Pankaj Dubey, the Managing Director at Polaris India Pvt Ltd is one of the most accessible and easy going business leaders you would ever meet. A talented singer who has sung alongside icons like Sunidhi Chauhan and Dr Palash Sen, a self-trained astrologer and a man who loves to drive, Pankaj’s relaxed demeanor probably helps his team open up to him much better than they would have to a stereotypical head honcho with a toffee-nose.
Pankaj brings along some really rich experience from the Indian auto industry. He has worked very closely with the top leaders at LML, Hero Motors and Yamaha. Instrumental in the launch of some extremely important products in the Indian market such as the LML Freedom and the Yamaha R15, Pankaj is now leading from the front at Polaris – the No.1 off-road vehicle maker in the world. But Pankaj doesn’t see Polaris as a mere maker of off-roaders in India – with the launch of Indian Motorcycles, the off-road giant has ventured into the luxury motorcycles market as well. And that’s just the beginning; the plans for the future are much bigger and far more ambitious.
Here, in this freewheeling interview, Pankaj recollects his days at LML, Hero and Yamaha, his learnings from the stints and tells us about his plans for Polaris in India. Read on…
By Amit Chhangani
Are you satisfied with the growth of Polaris in India thus far?
We are almost exceeding the goals that we had set for ourselves. We are a little more than 33 months old in this country, and we already have more than 50 touch points for Polaris, we have launched our motorcycle brand, and all that has been done with a core team which is just 11 members strong for Polaris India. With that kind of resource, the impactful brand that we have built and the imagery that we have created is a very good achievement. The base has been very strongly set and now we are ready to take it to the next level.
We have come a great distance from a time when people confused Polaris with the software company, when I joined Polaris. I left Yamaha in 2010. Some of the people thought that I had joined a software company. There was also an article in the media about it. So that was the level of awareness about the brand in India. So from that state to being well recognized in India, having more than 500 people working directly or indirectly with the company, having touch points across the country, putting a JV with Eicher in place, having a couple of technical tie-ups, I think we have come a long way.
How do you break up the sales of Polaris off roaders in India – what are the key buyer groups?
About 45 percent of our business is coming from the recreational side. From small entertainment parks to off-road experience zones that are coming up. The rest are from individual customers and government sales. Individuals buy about 45% and the rest of the ten percent is from sales to government agencies.
One segment where we have not been able to make much headway though, is the agricultural segment, probably because of the import duty and the high cost. Internationally that is the no.1 segment for us.
Are these specific agricultural products, or you encourage people to use your normal products for agricultural use also?
Well the basic product meant for agriculture remains the same as the normal product, and then there are agricultural implements which can be attached to perform a specific task. Cost is a hurdle, but we will eventually find a solution, and this segment would eventually be an important segment in India as well
Talking of individuals who buy your off-roaders, how and where exactly do they use these machines? I ask this because these are not everyday use vehicles, and have a very specific purpose. Isn’t it?
Well most of our customers are hi-profile, hi net worth individuals. They have their own farm houses, or live in areas where they have access to open spaces like fields, sand dunes, sea beaches etc. In most cases, when they first get an experience at our zones, they get hooked. The products are amazing, and once the customers have had a taste of it they want to own it.
The contribution of military forces, paramilitary forces and police is currently small, at about 10 percent. But the potential is very huge. We have made some deals, but are bound by non-disclosure agreements, and hence cannot talk about them. Gujarat police bought some vehicles from us, while also giving us the permission to talk about it. It’s the first police force in India to give us an order. They are very professional and very good decision makers. It’s been followed by another state police, the details of which I cannot share. Other negotiations are also going on.
Are you also organizing events to promote the Polaris brand?
We are organizing events across the country at strategic locations calling HNIs. They come and drive the vehicles, and if they like it, we get some bookings. For us, experiential ride is a key marketing activity. Unless one experiences the product he won’t feel the need to buy it. Only after you have experienced the product on a difficult terrain, and you understand how capable and fun to drive it is, would you be inclined to buy it.
We have more than 25 experience zones in India. We are thinking about creating competitions for customers and fans, for example Mr. off roader or Miss off roader. Participation in competitive rallies will also be looked at.
Are you looking at localizing production in near term?
Right now all the products are imported as CBU. We don’t have any concrete plans for localization, though we will look at this opportunity in the future. In order to do our best to keep the prices low, for a few really fast moving products we are keeping our margins extremely low, close to nil. The industry is currently in a nascent stage and localization is something that we’ll look at once we have attained critical mass.
What’s the size of Polaris product portfolio in India vis-à-vis the international model range?
Internationally we have about 100 products. For India we are focusing on 8-10 models which best suit the local needs and requirements. These are some of our best products which internationally contribute to about 70% of our total volumes, so the representation is much higher in terms of hi-volume products.
