A culture around motorcycling is becoming more prevalent in India, sparking unprecedented growth for the industry. Suzuki Motorcycle India is capitalising on the opportunities this presents by ramping up its manufacturing capabilities to meet this demand. It currently has a production plant in Gurgaon, Haryana, which produces more than 5 million units annually, and there are talks for another one to be built in the southern part of the country. Its key focus is on two-wheeled vehicles, designed to suit the needs of the Indian consumer.

The business is a subsidiary of the Japanese-born Suzuki Motor Company. Suzuki was founded in 1909 by Michio Suzuki. It was based in the small coastal village of Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, and produced weaving looms for the country’s huge cotton industry. From day one, Michio’s vision was to build better, more ergonomic looms than anything else on the market and this philosophy still rings true today, albeit in reference to vehicles and motorcycles. It wasn’t until 1952 that his loom works operation took on a new direction. Suzuki took the frame of a conventional bicycle and clipped a 36cc, two-stroke engine to its frame to create the ‘Power Free’, an inexpensive and easy-to-maintain motorised bicycle. This innovation allowed riders to pedal with or without engine assistance thanks to its unique double sprocket gear system, and marked the company’s foray into the motorcycle sector. Six years later, as a signpost to its success, it introduced its iconic logo — the bold, red ‘S’ we know of today.

Suzuki’s machines were being picked up by riders and entered into races all over the globe thanks to their Japanese ingenuity and design. The East-German rider Ernst Degner took out the first Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy) for Suzuki after he won the 50cc race in 1962, and he also went on to win the 50cc World Championship later that same year. Suzuki was thrilled to be presented its first world title and it wouldn’t be the last. Over the next six years it would go on to win five more in that category, as well as get strikes on the board in other events.

The first Suzuki subsidiary to enter the Indian marketplace was more than thirty years ago with Maruti Suzuki, a business which predominantly sold family-sized vehicles and is still incredibly successful today. Suzuki Motorcycle India followed to take advantage of the burgeoning demand for two-wheeled bikes. With India’s reputation as the world’s biggest motorcycle market, the business looks set for a highly prosperous future.

Satoshi Uchida took charge of Suzuki Motorcycles India during the first week of April this year, working alongside his predecessor Kenji Hirozawa who is now vice president. While new to this role, he has had a long and varied experience with the brand.

Satoshi joined Suzuki Motor Company in 1983, directly after graduating from a degree in law and politics at the University of Kyoto in Japan, and his first international assignment was in 1988 when he worked as the general manager of the motorcycle sales department in Spain. After six years he transferred to the domestic automobile unit, and then, in 1998, relocated to France to take on a new challenge as the vice president of the Suzuki subsidiary there. In 2008, he was appointed as the president of the motorcycle and automobile operations in the Philippines and has remained in Asia since. His immediate role prior to being made managing director for India was as the CEO of the motorcycle and marine business in Thailand, a job he held for three years.

“Every ten years or so I had a new assignment with an overseas daughter company of Suzuki,” Satoshi says.

“My leadership style is that I trust in my employees and dealers. I listen to their opinions. I always like to be close to the retail market and therefore I keep close to the customer and the dealer, and I always listen to the opinions of the market.”

Satoshi started his career in 1983 after graduating from university and was put in charge of the exportation of spare parts to countries in Europe and Asia. After four years he was assigned to Suzuki Spain where he headed up the sales, after service, and spare parts of Suzuki’s big bikes. “I also oversaw the assembly of Suzuki’s small motorbikes for six years, and during that time I learned a lot and faced many great challenges. One was the problem occurring with the labour unions at the time. I was able to overcome these labour disputes after working with union leaders and continuing to run our operations smoothly.”

After that, he returned to the head office in Japan where he managed the country’s domestic automotive sales, and was then sent on assigned to Suzuki France, where he found himself learning the French language. “The government assigned a French teacher to Suzuki, and I even had homework to finish on the weekends,” he laughs. “I found this period in my career comparatively comfortable because the products were manufactured in Japan and we were not deeply involved with the quality issue that results from some outsourced work. Our main role was to distribute the products throughout France and help our dealers to sell more. I was heading up the marketing and sales division of Suzuki Motorcycle and Automobiles during those years.”

In 2003 Satoshi returned to the Japanese head office to manage the motorcycle export operations, and was then put in charge of Suzuki Philippines, where he was able to make a substantial improvement in production. “In 2009 I succeeded in achieving a 50-per-cent growth in terms of sales when compared to the previous year,” he says proudly.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing as the Philippines is prone to typhoons, which was a big challenge. “We had one situation where we had to stop the production for almost a month due to harsh weather conditions. Luckily, I was able to appoint a project team and to revive and bring the production back to normal within a couple of months after the impact.”

These experiences allowed Satoshi to recognise the importance of risk management and how to implement appropriate strategies. “I also opened a new plant during my time there in the southern part of Manila, doubling sales again in 2012. Nobody believed it would be possible, and I experienced a lot of difficulty and resistance. But after having discussions with local management, employees, and dealers, one by one peoples’ way of thinking started to change. In the first year we achieved a significant increase in sales and people started to believe that our targets could be achieved. Persuading people to have that mindset was the most difficult task.”

In 2013 Satoshi was assigned to Suzuki Thailand, and now three years later, in 2016, he is based in India, working on expanding the production facilities.

Satoshi’s current mandate for the Suzuki motorcycle subsidiary in India is to replicate the success of the brand’s flagship company in the country, Maruti Suzuki. This billion-dollar revenue car manufacturer began its life in 1982 and has been at the epicentre of the automobile revolution in India ever since. Today it produces 1.5 million family-friendly vehicles every single year — a huge feat for the company.

