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The Hero of bicycles rests in peace

O P Munjal rewrote the history of the bicycle industry.

In the mid-sixties I was frequenting Ludhiana with my elder brother. We used to book a scooter by train up to Jallandhar and drive to Amritsar, visit the Golden temple and ride through the Grand Northern Trunk Road visiting Jallandhar, Phagwara, Ludhiana, Goraya, Rajpura and reach Ambala. The visits to several factories en route was a great experience; we witnessed  dozens of units thriving on enterprise, adaptation and innovation.

The star attraction in Ludhiana was the Hero Cycle Industries. I remember the two brothers, Brij Mohan Lal Munjal and Om Prakash Munjal, sitting in modest settings in a large hall efficiently running the company. The factory had old type shafts, running with belts a number of machines. I could witness even then delivery of components by the hour, so efficiently and so precisely!

A number of suppliers spread around the factory were delivering in gunny bags loaded in cycle rickshaws, saddles, hubs, cones... The just-in-time (JIT) delivery concept was so well practised. The decentralised production system built on reliable vendors contributed to rich economies.

 

From 25 bicycles a day to 18,500 a day!

Hero Cycles (as also Avon Cycles, Ludhiana  and Road Master Industries in the nearby Rajpura), is so efficient! They gave the larger manufacturers Sen & Pandit in Kolkata (Raleigh brand bicycles), TI Cycles in Chennai (Hercules, Phillips, BSA) and Hind Cycles in Mumbai a run for the money. Hero set the benchmark for pricing. Its  consumer price was around Rs 170 when Raleigh and Hercules were priced over Rs 240.

The murmur of quality did not sustain: after all, the major components in a bicycle – the wheels and the rims, tyres and tubes were then supplied by Dunlop for almost all indigenous bicycles; steel tubes were supplied by the Tatas and the Murugappas and chains again by a couple of leading manufacturers (TI Diamond, Rolon, LGB). What is left in a bicycle to warrant a near 50 per cent difference in pricing?

 

Hero made Hind and Raleigh close down...

Om Prakash, in charge of marketing, ensured a total sweep of the northern markets and extended this to other parts in quick time. Soon Hind Cycles and Sen & Pandit were rendered sick, nationalised and closed down after a few years. Even TI Cycles had to close down for nearly ten months. Under M V Subbiah, it was revamped and  it resurged.

The Munjals migrated from Kamalia, Pakistan and started manufacturing bicycle components at Amritsar in 1944. Om Prakash and his brothers moved to Ludhiana and in 1956 commenced bicycle production at 25 a day. Just in 20 years Hero became India’s largest manufacturer of bicycles producing 7500 cycles per day. Over the next 10 years, Hero emerged the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer.

Today the company manufactures over 18,500 cycles a day with 48 per cent share of the Indian market. Hero has four manufacturing units with 7000 employees. With a turnover of Rs 1634 crore last year, the group companies’ turnover was Rs 2222 crore.

The transformation of Ludhiana into the leading manufacturer of engineering products owed a lot to Om Prakash. In quick time, the company evolved from a mass manufacture of the traditional black bicycle to electric bikes, fancy bikes and adventure bikes. The latest news from Hero is the acquisition of Firefox Bikes to improve its position in the premium cycling segment. Hero Cycles exports to Germany, Japan, UK, US and various other countries all over the globe.

Om Prakash was also known for his philanthropic activities and for his love for the Urdu language. He died at the age of 87 on 13 August 2015.  He was a true ‘hero’ of the Indian bicycle industry. 

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