Successfully copied
share

Bharat and India: the two key ingredients in Maruti Suzuki’s recipe to strengthen its pole position—and fulfil the country’s clean mobility needs along the way

By: Prerna Lidhoo
rotation
Please rotate your device

We don't support landscape mode yet. Please go back to portrait mode for the best experience

A delicate balance between lemon juice and water is what makes good lemonade. Too much lemon and the drink turns sour. Excess water makes it bland. The country’s largest carmaker Maruti Suzuki’s reinvention strategy is much like perfecting this lemonade, with Bharat and India as the two key ingredients. On one hand, the company is obligated to serve its core customer base, the entry-level car buyer. On the other, it can’t afford to ignore the high-margin SUV segment that has almost doubled in the past five years.

The country today is divided into two distinct markets, says Maruti Suzuki India’s 87-year-old Chairman R.C. Bhargava: “There’s a Bharat, which buys a two-wheeler because a car is too expensive. And then there’s an India whose buying capacity matches any other part of the developed world. The only way forward is to cater to the transportation needs of both.”

There’s a Bharat, which buys a two-wheeler because a car is too expensive. And then there’s an India whose buying capacity matches any other part of the developed world. The only way forward is to cater to the transportation needs of both.

R.C. Bhargava
Chairman
Maruti Suzuki India

And Bhargava, who quit the IAS in 1982 to work with Maruti as a director, knows how to turn lemon into lemonade. Soon after the company’s first car, Maruti 800, was launched, Suzuki launched its Asian bestseller pick-up truck Carry (called Pickup in India), expecting it to account for at least 20 per cent of total production. But it couldn’t compete with much cheaper diesel vehicles. In his 2013 book, The Maruti Story: How a Public Sector Company Put India on Wheels, Bhargava calls it a serious error of judgement. “This experience was a reminder to Maruti on the importance of correctly assessing the behaviour of Indian customers, and the dangers of transferring experience of other countries to India, without careful examination,” he writes.

That lesson stays with Bhargava till date and is probably the reason why he has been famously sceptical of jumping onto the electric vehicle (EV) bandwagon right away. “The Indian market is very different from the markets in Europe, America or Japan. We need to devise our own decarbonisation strategies instead of copy-pasting what works in the West,” he says.

Maruti Suzuki has dominated India’s automobile space since its inception in 1983, first as Maruti Udyog, a joint venture between the Indian government and Suzuki Motor Corporation (SMC), and then as a subsidiary of Suzuki, after the government divested its stake in 2003. It has, for decades, boasted an unprecedented—some say unnatural—market share of 50 per cent-plus, making India Suzuki’s single-largest market globally, even ahead of its home market, Japan. Maruti contributed nearly 55 per cent to SMC’s sales volume in the first nine months of FY22.

As far as Suzuki’s global strategy is concerned, EV and hybrid strategy is common for both India and other global markets. One of the things that’s unique for India is CNG.

Hisashi Takeuchi
MD and CEO
Maruti Suzuki India

And so today, when its share of the Indian market has shrunk to 43 per cent, the company is rethinking its strategy—a rethinking that has been aligned to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s commitment for India to meet a net-zero carbon emissions target by 2070—on the back of alternative fuel technologies such as CNG, hybrid and EVs. The company’s recently appointed MD and CEO, Hisashi Takeuchi, has his task cut out for him: to figure out the company’s decarbonisation strategy. The bright-eyed Takeuchi, 58, is eager to be in the driver’s seat of Maruti. “As far as Suzuki’s global strategy is concerned, EV and hybrid strategy is common for both India and other global markets. One of the things that’s unique for India is CNG,” he says.

Chart-1

Maruti’s focus on CNG is not new. Nine of its 15 models, including Alto, S-Presso, Eeco and WagonR, are available with the CNG option. “For smaller cars, CNG is a very good option and Maruti has always been a company which is primarily concerned with meeting the needs of the Bharat car market. The government needs to incentivise that more,” says Bhargava.