What other automotive brands does Polaris own worldwide?
Apart from Polaris off-roaders, we also have the Indian Motorcycles brand under our umbrella. It’s one of the most up-market motorcycle brands in the world. Another motorcycle brand we have is Victory Motorcycles, which incidentally is the newest American motorcycle company, while Indian Motorcycles is the oldest American motorcycle brand.
We also have an electric product range with the name ‘Gem’. These are more like open vehicles, are available in both right and left hand drive and have many applications.
What according to you are the advantages that Indian Motorcycles has over its competitors?
Well, the biggest advantage is the heritage and legacy of the brand. We are the oldest American motorcycle brand, and that gives us a lot of leverage. But that’s not all. Another major strength we have is the design and engineering prowess of Polaris. The new Thunder Stroke 111 (1811cc) engine is absolutely amazing. Thanks to this engine, the drivability of the Indian is much better than the competition. The maneuverability is great too.
The technology that goes under the motorcycle can be easily experienced when you are riding it. The immaculate finish of the product, the engine sound, attention to detail – we have taken every care to make Indian a great motorcycle range. The overall package as an experience we believe is much superior.
Our engineering team has been working on the motorcycle with its experience with Victory. Polaris is a very passionate brand and the people who work with Polaris bring a lot of enthusiasm to the table. They love the company and do their best. That’s how we manage to beat biggies like Honda and Yamaha on off-road products.
Indian Motorcycles too has been created with a lot of passion, and I think it’s the ultimate cruiser for its segment.
What volumes are you looking at for the entire range of Indian Motorcycles in India?
Well, the segment where these motorcycles are positioned, that is the 25 lakh and above market has a cumulative volume of 200 to 250 units a year. For the first year, we are looking at capturing about 10% of that market, and sell 20-25 motorcycles.
What other plans does Polaris have for its Indian operations?
We will weigh our options seriously, and let me assure you that Polaris is not in India only to market expensive off-roaders and motorcycles. We sure have a plan, and our team is working on products which are more relevant to this market. We will see when it’s the right time to introduce some new products, and will surely inform you about them at the opportune time.
Do you have a R&D facility in India? Are you collaborating with any outside agencies for research or technology related support in the Indian market?
All our current products are coming from outside, so we don’t have an R&D base here. We do have product managers who analyze the Indian market and send suggestions to tweak the products accordingly. We have a technical tie up with Larsen & Toubro, where some of their engineers are working from their office helping us on certain technical issues. But beyond that, we don’t have a dedicated R&D center here in India as of now.
Where do you see Polaris in India 5 years from now?
By 2020 we will be strongly entrenched in the Indian off-road vehicle market and attain the No.1 spot in true sense. Since we are the only players right now, we are No.1 anyway. But with No.1 status, I mean that I would want all my competitors to be present here in this market and still be No.1 by a good margin. Moreover, I think the size of the company in India, in every sense will grow manifold.
Do you think that the duty structure or legislation can be changed to promote your brand?
On levying duties to protect the domestic industry, I am with the government. Being an Indian, I understand that it’s important to protect the interest of the local manufacturers. But levying duties to protect an industry which does not exist is not right. So while there are no off-road manufacturers in India, the duty is still equal to cars – this doesn’t make sense.
Also, if you look at it, the more than 100% duty hits the government only in the end. We are selling a good chunk of our vehicles to government, and with a lower price tag, the biggest benefiter would be government agencies. These products are not only for leisure, or show, but they are highly specialized products meant to deal with extreme conditions. Using these products in certain situations is not a luxury, but a necessity for our armed forces. The duty levied on our products makes them more inaccessible to them.
Do you provide any armored vehicles also?
No we don’t provide any armored vehicles. But there are many companies worldwide who do armoring around Polaris vehicles. So that’s a possibility in India too.
Let’s talk about your Hero Honda days. What do you think made Hero the force that it is today?
I think that the owners of the company, the Munjals have a very deep business sense. They have a great understanding of the market. You see, there are a lot of intricacies involved with a market like India. It’s a big market and everyone wants to be here, but it’s very complex. Even after being born and brought up in India, we cannot say that we know the country hundred percent. So to understand, analyze and device a strategy for a market as diversified and complex as India is a master’s art. And I respect the Munjals for having that understanding and canniness in abundance.
Look at the immensely successful Splendor. Now I was not there when the product was first conceived and executed, but I know the people who were a part of that team. From what I heard, it was amazing how the product was finalized. Inputs from every possible source were incorporated in that bike. Apart from market research, the company went great lengths to take suggestions and feedback from the end customer. People were called from within the company, the dealers were called and their feedback was duly taken, and more importantly implemented.
