I was 5 when I was gifted my first bicycle by my parents; it was pink and had bright orange tassels on the handlebar.
I still have a mark on my knee from when I fell while trying to ride without the training wheels. Not one to give up, I persisted on learning to ride without them, and soon enough, was able to.
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While I do not remember the brand of the bicycle that my parents gifted me, Hero Cycles, a homegrown brand which came into being in 1944, has undoubtedly been a part of countless such moments.
It all began when Brijmohan Lall Munjal and his three brothers, Dayanand Munjal, Satyanand Munjal, and Om Prakash Munjal who belonged to Kamalia, which is now in Pakistan, started a bicycle spare parts business in Amritsar.
Business was slow and was further affected by the partition, so the brothers decided to shift base to Ludhiana. In 1956, they acquired a license from the Punjab government to set up a cycle factory named Hero Cycles, with a bank loan of about Rs 50,000.
In 1975, this company became the largest manufacturer of bicycles in India with a production of 7500 cycles per day. By 1986 they were producing over 18,500 cycles a day, earning them a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest cycle manufacturer in the world.
In 1984, the company went from making bicycles to entering the motorcycle business as well and forged an alliance with Honda Motor Company.
It would be accurate to say that even before ‘Make in India’ became a thing; this company started the trend. Another interesting point is how well the family stuck with each other. Four brothers started the company, and by the turn of the 21st century, there 21 family members in the business.
The founder–OP Munjal
Born in 1927 to Bahadur Chand Munjal and Thakur Devi, Munjal grew up observing his father deal with the farmers, whose produce he stocked in his wholesale shop. It is perhaps, there, that his tryst with entrepreneurship began.
In the book titled, The Inspiring Journey of a Hero, writer Priya Kumar allows the reader to get a glimpse into the mind and workings of OP Munjal. She writes about how Munjal acquired traits from both his parents.
While being diligent and honest to one’s profession was what he imbibed from his father, from his mother he got the ability to be a people’s person and had a keen sense of what people around him needed.
In the book, Priya also writes about how he was also a very diligent student and also the youngest volunteer at the community service camp organised during the famine that struck Bengal.
Known to have a keen interest in writing Urdu poetry, it was said that he would often greet his guests by reciting couplets that he had written. He would carry a notebook with him, which he referred to as ‘The Hero Diary’ and each year dealers, employees, customers and vendors would receive the diary as their New Year gift.
The journey from poet to entrepreneur
As the business started doing well and spreading its wings overseas, more and more people started talking about the brand and the man behind building it.
It is therefore not surprising that Munjal earned the moniker ‘Cycle Man of India.’ He was responsible for ensuring that Ludhiana got a unique identity of being the city of cycles and also ensured that India entered the international club as a leading cycle manufacturer.
In fact, in an interview published in the Indian Express, Onkar Singh Pahwa, the MD of Avon Cycles, said, “Ludhiana is synonymous with Hero Cycles – a company that entered the Guinness book in 1986 for being the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer and put the city on the world map.”
So dedicated was Munjal to the job that he never let anything get in the way of his work. This report in MoneyLife points to this very trait.
When he started, Munjal would sell his cycles at his price but never make anyone suffer a loss.
When the factory had to be shut down, following a general strike in Punjab, he rolled up his sleeves with a spray can in hand and assembled the cycles.
When the workers eventually returned, the gates were closed, and they stayed on overnight to avoid getting caught in the violence.
When truck-drivers went on a strike, he chose to transport cycles by buses. When the dollar rate fluctuated favourably giving him a windfall, he decided to share the gains with the management, the employees and dealers in equal measure!
From manufacturing 25 cycles a day, Hero Cycles now makes more than five million cycles per year. According to a report in YourStory, while its primary production unit in Ludhiana is fully equipped with an in-house R&D facility producing major bicycle components, the company exports to over 70 countries, including Germany, Poland, Africa, and Finland with an approximate network of over 250 suppliers and 2800 dealerships.
A turning point of sorts for the company came about with its collaboration with the Japanese automobile conglomerate Honda. According to this report in Money Control, Hero Honda was a ‘never before and never again moment’ in India’s two-wheeler industry.
Hero Honda initiated its first assembly line in Dharuhera, Haryana, and the first 100cc Hero Honda motorcycle came off the assembly line in April 1985.
With it, Hero Honda kick-started its journey to unimaginable success. However, in 2010, the two companies decided to part ways.
While the senior Munjal passed away in 2015, the company continues to stay relevant by constantly reinventing itself. In June 2019, the Punjab government agreed to allot 100 acres to Hero Cycles to set up a modern industrial park to boost manufacturing of cycles, electric bikes and e-vehicles, and promote the light engineering industry in the upcoming Hi-Tech Cycle Valley at Dhanansu in Ludhiana district.
According to a report in Economic Times, this upcoming project will help meet half its demand for cycles from India and Europe.
Iconic brands like Hero, besides invoking nostalgia, have also helped in nation-building. Here’s wishing it many more years of success.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)
Cover Image: Hero Cycles/Facebook
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