Maruti sold about 235,000 CNG cars in FY22—it has 82 per cent market share—contributing 17 per cent to its total sales and 33 per cent to the sales of the models with CNG variants. Yet, there’s a booking backlog of 120,000 units for CNG variants due to the semiconductor chip shortage. It is now looking to produce 450,000-500,000 CNG vehicles in FY23 amid growing consumer preference triggered by a sharp increase in diesel and petrol prices. Cost per km for a CNG vehicle is Rs 1.80 while for a petrol/diesel car, it’s around Rs 5.20.

Vinkesh Gulati, President of Federation of Automobile Dealers Associations (FADA), says all other players are following Maruti in CNG. “Hyundai has already started. Tata is also doing it. CNG is here to stay because now there are no issues of CNG pumps even in small districts. The kind of customer interest we’re seeing is very strong and it’s very economical as compared to ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles,” he says. Tata Motors recently launched two new CNG cars, the Tata Tigor iCNG and Tiago iCNG in India, while Hyundai sells three CNG models: Santro, Grand i10 Nios and Aura.

While Maruti dominates in CNG, its first electric vehicle will come only in 2025, even as competition is aggressively launching them already. Tata Motors already corners around 82 per cent of the EV market, with its popular Nexon and Tigor models. Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M), too, is making its moves. In May 2021, it approved the merger of EV subsidiary Mahindra Electric Mobility Limited (MEML) with the parent company to consolidate operations, development, sourcing and manufacturing of EVs. The company has set aside Rs 3,000 crore for its EVs, eight of which will be launched by 2027. 

Graph

Bhargava, however, feels it would take EVs a long time to become a mass market product, especially in Bharat. Last year, the country sold around 17,000 electric cars, which is hardly half a per cent of the total 3 million cars sold in India. “My view is that electric cars will have a limited and slowly increasing impact on the car market in India. It cannot have a significant improvement in CO2 [emissions] in the next five to eight years. We’re urging the government to look at alternatives like hybrid or CNG; even bio gas is a great resource. But we seem to be fixated on EVs,” he says, adding that EVs are not affordable or accessible at current penetration levels, especially for Bharat. “Small car owners don’t have a garage or a house to charge it every day. Where does a guy who has parked on the roadside charge his car and how?”

Hyundai has already started. Tata is also doing it. CNG is here to stay because now there are no issues of CNG pumps even in small districts. The kind of customer interest we’re seeing is very strong and it’s very economical as compared to ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles.

Vinkesh Gulati
President
Federation of Automobile Dealers Associations (FADA)

But that doesn’t mean the company is not gearing up for the future technology. Suzuki’s wholly owned subsidiary Suzuki Motor Gujarat (SMG) has announced an investment of Rs 7,300 crore for the construction of a battery plant near SMG’s automobile manufacturing unit by 2026. SMG will also invest another Rs 3,100 crore for ramping up production capacity for EVs by 2025.

Experts have questioned Suzuki’s investments in EVs rather than Maruti directly doing it. “Whether Suzuki or Maruti makes the investment is an issue between Suzuki and non-Suzuki shareholders of MSI... Analysts covering MSI may worry about whether EVs will come under MSI’s portfolio and thus worry about long-term view on the stock. I do not think Suzuki would consciously devalue MSI stock and also let substantial factory investments in MSI lie unutilised. It is likely that the IP will be held with Suzuki and eventually some ICE lines will be retooled for EV much like BMW in Germany,” says Subhabrata Sengupta, Executive Director, Avalon Consulting.

Takeuchi, however, clears the air on why Suzuki chose to invest in Gujarat. “We will introduce EVs one by one. The first EV must be produced somewhere either in Gujarat or Haryana. There was a consideration where to produce it. One of the advantages of producing at the Gujarat plant is that it is close to a port. We’ll strongly market this EV in India but at the same time, it’s a strategically important model for Suzuki globally because this is one of its first EVs,” he says. Suzuki expects this EV to be strong in exports and also do well domestically. “Being closer to the port is one of the big advantages of the Gujarat factory. But if EVs become say 50 per cent of the total market, then of course every factory of Maruti [in India] and Suzuki in Gujarat will start producing them,” he says.

