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.

The informal sofa and cofee-table setting is used for casual conversations. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint.

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.

Bajaj’s desk faces a wall for greater privacy. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint.

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.

His soccer talisman. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint.
His soccer talisman. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint.

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.

Mementos: Personal accessories that reflect Bajaj’s passion for work dot his office. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint.

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

Personal accessories that reflect Bajaj’s passion for work dot his office. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint.
Personal accessories that reflect Bajaj’s passion for work dot his office. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint.

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.