Meet the man who is bringing Royal Enfield back to the UK, and set on global domination

Edwin Smith
Siddhartha Lal took over as chief operating officer of the Eicher Motors group in 2004 - Hindustan Times

As Royal Enfield boss Siddhartha Lal sat astride his company’s new motorcycle and posed for photographs at the EICMA Milan motorcycle show earlier this month, he might have paused to consider how different things were only a decade ago. In 2007, Royal Enfield sold 32,000 units but, under Lal’s leadership, the company’s fortunes – and the share price of its parent Eicher Motors – have been transformed.

This year, the business expects to sell 800,000 motorcycles in India. It has ambitious plans for international expansion, and a new R&D facility in Leicestershire marks a return to the UK, where Royal Enfield motorcycles were first produced in 1901.

“It was still a very fragile brand in 2007,” says Lal, as a taxi carries us through country roads on the way to the R&D centre at half past seven on a crisp, bright morning. He is sitting in one of the back seats, but leans forward slightly to check the traffic in both directions when the car stops at a junction. “Selling every motorcycle was a struggle. Convincing dealers to spend time and energy, going to suppliers; they’d treat us like … well, not so well. Let’s put it that way.”

In 2004, Lal took over as chief operating officer of the Eicher Motors group, the business founded by his father Vikram, and set about selling off 13 of the company’s 15 brands. That left just Royal Enfield and truck manufacturer Eicher – the two that he believed could thrive. He set a goal for Royal Enfield. “Our ambition was to sell 100,000 units [per year]. Then the virtuous cycle starts; dealers start making a bit more money, suppliers start paying more attention. That 100,000 units didn’t come until 2012. But this year, we’ll sell more than 800,000. That was absolutely inconceivable. I thought we’d be a stable company, but not as big a sensation as we are in India now.”

Although all of its bikes now roll off production lines in Chennai, eastern India, Royal Enfield can trace its lineage back to Victorian England. The “Royal” epithet was added when the company was called upon to create machine parts for a munitions factory in the 1890s. Its first engine-powered two-wheeler was built in 1901, giving it a claim to being the oldest motorcycle brand in continuous production, and it went on to produce models for use in both world wars. One came equipped with a Vickers machine gun-mounted sidecar and, most famously, there was the “Flying Flea”, a lightweight bike that was designed to be dropped by parachute alongside airborne troops, who used it to carry messages to ground forces in the Second World War.

All of Royal Enfield's bikes are produced in Chennai, eastern India Credit: Corbis News

In the Fifties and Sixties, Royal Enfield was synonymous with the café racing scene in the UK, and also became popular on the other side of the Atlantic. James Dean owned one and Steve McQueen had several, one of which fetched $146,000 (£111,000) when it was sold at auction in 2013.

In 1955, Enfield India began manufacturing under licence in Chennai (then called Madras) and began using the Royal Enfield name in 1999. By that time the UK production had ceased for three decades; the British firm went bankrupt in 1967.

The bikes became a familiar sight on the subcontinent, thanks largely to their use by the army and the police. But, Lal says, in the Nineties, they struggled to compete against powerful Japanese manufacturers.

So he set about building a brand, but not by signing expensive endorsement deals with Bollywood stars and cricketers. “It feels absolutely wrong to give somebody a lot of cash to say, ‘I ride this motorcycle’. And,” he laughs, “we didn’t have the money”.

Instead the company cultivated a community of fans by hosting rides, such as the “Himalayan Odyssey”, which sees Royal Enfield owners cover the journey from New Delhi to Leh over 18 days. Lal has also revamped its shops (in which he has been known to work as a store manager) and launched a clothing line in an effort to imbue the brand with a particular look and feel.

But he is quick to credit macroeconomic factors too, such as India’s IT boom and the increasing maturity of the banking sector. These have combined to mean that Indian commuters who might previously have bought small, buzzy bikes with 100cc engines are now increasingly able to consider the “mid-size” Royal Enfields, which have engines from 250cc to 650cc.