Srikumar Krishnamurthy, VP & Co-Group Head, ICRA Limited, says EVs are still at a very nascent stage in the market and month-on-month growth is high in percentage terms because of a low base. “We expect the EV penetration to reach around 8 per cent by FY25. Both ICE and EVs are likely to co-exist in the medium term. Which technology will stick in the long term will depend on infrastructure set-up and consumer acceptance,” he says.

According to other industry estimates, EV penetration in India will be 8-10 per cent by 2030. “That means the remaining portion of the cars will be non-EVs and those will be newly manufactured in the Indian market [these will stay on the roads for the next 15 years]. So, we have to employ all possible technologies to address that non-EV segment. We’re also trying to take a technology-neutral approach. It doesn’t matter which technology we employ as long as it works towards a better environment,” says Takeuchi. What’s important for him are cost effectiveness and fuel efficiency. “We have to make sure we’re chosen by the customer.”

Vitarra Brezza

Vitara Brezza

Maruti’s reinvention is also necessitated by challenges like the SUV boom. From just 25 per cent in FY17, SUVs’ share has skyrocketed to 48.5 per cent of the passenger vehicles market, according to SIAM, closing FY22 as the fastest-growing category. While Maruti leads the segment with vehicles like Vitara Brezza (pictured above), Ertiga, S-Cross and XL6, its share has been sliding a bit, and competitors are pumping in new, attractive SUVs to the consumers’ delight.

In addition to the company’s decarbonisation strategy, Maruti’s reinvention is also necessitated by challenges like the SUV boom. From just 25 per cent in FY17, SUVs’ share has skyrocketed to 48.5 per cent of the passenger vehicles market, according to SIAM, closing FY22 as the fastest-growing category. While Maruti leads the segment with vehicles like Vitara Brezza, Ertiga, S-Cross and XL6, its share has been sliding a bit, and competitors are pumping in new, attractive SUVs to the consumers’ delight.

This is a challenge that Takeuchi is ready to take head-on. The company is planning to launch a line-up of entry-level SUVs to bolster its leadership in the category. “We have a strong product plan in place. I’m sure this will help us increase market share (in passenger vehicles) gradually to close to 50 per cent,” he says.

Mitul Shah, Head of Research at Reliance Securities, says all global firms are focussing on SUVs: “Even within SUVs, people prefer compact SUVs.” Shah adds that the entry-level car segment is under stress. “Pricing power is a major issue and that’s the reason that despite sizeable numbers, profitability is not coming out. Customer preference is shifting from small cars to compact SUVs.”

While there’s a perception outside the industry that India no longer remains a small car market, Bhargava has a contrarian view. “It’s not as if the Indian car market is moving towards SUVs and more expensive cars. In the past three to four years, the cost of [cars at] the lower end of the market has risen very steeply, because of which the buying ability of people in that segment has been eroded,” he says. In FY19, due to various reasons like change in emission norms from Bharat Stage IV to VI, the cost of cars went up. According to him, between FY19 and FY22, Alto’s price increased by 20 per cent, and volumes dropped by 32.5 per cent. For the entire mid-hatchback segment, volumes dropped by 22.7 per cent, even as the price went up by 38.5 per cent. “It’s clear that as the price is going up, volumes are coming down,” Bhargava says.

In the same period, he says entry-level SUV segment sales went up by 76 per cent whereas the price increase here was 13.5 per cent. During this period, total industry volumes (of all cars) declined from 3.38 million to 3.07 million, a fall of 300,000 vehicles from FY19 to FY22. “Domestic sales of cars this year [FY22] are at the level of 2016-17. In these past five years, the domestic car market has not grown but the SUV segment has grown. The overall market has not grown because the lower end of the car market has shrunk. It doesn’t mean that the customer is shifting away from small cars to big cars because the total number of customers has declined,” he says.

Pricing power is a major issue and that’s the reason that despite sizeable numbers, profitability is not coming out. Customer preference is shifting from small cars to compact SUVs.

Mitul Shah
Head of Research
Reliance Securities

Toyota Motor Corporation and SMC started a partnership in 2016 and signed an agreement in August 2019 for an alliance to establish and promote long-term co-operation in new fields, including EV technology and autonomous driving. As per the agreement, in the Indian market, Toyota will share hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) technology with Maruti through local procurement of HEV systems, engines and batteries; and Suzuki will supply compact vehicles on the platform underpinning Ciaz and Ertiga.