Now, as a product, the Splendor may have been rejected by some in the presentation phase, but that’s the thing. You have to understand the customer. You may want to make the best looking, most feature rich product, but sometimes that is not required. It’s about understanding your customers and prioritizing the deliverables based on his needs and wants. You are here not to buy, but to sell. And the Munjals understand that better than most other people.
You then moved on to Yamaha, which is a Japanese company, and like other Japanese companies, is known to be very assertive and firm about its products and technology. How difficult was it for you as a manager in India to make them understand the difference in the market, and effect certain changes in certain products?
When I was with Yamaha they were in a different plane. From a once dominant status, where they had a 45 percent market share in motorcycles, they had come down to a mere 1.5 %. And at that time they didn’t know what to do. The Managing Director we had at that time was a very dynamic guy though. And along with me and other team members, we worked hard on some models which made Yamaha successful again. Fortunately these products were launched when I was a key member of the team. Based on my learnings from the Munjals at Hero and Mr. Singhania at LML, I did what I believed was best for Yamaha. The R15, the FZ – these products really changed the game for Yamaha once again
Now, coming to the communication part, every management wants to know how to be successful. But we also have to understand their way of working. If you want to suggest a change randomly, it’s difficult for them to accept it on face value because they are leaders in motorcycle market worldwide and understand their craft pretty well. Secondly, even a single change requires thousands of other things to change. It’s important to communicate things properly. That’s the art. One should not lose sight, and understand what is required by the market, and what can be omitted, and then communicate things in a humble and positive manner. If your suggestion has merit, and if it is communicated properly, it surely will be listened to.
You suggest good things, you bring about results, and you would be listened to even more. Confrontations need to be avoided at every level.
Talking of products, would you say that Indian auto companies make more compromises as compared to their international counterparts?
Yes, I would agree with you on that. See, in life also, there is a time period which is required for the birth of a baby, nine months to be exact. Premature babies are going to be unhealthy and weak.
In auto market also, as a rule of thumb, you need about 30 to 36 months for developing a new product. You can bring the baby’s birth down from 9 to probably 8 or 8 and a half month, but not to 6, or you’ll pay. And most of the times, this is a mistake that the Indian companies are committing. You should have a plan, and you should stick to these basic rules. We have great engineers in the country. In Polaris also we have many people from India worldwide. Indian people have the talent, but the management has to give them the time. They plan in a hurry, and the plan itself is sometimes flawed.
What do you think about the component industry in India? Are components which are pre-specified good enough, or are even they compromised?
Well, components made in India are not second-rate at all! Today we are manufacturing and exporting to the whole world. We have a sourcing base here in India, and there are no problems. There need to be quality checks, and its fine then. The who’s who of the international car and bike industry are here and they are manufacturing here. The component manufacturing factories have improved and they are right there with the best in the world.
What was your takeaway from LML as a company? Freedom was a great product, what went wrong? I was particularly intrigued by their strategy to launch the bike in scores of colors
Well the downfall was because of a mix of a lot of things. But the primary reason was that the breakeven points of this industry are very high. At one point we were doing 25,000 units a month with the Freedom. The product was such a great success, that even the Munjals scrutinized it to understand what worked for it. The investment was high, but the return even after being so successful was not so high. And the company did not have deep enough pockets.
It was a great experience for me to learn what to do and what not to do. I learnt to scale business in tune with the investment at hand and not going overboard. I learnt a lot from Mr. Singhania. He is a great person and has a very deep understanding of the industry.
About the colors of Freedom, I was a part of the team that developed the Freedom, and when the decision was taken to launch the bike in 9 colors I strongly opposed it. Their argument was that if the colour of every individual’s shirt is different – why not give them the liberty to choose a unique color for their bike? Great thought! But the implementation is very different, and difficult. The case became very complicated at the dealership level – the logistics, the supply chain, customer satisfaction… this became an issue. For example, the dealer would have 6 colors, and I as a customer would still want a different option, so the dealer would want to persuade me to buy a specific color which I did not want, which led to dissatisfaction.
What are the interests and hobbies you indulge in when you get time off you rigorous work schedule?
Singing and astrology are two of my biggest hobbies. I sang the ‘Yes! Yamaha’ anthem alongside Sunidhi Chauhan. We also got Dr. Palash Sen to create a song for Indian Motorcycles – “Go Indian Go”, and I lent my voice to the song. I sang on a television show, and participated as a contestant three years back on E24 channel, I won the third prize.
Astrology is another hobby, and I believe in it. Having read two very interesting books on the subject, I consider it as a science. Whenever someone is in deep trouble, I want to go ahead and help him as a person and as an astrologist. It also helps me a lot, as I am more aware about the most opportune time to do something.