Iam in a corner office, in a factory on the outskirts of Pune, at the head office of a plant I have visited several times since childhood, and my view of India’s automobile industry is being altered rapidly. This is the office of Rajiv Bajaj, managing director (MD) of Bajaj Auto, India’s fourth largest two- and three-wheeler manufacturer.
I am not prone to gushing; I love nothing more than arguing with those in positions of immediate authority. Bajaj, who took over as MD in 2005, is the ideal candidate for an informed debate—a distant brother-figure who is a decade older than me, whose family have been our friends for decades, but equally, someone with whom I have rarely interacted, and indeed, never duelled.
I arrive at his office, fully prepared to cross-examine him on why he is hell-bent on sacrificing his father Rahul Bajaj’s hard-earned market share in favour of selling just bikes, rather than all two-wheelers. My perception of Bajaj is of a committed manufacturing geek, an impassioned hobbyist at most.
But I’m in for a surprise. His office, and our hour-long discussion, confirm the gap between appearance and reality, and how important it is to be able to rapidly recalibrate perceptions of a person, and a company.
Five forces of strategy
Bajaj’s cabin is meditative, controlled, elegant, detached and aligned: five words that summarize his personality, and his approach to work. There is visual evidence for each of these descriptors.
First, the room is quiet, calm and well-ventilated—the benefits of being located in a manufacturing plant as opposed to a city. Like many cabins of senior managers, it has three distinct work settings: a formal meeting space with a conference table where we conduct our interview, an informal sofa and coffee table for more casual chats, and a study table, deliberately placed against the wall, away from view, for thinking and writing. “I don’t want a visitor to be looking at my papers. It’s not fair to me, not fair to him,” he remarks, explaining why he has chosen this position for the table.
There is also a fourth work setting: a wrought-iron table and chairs, in a balcony outside the office, where Bajaj huddles with his senior management team. “This is where all our new products are created,” he says. The furniture lacks hierarchy, and is designed for a meeting of equals.
Second, the atmosphere is controlled and deliberate, just like Bajaj’s strategy to focus only on bikes, rather than trying to grab market share wherever it is available. For example, a row of Ganapatis sit on a shelf, some with flowers in front, neatly placed as you would find on a Japanese manufacturing shop-floor. The desk features mementos of his gurus, including B.K.S. Iyengar and the Japanese manufacturing expert Professor Yamaguchi.
The whiteboard offers insight into this thinking: “Yoga is alignment—B.K.S. Iyengar”. “Before we embark on the process of possibilities, we must start with the purity of principles.” Another one is more abstract: “The centre is the mentor, it is the logic of magic”.
Bajaj is not the type to inscribe these for my benefit; the sayings reflect his deep understanding of yoga and homoeopathy, and his unique ability to apply them to business strategy, and to a manufacturing company in particular, in a systematic and rigorous manner (his philosophy and techniques comprise a separate conversation in itself).
Third, the space, which is a combination of Art Deco sofas, old-fashioned wood-panelling, combined with a cutting-edge black palette, comes across as elegant. It could be something straight out of Mad Men, the witty, cult American TV series set on Madison Avenue. “The brief (to interior designer Darryl Lewis) was black, the brief was strong,” Bajaj summarizes. There is room for improvement in the finishes, which Bajaj acknowledges.
Fourth, Bajaj is clear that he wanted a study table facing the wall because he needs to be detached from the world around sometimes. “In all my life, there are three things I’ve not done—I’ve never owned a suit, never relied on any market research and never worked on a computer. So I have to write everything. This is the way I turn myself away from the world,” he states.
A large photograph print of a cabin in the Swiss wilderness by Mukesh Batra, Bajaj’s preferred homoeopath and CEO of the homoeopathy chain Dr Batra’s, is telling. To me the photograph captures Bajaj’s reputation as a maverick and loner, someone who marches only to his own drumbeat.
Finally, the space is aligned (and given Bajaj’s passion for yoga, it would be ironic if it wasn’t). Everything is there for a reason, everything has its place, whether it’s a painting of horses, his soccer talisman with the motto, “When you control the ball, you control the score” (Pele), or family photographs, a statue of Nandi, the Hindu god Shiva’s carrier, or mementos of his gurus on the study table. The placement and location of furniture, books, artwork, whiteboard and personal accessories is cohesive.
Handcrafting a company
The intuitive jeweller label defines Bajaj well because he is clearly handcrafting his company, blending intuition with reason and logic, as many senior managers tend to do. He seeks mentors, and more importantly, listens to them. He crafts his own theories, and forges a way ahead for his team.
And yet, something is missing. Although there is tremendous positive energy, the space lacks warmth, there is something quite clinical about its look. It is arguably the same as the missing factor in Bajaj’s branding and marketing communications effort: sporty and energetic, but not entirely balanced, holistic or purposeful.
Finally, we find a subject on which Bajaj and I can truly argue. To my mind, Bajaj’s strategy of focusing on bikes enables the company to be as strong a brand, and as innovative a manufacturer, as Toyota, BMW or Honda, so long as it has its own distinctive positioning, purpose and personality. The name can easily travel the world. I believe the day is not far when he can ride his bike in the hills of Santa Monica, US, on Arabian highways, or in the by-lanes of Shanghai, China. In fact, I’m almost tempted to start a boutique strategic advisory company just to persuade him to listen to me.
I may not be right. But based on our conversation and his workplace design, all I can say is, move over Anand Mahindra. Automobile manufacturing, at least to me, is not about Mahindra’s expanded definition of “mobility”, it’s about the Bajaj version of “pursuit of perfection”: control, alignment, elegance, detachment and calm. If I had to make a prediction, my bet would be on the dark horse.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspaces and working styles.