Born to ride

Born to ride

For Vimal Sumbly, nothing beats riding a Royal Enfield motorcycle, and running the storied brand's regional business lets him share that enthusiasm.

Vimal Sumbly, business head of markets for Asia-Pacific, Royal Enfield. (Photo: Nikkasit)
Vimal Sumbly, business head of markets for Asia-Pacific, Royal Enfield. (Photo: Nikkasit)

One side of the room where I met Vimal Sumbly offered floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Bangkok's skyline, but it was what was on the opposite side that perfectly captured the adventurous spirit of the man who heads the Asia-Pacific business of the India-based motorcycle manufacturer Royal Enfield.

The entire opposite wall had been turned into a backdrop featuring the Himalaya mountain range with a plateau covered in green grass in the foreground. It was there that a number of riders posed with their Royal Enfield motorcycles.

"This is the highest motorable road in the world. It's called Khardung La Pass," Mr Sumbly tells me. The mountain pass is located in Leh, a district in the union territory of Ladakh, 5,359 metres above sea level.

The sublime surroundings of mountains create a transcendent experience, connecting humans with nature and making them want to keep coming back for more. When he was riding his Royal Enfield Himalayan on the famed Magnetic Hill in Leh, "there was only the hill and me; I looked like just a small dot", Mr Sumbly recalls. "I love mountains. I love to ride there."

His passion for motorcycling started early in life. "When I was a small child, I really liked tricycling," he says. "I always like something that is fast, quick to get on. Something motorised and technology-driven.

"Somewhere in my mind, it always says that I want to go motorcycling."

The same gut instinct paved the road that led him to study mechanical engineering and spend the last 25 years in the motorcycle industry.

"Now I can call myself a motorcycle specialist," the executive tells Asia Focus during a business trip to Thailand.

Mr Sumbly fell in love with Royal Enfield because it's "a simple, easy, gorgeous-looking motorcycle" that brings back "the fun of riding". But that's not the only reason -- Royal Enfield "is very historic brand".

British-bred by entrepreneurs Bob Walker Smith and Frenchman Jules Gobiet, the first Royal Enfield motorcycle was launched in London in 1901. Now it's owned by Eicher Group, an Indian multinational automotive company.

Now celebrating its 120th year, Royal Enfield is the world's oldest motorcycle brand in continuous production. In add-on to a strong presence in its local market, the brand is popular in 60 other countries including France, Germany and Italy. It has been expanding into the world's biggest motorbike markets here in Asia including Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Mongolia, South Korea and Japan.

In Mr Sumbly's view, Royal Enfield offers the purest motorcycling experience. Once you ride it, you become an avid loyalist. "That's what I love about this brand," he says.

'INCH MILE, WILD DEEP'

Royal Enfield entered the Thai market in 2016 with an aim to be a leader in the mid-sized motorcycle (250 to 750cc) segment. It now has a 7% share, which Mr Sumbly says is "very positive" considering it is a new player.

A variety of models, along with positioning as a premium motorcycle at an accessible price with ease of usage, have helped the company build a base of over 10,000 customers in Thailand so far.

Royal Enfield, in Mr Sumbly's opinion, is perfect for riders who want to upgrade but don't want to go too high in price. "We are very well placed in the mid-size segment and that is where our focus lies."

From just two showrooms located in Bangkok in 2018, the company has expanded to 33 locations throughout the country including in Pattaya, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Ubon Ratchathani, to name a few.

As well, it recently opened a new assembly facility in Chachoengsao to serve as a distribution hub for the domestic market and other Southeast Asian countries.

Mr Sumbly says the company is taking a careful and thorough approach to building a presence in the region. Before entering any market, the brand does its research by understanding the country, its culture and the people.

"We always believe in less is more. We do one thing and we want to do it correctly," he notes.

"My strategy is 'inch wide, mile deep', and then we scale."

DIGITISE TO CONNECT

While the pandemic might have put off Mr Sumbly's riding trips, it did not slow down the business of Royal Enfield, which continued to stay connected with existing and potential customers. "During this time, what we did was we immediately moved to digital platforms," he explains.

The digital-first strategy was adopted throughout the organisation including its dealers. The company used the lockdown period as an opportunity to train its dealers. It even launched two new models -- Meteor and Classic -- in Thailand, sticking with its vow to introduce a new model every quarter.

"We got into training mode. We thought this is the right time to train our people, to keep them motivated and inspired," says Mr Sumbly, noting it also ensured that its dealer partners could keep their employees working.

Digitising allowed the company to engage with both existing and potential customers. For those who wanted to try or buy a Royal Enfield bike, if they were in a red Covid-control zone, he admits "we could do nothing" to physically deliver a bike for a test ride. The solution was to send videos of other customers and influencers to keep them informed and interested.

But as soon as Covid curbs were eased and zoning turned from red to green, the company was ready to deliver a big to a prospective buyer's home, with staff in complete hygiene kit.