Maruti Ertiga

Toyota’s joint venture in India, Toyota Kirloskar Motor, is already selling Maruti’s Baleno as the cross-badged Glanza premium hatchback. Toyota’s Urban Cruiser is also based on Maruti’s Vitara Brezza. After the failures of models like Etios, Liva and Yaris in India, experts say this is a great opportunity for Toyota to expand its portfolio into lower price bands, which is Maruti’s strong point. “Through our new agreement, we look forward to the wider use of hybrid technologies, not only in India and Europe, but also around the world. At the same time, we believe that expansion of our business partnership with Suzuki—from the mutual supply of vehicles and powertrains to the domains of development and production—will help give us the competitive edge we need to survive this once-in-a-century period of profound transformation. We intend to strengthen the competitiveness of both our companies by applying our strong points and learning from each other,” Toyota President Akio Toyoda had said at the start of the partnership.

Graph

 

‘We have a strong product plan for India’

It has been quite a journey for Hisashi Takeuchi, from a clerk in Suzuki to the MD & CEO of the company’s biggest operation—India. Excerpts from an interview where he talks about the Maruti Suzuki strategy

By Prerna Lidhoo

Hisashi Takeuchi, the new Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Maruti Suzuki India (MSI), takes charge at a difficult time. Amidst global challenges like supply-side constraints and domestic hiccups arising from MSI’s slipping market share in the past few years, the 58-year-old Takeuchi has his task cut out. The Suzuki Motor Corporation (SMC) veteran will have big shoes to fill: predecessor Kenichi Ayukawa was at the helm for nine years and ushered Maruti’s entry into the premium car segment with the NEXA retail channel. Ayukawa will continue as a Whole-time Director designated as Executive Vice Chairman till September 30 to help with the transition. Takeuchi says his experience in varied markets, including Japan, Australia and Hungary, has prepared him well to handle India, which is SMC’s single-largest market. Edited excerpts:

What’s your vision for India’s automotive industry now that you’re in charge of MSI?

I’m excited to be in the driver’s seat of the biggest Indian automotive company. Since I joined the Suzuki group, I first worked as just a clerk in the European market, and I was… still in my 20s. My goal at that time was to get more experience and more expertise in the automotive industry. Then I got my first overseas assignment in Australia. That was a big change for me, and I learnt a lot about operating a business in an overseas country. After that I was back at the head office in Japan to work as a personal assistant to [then Chairman] Osamu Suzuki. I had a big opportunity to learn many things from him. Then I went to another overseas assignment in Hungary. That was our second-biggest overseas factory. Its production at that time was 285,000 units. So, compared to MSI, it’s a very small operation but for us it’s a reasonably big size and I became the MD for the first time of a manufacturing company there. I learnt being responsible for all the employees, their families and the [other] stakeholders.

Then I came back to the head office from Hungary and became involved in the Indian business. Then again, I thought about my goal in life. During my time in the automotive business, I’ve always felt the joy of mobility. My vision is to give this joy of mobility to as many people in the country as possible. I want them to enjoy this mobility and bring happiness to their lives. But because of material costs increasing so rapidly, there is a supply issue, and it is severely affecting everything, [and] affecting small cars a lot more. At the same time, people prefer to have personal mobility over public transport or shared mobility. We see that there’s a strong demand and we want to keep feeding that demand. That’s connected to my goal of giving the joy of mobility to small-car buyers, especially in India.

What’s the biggest challenge for you in the Indian market?

Personally, it’s to catch up with Indians speaking English. They speak so fast (laughs). From a business point of view, the automotive business itself is facing a big change. How to survive this big change is really a big challenge for Maruti Suzuki and also for the Suzuki group globally. For us, electric vehicles [EVs] are a big challenge but there are other alternative options available, especially in India. Biofuels, for example, provide a big opportunity because India is a big agricultural country. In India, we have 300 million cows. So, cow dung is like gold here. Also, agricultural waste is there. If we can utilise these to make biofuel, it will be very close to carbon neutral. If we can establish this as a main resource for automotive, we can introduce this and export this technology together with the vehicle to other agricultural countries like Africa or South America. This can be scaled up as a model to other countries. My focus is to explore these upcoming technologies suited to the Indian market. The biggest difference between the Indian market and other developed markets is that the other markets are saturated and there’s not much opportunity for us to grow because their total market is not growing. In India, only 3 per cent of the population have a car. And 97 per cent [of the population] is a huge market potential. I feel this market will keep growing.