Royal Enfield still accounts for just 6pc of all motorcycles sold in India but, Lal says, this translates to 10 or 12pc of the industry’s revenue and to a 20pc profit share. “That’s a term I learnt from Apple. They say, ‘we have no market share, but we have a high profit share’.” Revenue was £827m last year and the company accounts for the lion’s share of Eicher’s overall profit. More than 95pc of the company’s bikes are sold domestically, but Lal is bullish about the prospect of Royal Enfield becoming a “truly global brand”.

He has devised a strategy that divides overseas markets into two segments: “India-like” ones, and wealthier nations. In the former category, he names Thailand, Indonesia, Brazil and Colombia – all places where the company has dealerships. But the approach, so far, is a cautious one. Import duties are often high, he explains, but the firm prices its products as if they were being assembled in-country. “I think that’s a better investment than putting up a factory and then struggling.”

The decision to open its North American headquarters in Milwaukee, the home of Harley-Davidson, and to launch a duo of models powered by a new 650cc twin engine last week has, in some industry experts’ eyes, put Royal Enfield in direct competition with the famous American marque for the first time in decades.

These new bikes, the largest in Royal Enfield’s range, are comparable with the smallest Harley model. But Lal isn’t having any of it. “We’re not going head-to-head with anyone,” he says, adding that he set up shop in Milwaukee because the head of Royal Enfield in North America, who was poached from Harley-Davidson, refused to relocate. “I wanted him to go to California,” he smiles. “That’s a much nicer place.”

CV | Siddhartha Lal

Lal, who is known as “Sid” by his colleagues, speaks softly and has a modest air. So when he announces that “in our bumbling and gentle way” the company is aiming for “world domination” it hits home. But, says Aston University professor of industry, David Bailey, it will have its work cut out. A deal struck by British-based Triumph and Indian manufacturer Bajaj is likely to increase competition in Enfield’s domestic market. “And, outside of India, they face competition from newer, more technologically advanced bikes,” says Bailey. “They’re not exactly contemporary.” But this is what the new tech centre at Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground is designed to address.

As the cab pulls off the main road and through the security gates, we go past a car park, stacks of blue wooden pallets, a long, rusty corrugated-iron shed and lorries that are loaded with cars from other companies that use the test track. The new Royal Enfield facility is spread over 32,000 sq ft and has been operational since May. It already houses 110 employees, with 20 more expected to be added before the end of the year. Inside there is a large interactive video wall that can be used for designing and styling. There’s a vast design studio in which a robotic arm cuts a model out of foam, and a 3D scanning and printing suite that can be used for the rapid prototyping of parts.

Sending designs electronically between here and the company’s other technology centre in Chennai, and then 3D printing them for further development, is akin to being able to “teleport” them, says the head of strategy and design, Mark Wells.

Having upped sticks to the UK a couple of years ago, Lal has been doing some of the track-testing himself. As a young man he did an undergraduate degree in economics at St Stephen’s College in Delhi, before “borrowing a bike and riding around the UK and Europe with a tent on the back for four or five years”. Then, after working for Royal Enfield for a year in Chennai, he returned to the UK to study engineering – first at Cranfield University and then at the University of Leeds. He has been at the helm of Royal Enfield since 2000 and says that moving to the UK to oversee the development of the tech centre has been a welcome change.

“I was just getting sick and working myself to death. In 2015 I got some wake-up calls and I said, ‘OK – I want to get out of working 12 hours a day’ or whatever I was doing, and just step back a bit.” He now often works from home in Fulham and has found that even if “all of us think that everything falls apart when we’re not there, it goes on. And things are quite all right”.

And, for all his stated ambition, Lal seems determined to apply a similarly measured approach to international expansion. “My first 15 years were spent building [the brand],” he says. “The next 15 years are about becoming a global company. We have that time. We don’t have to make huge inroads today. What we’re going to do is set the scene, get strong distribution, get confidence. And go at a pace we can maintain.”