Book Review | The Making of Hero — Account of a successful family business

The account of a successful family business also becomes a lesson in entrepreneurship.

Cycles being lodded in truck at Hero Cycles in Ludhiana.Express Photo by Gurmeet Singh

The largely hagiographical account of the Munjal brothers, told by an effusive second-generation member of the family, is refreshingly imbued with homely and warm undertones, which, to the credit of author Sunil Kant Munjal, prevents the book from spiralling into a sugar-coated self-indulgent work.

Even though Brijmohan Munjal, the author’s father and the visionary credited for Hero’s rise to the top, is the protagonist in the story, his brothers rally around for the cause at every step of the way. While one brother travels abroad in search of technology and partners, the other gets down to brass tacks—design and manufacture of bicycle parts in Ludhiana in the rudimentary settings.

Instead, the story of a family that established Hero Cycles as the largest cycle maker in the world in 1986, 30 years after its inception, strikes a balance required for narrating a story of characters that spans nearly 100 years without getting bogged down in details that only belabour the point.

And the point of the story is the stuff of potboilers. The young sons of a middle-class family in north-west Punjab (now in Pakistan) start working in Quetta around 1930. They are denied a consistent run due to a devastating earthquake in Quetta first, followed by a debilitating and devastating partition of India accompanied with unmitigated communal violence.

The story then moves on to independent India where the family, like thousands others, tries different permutations to eke out a living in various cities like Amritsar, Agra and Delhi before finally settling down in Ludhiana. The story is also about a business, manned by four brothers not educated beyond matriculation, that gets off the block as a trading entity of bicycle parts, morphs into a manufacturing unit and finally a world-beating behemoth.

The Making of Hero: Four Brothers, Two Wheels and a Revolution that Shaped India dwells briefly on the business climate during Indira Gandhi’s reign as prime minister in the early 1970s. The stifling business environment was underlined by extreme red-tape that worked for bureaucrats, but was crippling for businesses during this period. While none of this is novel for readers who have even a passing understanding of the era, it’s still quite instructive.
Some of the anecdotal accounts are gripping and fun to read. For instance, the executives at Honda sprung a surprise on Brijmohan Munjal by asking him to partner the Japanese in making motorcycles instead of the scooters on which earlier discussions were based. While this led to absolute frenzy in the Munjal contingent in Tokyo, marked by doubts about whether Indian consumers wanted scooters more or motorcycles, the patriarch eventually picked up the gauntlet. This is a testament to how true leaders perceive risky options that have the potential to change the fortune of the entire company.

Other interesting anecdotes revolve around the branding of Hero products—both cycles and motorcycles. The first-ever jingle for the cycles—Chale Hawa Ki Chaal—was written and shot by a freelancer which was played in theatres before the movies. This caught on and was instrumental in making Hero Cycles a brand name. Later on, the Hero Honda brand roped in a professional agency to craft the famous Fill it, Shut it, Forget It advertisement that distinguished it from its competitors. The two-wheeler team also bet on the Mahabharata show on television to place their ads, enabling them to reach virtually every household in the country.

The family business established by the four brothers is now in the hands of the third generation, which continues to transact with third-generation suppliers and fourth-generation auditors. There is a lesson here somewhere on running a successful enterprise and keeping it amicably within the family—a task that many family-run businesses have found hard to achieve without the eventual acrimony and break-ups.

Book details

The Making of Hero: Four Brothers, Two Wheels and a Revolution that Shaped India
Sunil Kant Munjal
Pp 252, Rs 699

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