Mr Sumbly acknowledges that not all customers who tried a bike bought one, but says it was a great learning experience and "it was fun to go and we say thank you to them".

The engagement extended to its social media presence including Facebook and Instagram, with the Facebook page seeing an increased number of posts and photos. Its dealer partners have also taken to Facebook Live to engage with customers, while the company's Instagram account features gamification posts to keep followers involved.

Thanks to its continuous connection with customers, Royal Enfield didn't experience any order cancellations, even though production was delayed, says Mr Sumbly. On top of that, the company gained huge insights into how customers were customising their bikes from engaging with them.

"On one side there was the pandemic which was tight," he says. "On the other side, we found an ease of doing business through digital. I think going forward this will be a very strong focus for us to bring more and more digital focus in the front end."

UNISEX PRODUCT

Like everything we buy, a motorcycle is very personal. It reflects the personality of the owner and how they want to be seen. Royal Enfield understands the uniqueness of riders who want to express themselves through two-wheeled vehicles. Therefore its motorbikes are designed "as a canvas" for customisation.

The company prides itself on being the first brand that provides the customer with a fully customisable product. A lot of motorcycles cannot do this because the designs are very complicated, he says, but Royal Enfield bikes are more straightforward, making it easier to find parts.

Most people associate motorcycles, especially bigger bikes, with men. But Mr Sumbly says that at Royal Enfield, "we feel riding is gender agnostic".

"We at Royal Enfield believe a rider is a rider irrespective of their gender," he says. "The spirit of 'pure motorcycling' transcends gender boundaries, where the rider becomes one with the machine.

"For us, motorcycling includes riding, owning, maintaining, caring and workmanship as an active pursuit. Focusing on the essentials and not the excess. Not transforming but reconnecting with the purity of the experience."

One important thing that Mr Sumbly emphasises is building riding communities, which he says is Royal Enfield's "strong forte".

"As a brand, we are not only about motorcycles, but we are about a motorcycling way of life," he emphasises.

The culture of riding a motorcycle in Southeast Asia is evident throughout the region, from riding for everyday life to leisure travel. Royal Enfield wants to be a part of strengthening the communities where its riders live, which includes promoting care for the environment.

One part of that is a behavioural change campaign called "Leave Every Place Better". It is aimed at encouraging riders to carry their own waste back, supporting local communities and businesses, and avoiding single-use plastics during a ride.

Asked about the trends in the industry, Mr Sumbly says motorcycling is growing, adding that Royal Enfield is particularly excited about India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand.

Apart from the joy of riding motorcycles, increased usage stems from the lack of last-mile connectivity and inadequate public transport systems in these countries, he notes.

Although his public Instagram mostly features Mr Sumbly working out, cycling and motorcycling, he also loves to read. Books on entrepreneurs are his go-to genre, mainly because he wants to learn the though process of building and developing entrepreneurial skills.

Books about Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are high on the list. He also admires Ratan Tata, the patriarch of the Tata Group conglomerate, as well as his own boss, Siddhartha Vikram Lal, the owner and CEO of Royal Enfield.

Mr Lal is known for the revival of Royal Enfield when it was facing a "sell out or shut down" moment as sales were declining. "Siddhartha is really somebody who got Royal Enfield out of nowhere to where it is today in the world," says Mr Sumbly.

"You can't become successful just through your own experience. But you can use somebody else's experience to set some direction. That helps."

WORK-LIFE BALANCE

As a seasoned rider, Mr Sumbly has taken two-wheel trips in more than 20 countries including Spain, Italy, France, Germany, India, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. But Ladakh and Kashmir are the places he'd like to go back to.

Kashmir -- simply because "I was born there" and Leh in Ladakh is just "something on the bucket list of every motorcyclist". His ultimate dream destination is in Mongolia, to ride not on the road, but the Frozen Lake of Khovsgol.

Setting aside time to ride is part of a dedication to work-life balance that results from a strategic, well-planned schedule. "I'm very clear about my priorities," he says.

He makes sure to delegate the right tasks to the right people with clear objectives. "I don't want to do somebody else's job. I insure I facilitate.

"I love to collaborate a lot. I love my teams to work closely and that's how they also develop into better human beings, better professionals."

He fears no disagreement and views it as a part of life -- like riding a motorcycle -- "a motorcycle has to run on the road. The tyre burns and wraps around the surface. Nothing happens without friction in life.

"But I always try to reason things out. I try to understand others' points of view. It's very important to understand why he is arguing or why there is a debate," says Mr Sumbly, noting that data will be taken into account to overcome the issues.

However, he points out the real challenge lies in getting to know cultures, trying to fit in those of each region, each country, and then adapting to the market. "It's a challenge but it's fun too because you learn and you unlearn," he says. "You unlearn sometimes and this is an opportunity to do that and I love it.

"I love to know people, I love to know the culture, I love to know the customers.

"So, it's a challenge on one side, but great learning on the other side about a new culture, new people, new organisations, new thought processes, new bankers sometimes, and new customers with a completely different expectation."

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