols. They also ran a business… and I learnt everything from them,” he says.

Respect for all was essential in the Munjal household, something he follows till date. For instance, he isn’t fussy about a boss and subordinate relationship. His secretary Rakesh Vashist sits just outside his room but, almost always, Munjal walks up to him to hand him a document. “It doesn’t take anything,” he says. “The time he will take to come in my room, I will sit idle, why shouldn’t I just walk up to him? And that way I can even explain something if I have to. It becomes a part of your life. And this is part of your upbringing.”




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