“It’s great to have Maruti Suzuki as a sister company,” Satoshi notes. “It has a long heritage in the automotive industry, and a lot of supplier relationships that we can take advantage of. We are regularly in contact with the suppliers and we sometimes set up meetings or present awards for good performance. We try to motivate our suppliers and maintain good relationships with them. That’s important and having Maruti Suzuki on our side really helps. Our supplier relationships generate mutual benefits — they make us more profitable and help to upgrade the quality of all that we produce. Without the support of our suppliers we could not achieve those things.”

There are several ways Satoshi is planning to achieve Suzuki Motorcycle India’s vision for greatness. Firstly, he will aim to increase the sales volume to create a better presence in the Indian motorcycle market. The plan is to double the company’s motorcycle sales by 2020, in comparison to its 2015 figures. Secondly, he will focus on producing motorcycles more effectively and on improving the factory operations for an output of a better quality product. This will enable the brand to enter more export markets with its Indian-made bikes.

“That’s one of my main focuses,” he shares. “We want to export everywhere. Quality-wise we are probably up there with the best in India, if not the best. Quality is number one for us in the motorcycle industry. Having said that, when our managing director said
Suzuki wanted to further upgrade the quality to match the standards of the more developed countries like Japan
and America, we were more than
happy to oblige.”

Satoshi’s dream is for Suzuki India to be the number one quality brand for motorcycles in the country, and across the wider Asia region. “To do that we have to improve our quality, and being part of a global brand gives us an even greater chance of success when it comes to exports. We have the opportunity to export to Bangladesh, Singapore, Japan, South East Asia, and even the US, so the market is huge for us, but we must stay aligned with the worldwide Suzuki standard. If we can do that we can change the market.”

Thirdly, Satoshi will drive an education initiative to instil a healthy motorcycle culture within India. “This is so that people can learn to ride and enjoy it more,” he says. “We are looking at racing activities and how to ride safely, and we’ll use social media to convey this message. People should be educated on how to ride well, and on how to enjoy the ride in superior comfort. Ultimately, enlightening the customer about the entire motorcycle experience is a priority.”

Finally, he will continue to develop and empower local talent. The company invests significantly in teaching and training its 500-plus employees, many of which are Indian, and this has had ample positive repercussions for the business. “I think this is one of the most important things because when we stop developing ourselves, we cannot grow,” Satoshi notes. “We do training very frequently and it consists of three options. One is on-the-job training, one is job-specific training, which is done in house, and the last one is special technique training, which we outsource. We use these three training methods to improve our employees’ skills.”

Instilling the right culture is also very important to Suzuki Motorcycle India. “We have three core policies: create valuable products from the viewpoint of our customers; have a good team working together to make the company’s operations fair and fresh; and always try to improve ourselves and move forward. Our key values are crucial and they guide our team in the right direction.
We are very customer-centric. That’s the most important thing, to recognise that without our customers we would not be able to continue our business. We have to keep this idea — that the customer comes first — at the front of our minds. Our training program helps us to spread and implement this mindset among our staff.”

Another aspect of the culture at Suzuki Motorcycle India is its stance on protecting the environment. The company complies with all legislation and standards, and is constantly inventing mechanisms for better environment management systems. It’s a continuous process and is coordinated by a separate wing of experts and specialists in the field. The biggest testimony of Suzuki’s commitment towards this is apparent at its Gurgaon manufacturing plant which has been built as a zero-emissions factory. The facility embraces a natural light optimisation system as well as water harvesting systems, and several other measures to create a better, cleaner environment for workers and visitors. Furthermore, all packaging material used by Suzuki is recyclable and natural gas has been introduced as a fuel for power generation and production processes. Natural gas is considered to be a cleaner source of energy and helps to further improve the ambient air-quality levels.

While Suzuki originated in Japan, it has learned to adapt its operations to suit the different countries in which it operates. Satoshi is focused on embracing the diverse cultures while not losing the spirit of what the brand is all about. He says it is about harmonising the Japanese and Indian ways of doing business; bringing them together to ensure Suzuki’s operations work effectively and in synchronisation. Satoshi’s experience working across a range of different cultures has helped with this process quite significantly. “I might have experience in France, Spain, Japan, and Thailand, but India is a completely different country with different needs and requirements,” he explains. “I have discovered that each country defines the culture, mandate, and direction, and we have to embrace each country’s culture and adapt to it to be successful. Using my past experience I am trying to understand the Indian culture and harmonise that with Suzuki’s Japanese roots.”

The biggest difference between the business environment in Japan and India, Satoshi continues, is that the Japanese tend to take a long-term position, whereas the Indians try to find a quicker, more temporary solution. This has been a challenge but is something Satoshi and his team are working on.

India is a huge country and this has posed another challenge for Suzuki Motorcycle India. To help overcome this, its operations have been divided up into four parts: North, East, West, and South. Each region operates somewhat independently, like its own country due to differing needs and requirements. “From the attitudes of the people to the language that is spoken, there are so many differences,” Satoshi says. “Due to this great diversity, it is very important for us to meet the demand of each geographical zone. We are trying to customise our business decisions to meet those needs and if we focus on this we will be able to bring the best out of each area.”

The motorcycle industry in India is still relatively young and, with Satoshi’s commitment to growing Suzuki in the country, the future for the company looks incredibly bright. Its focus will remain on looking after the customer and on providing them with the highest quality motorcycle products available. “This will help us in achieving our ultimate aim of being the brand of choice for the Indian consumer.”