MSI is constantly losing market share. Is that a big concern?

Personally, maybe I’m lucky. Had I got this leadership opportunity when the company was enjoying 53 per cent market share, it would have been very tough to maintain and make it even better. Now, it’s a good time for me to try and make some recovery gradually. Maybe, I cannot jump back to 50 per cent in a short time but I can gradually improve market share. And we have a strong product plan to do that, including many SUVs for the Indian market. Plus, we have more ideas to enhance our CNG portfolio. I’m sure this will help us increase market share gradually to as much as close to
50 percent.

While the competition is gearing up on EVs, what will MSI’s EV strategy look like?

The Indian market is the single-biggest market for the Suzuki group. It’s important strategically for the entire Suzuki group. By 2070, India aims to have net zero [emissions] and the Suzuki group is paying extra attention on how to achieve those carbon neutrality targets. In India, by 2030, EV penetration will be 30 per cent. Conservative industry specialists say it will be 8-10 per cent. That means the remaining portion of the cars will be non-EV and those will be newly manufactured and registered in the Indian market. So, we have to introduce EVs, but we also have to address non-EV cars with some better technology to make them environment friendly. To achieve this, I believe we have to employ all possible technologies which are better for the environment. Of course, we’ll do EVs, but we’re also trying to take a technology-neutral approach. We don’t care which technology we’re going to employ as long as it works towards a better environment. That’s the most important thing. Secondly, that technology has to be cost-effective. Because at the end of the day, the customer will decide which car to drive, not the government or manufacturers. We want to make sure we’re chosen by the customer.

Why did SMC invest

Into EVs in Gujarat and MSI didn’t?

We will introduce EVs one by one, but the first EV must be produced somewhere either in Gujarat or Haryana. There was a consideration where to produce it. One of the advantages of producing at the Gujarat plant is that it is close to the export port from India. This EV we’ll strongly market in India but at the same time, it’s a strategically important model globally for Suzuki, also because this is one of the first EVs it’s going to introduce in the global market, and we have to be strong in exports. So, being closer to the port is a big advantage if we have a factory in Gujarat. But if EVs become 50 per cent of the total market tomorrow, then of course every factory of MSI [in India] and Suzuki in Gujarat will start producing EVs, and it will not just be limited to Gujarat.

Let us talk about your partnership with Toyota. Will it help you get your hybrid portfolio right?

Our collaboration with Toyota is very wide. It’s like an iceberg. You can only see one-tenth of it, the rest is under the water. We’re very calmly progressing our collaboration with Toyota, and it is proving profitable for our company as well. It’s giving us a big opportunity to utilise their technology and expertise. EVs are important for both OEMs but it’s still very expensive and infrastructure is still an issue. Although hybrids are also expensive, they’re not as expensive as EVs. It doesn’t need infrastructure and can be one of the interim solutions until everything is EV or hydrogen or some other technology. Our target is to try to make in India. Localisation is the key for us to bring the costs down for our products, even for hybrids. It’s the strength of Maruti Suzuki to localise. It will give us the power to make the technology more cost-effective.

Would it be difficult to fill Kenichi Ayukawa’s shoes?

It would be extremely difficult. He has been here for nine years. He’s got huge expertise and by utilising those skills, he managed the company well. I don’t have as much expertise and experience. For me, it’s a challenge. It’s going to be trial and error, without too much room for error. Ayukawa san is one of the people I deeply admire. I’ve worked with him at the head office as well as in India. He leads by example.

What’s your leadership style?

