Om Prakash Munjal, chairman of bicycle giant Hero Cycles Ltd, died after a heart attack in Ludhiana on Thursday morning. He was 86.
Munjal was admitted to a city hospital on Monday after he complained of uneasiness.
The cremation will be held in Ludhiana at 5pm on Friday, the company said. He is survived by a son, four daughters and 10 grandchildren.
OP, as he was famously known (his older brother Brijmohan Lal is fondly called BM), was born on 26 August 1927 in Kamalia, in the then undivided Punjab. It is now in Pakistan.
His father Bahadurchand owned a small wholesale shop in the village where farmers grains were sold. A nationalist, OP spent most of his initial days doing community service until one day his elder brother, Dayanand, asked him to join the business. That also meant he could not study beyond the 10th grade.
The family shifted base to Amritsar and then to Ludhiana in 1944, before India’s Independence in 1947, in search of greener pastures. India needed affordable mobility for its growing population and the Munjals were quick to understand that. They set up a business that made bicycle parts, but wanted to do more. The family won a contract from the Punjab government to make cycles in 1956.
While BM is often credited with building the group as it exists today, OP was instrumental in getting the group’s fundamentals right.
“Brijmohan used to say that people often underestimate his brother and overestimate him," said Gita Piramal, a business historian and post-doctoral fellow at Oxford University.
He built the firm’s distribution network, a rarity in those days.
“His role was very important in areas such as accounting and putting systems in place. Most importantly, he will be remembered for setting up the sales machinery of Hero Cycles," Sunil Kant Munjal, joint managing director, Hero MotoCorp, said in a phone interview on Thursday. Sunil is BM’s son.
Both the brothers travelled across India and built relationships with vendors and dealers that support the family and its business to date.
In fact one story, according to a person who still has business interest with the family, goes like this: A dealer partner had lost a sizeable chunk of his business in Jammu when a truck carrying Hero Cycles caught fire. The remains had no value and the dealer wanted to shut shop.
“The family asked him to come with the ashes and returned him the money that he had paid for the cycles," this person said, requesting anonymity.
It was gestures like these that helped the family when Japanese automaker Honda Motor Co. was looking for a local partner to build motorcycles in India, Sunil Kant Munjal said in a 2013 interview
“After they did choose Hero as a partner, we asked them why they picked our company," he said. “The responses were quite interesting. They said four or five things. They said we like the way you treat your people. Secondly, they said we like the way you treat your suppliers, which was in some sense a Japanese thing to do," Sunil Munjal had said.
In 1986 Hero Cycles was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as being the world’s largest maker of bicycles. By now, the B.M. Munjal family was looking after the then Hero Honda Motors Ltd, the group’s automotive business.
The O.P. Munjal family also tried its hand at the automotive sector, but with little success. In 1996, Hero Motors partnered with BMW to manufacture motorcycles in India, but the deal fell through as the Hero Group had a non-compete agreement with Honda.
A partnership with Italy’s Aprilia to make and sell scooters was called off after Piaggio and Co. SpA acquired the Italian manufacturer in 2005.
In 2010, Hero MotoCorp Ltd, run by BM’s sons Pawan Kant and Sunil Kant, split with long-time partner Honda Motor Co.
From the time the Munjal brothers set shop in Amritsar to sell bicycle parts, they have stuck together, said Piramal.
“In an attempt to reduce tensions, elders kept young minds busily focused on work rather than on each other," Piramal said. “New companies or divisions were floated for every incoming blueblood."
“Frankly, they believe in a web of relationship," she added.
Until 2011, the larger Munjal family had cross-holdings in each other’s companies, but a settlement that year saw these being unwound. Pankaj Munjal, O.P. Munjal’s son, now owns most of Hero Cycles.
Perhaps the reason the Hero Group stayed together when so many business houses split messily was because they, unlike the Munjals, probably didn’t take relationships as seriously.
“We were fortunate that it was done in a very friendly manner and it was done very proactively," Sunil Munjal said. “It is all about the values, practising the motherhood statements. After all, we all grew up in one house in Ludhiana."
“He is a big loss to the family, group and above all the city of Ludhiana. He was one of the leaders of the city."