Everybody has their own style. My style is not very aggressive or very strong. My style is being a good listener and understanding what people want and what they’re thinking. I try to listen to as many people as possible to define which direction we have to move in. I’ll call myself a good listener rather than a dictator. One thing I believe is that one must think about the person receiving [something] from you. If you’re writing something, it’s important for the reader to understand it. Similarly, in a production line, if you’re assembling something, you have to make it easier for the person working next to you. The entire process will then be smoother for everyone.

 

“For hybrids, different OEMs have been taking different strategies,” says Rohan Kanwar Gupta, Vice President and sector head at ICRA. “The Japanese companies are saying that hybrid is the way forward in the medium term. We’ll see various powertrains coexisting. Ultimately, we have to graduate towards electric, [but] for five to six years, ICE will rule the roost.”

Suzuki’s hybrid vehicles for India will be made using engines and batteries locally produced by Toyota. “Hybrid technology will become available to us through Toyota and Suzuki. If hybrid leads to 30 per cent less fuel consumption, then surely it is deserving of some incentive rather than be treated [as if it’s] as polluting as petrol or diesel, because EVs will not do the job in the next 10-15 years,” says Bhargava.

Suzuki, which is betting big on a recovery in India to achieve its record sales target of 4.8 trillion yen by March 2026, has a global strategy that is aligned with its India EV and hybrid plans. “There are even some automakers around the world that are setting the ambitious goal of converting all models to electric vehicles (EVs) by 2030. However, most of Suzuki’s customers are ordinary consumers and the existence of our business necessitates us to stay closely attuned to their needs. For precisely this reason, instead of rushing too far ahead and focussing solely on advancing technologies, we must first consider what kinds of vehicles our customers will actually need and use in the coming years,” says its 2021 annual report.

The basic reason for establishing Maruti Suzuki was to provide affordable cars to the Indian families. That is the philosophy of the company and accordingly we continue to try and deliver more cars to Indian customers. Of course, business challenges will continue to evolve. Changes in technology, customer preference and many more aspects will surely bring more challenges. However, I am confident that Maruti Suzuki will overcome these with determination and emerge successful.

Kenichi Ayukawa
Vice Chairman and Whole-time Director
Maruti

Finally, concerns on Maruti’s falling market share in passenger vehicles are met with confidence. Bhargava says it is a result of customers falling out from the buying segment of the population that has shrunk the market. “Maruti still has the strongest balance sheet of any car company in India and I suppose, even globally,” he asserts. FADA is confident of Maruti’s bounce back. “Once they solve their production issues and launch their future line-up, which has some compact SUVs, we don’t expect them to be back at 50-55 per cent immediately, but volume-wise they will be back,” says Gulati.

Ashok Kapur, who founded the Krishna Group in 1994, starting with manufacturing of seating systems for the iconic Maruti 800 and then branching into scores of other products and locations, says Maruti will go back to 50 per cent share in two to three years. “The entry level car will always be the biggest seller in India. There is a lot of pent-up demand. Right now they’re short of SUVs, but they’ll come back. They have a lot of advantages like customer loyalty, sales network, service quality, etc.,” says Kapur, who is CMD of the Krishna Group and also President of Maruti Suzuki Suppliers Welfare Association.

Graph

Kenichi Ayukawa, the outgoing CEO and current Vice Chairman and Whole-time Director of Maruti, says that one needs to change as per the changing environment in order to survive. “To me, this is the foundation of the success for any business and its sustainability. The basic reason for establishing Maruti Suzuki was to provide affordable cars to the Indian families. That is the philosophy of the company and accordingly we continue to try and deliver more cars to Indian customers. Of course, business challenges will continue to evolve. Changes in technology, customer preference and many more aspects will surely bring more challenges. However, I am confident that Maruti Suzuki will overcome these with determination and emerge successful.”

Takeuchi has an interesting take: “Had I got this leadership opportunity when the company was enjoying 53 per cent market share, it would have been very tough to maintain and make it even better. Now, it’s a good time for me to try and make some recovery gradually, and we have a strong product plan to do that.”

It’s time for Takeuchi to make the perfect lemonade for India.

Credits
X

Story: Prerna Lidhoo
Producers: Arnav Das Sharma
Creative Producers: Raj Verma, Nilanjan Das
Videos: Mohsin Shaikh
UI Developers: Pankaj Negi, Harmeet Singh