Even in the face of rising competition, Mahindra Auto Division has set audacious goals of launching nine (new and refreshed) models in FY 16, having already introduced the New Generation Scorpio, New Age XUV500, the New Thar CRDe and all new platforms like Jeeto, Supro and TUV300. Here's the inside story!

As the man in charge of Product Planning, it is Rajiv Mehta’s job to imagine what Mahindra’s future products should look like over the next few years. This is both an art and a science, requiring left and right brain thinking. Hard data on industry growth trends and buyer behaviour is combined with evolving social trends to arrive at a best guess of what consumers would be looking for in their vehicles over the next few years. While planning new vehicles Rajiv and his team also have to ensure that they are filling the gaps in Mahindra’s product portfolio.

“We think about the future and see where we expect the market to move – what I think my customers will want, how the segments are evolving and how the environment will evolve,” says the man who lives in a time machine. “In the auto industry you typically work on a product strategy which is at least eight to ten years ahead of its time. We look at trends in social media and the kind of conversations that are happening online. We attend a lot of auto shows, technology events and design shows to understand future trends. We also look at trends across different industries and markets, like consumer durables.“

Globalization is perhaps most prevalent in the auto industry. To give you an example, a few years back, what was happening in the US or Europe was probably four or five years ahead of what would happen in India but this window has been rapidly narrowing to say a year or two now and very soon you could see a reversal of trends; India and some of the emerging markets where we have plans to be a serious player would probably define the shape of automobiles in times to come and we have some few interesting ideas in the bag for such an eventuality,” says Rajiv.

Rajiv’s team also works closely with Marketing and Sales to get real time market feedback, while sharing inputs with the Design team. The biggest reward for Rajiv and his team is when the new vehicle concept and business case is accepted by the Management and the vehicle begins its journey towards becoming a production model.

The first time we see a new vehicle rolling off the assembly line, it feels like seeing your baby grow. We are very fortunate to be able to dream, conceive, and then see our dream turn into reality,” says Rajiv. .

Joydeep Moitra, Head of International Operations, Automotive Division tell us, “Mahindra’s International Operations has a presence in some globally advanced automotive markets and our learnings from there enable us to stay abreast of global trends. For instance, the XUV 500 was researched in the markets of Europe, South Africa and Latin America. We work with Engineering teams to ensure our new products meet the needs and desires of the global consumer.

We continue to adapt our existing Indian products and align them better with global market requirements. Numerous applications such as Panoramic vans, Panel vans, Mine spec pick-ups, adaptations for towing a caravan for a family weekend outing are testimonials to that effect.”

As M&M gears up to take on the challenges of this year, it has put in place several initiatives and processes to ensure that all functions run smoothly. ‘Crusade’ was initiated about three years ago, to increase vehicle quality by ensuring First Time Right (FTR), Every Time Right (ETR) and Delightful Customer Experience (DCE) at dealerships. Crusade is the buzz word for everyone in the Auto Division including Product Development, Component Development, Manufacturing, Customer Care, Sales and at the dealerships. It also includes a sales and service promise rolled out at dealerships, which is an industry first.

Additionally, M&M embarked on its journey of redefining customer centricity in 2010, the year when it was ranked at the bottom of the JD Power Sales Satisfaction Index (SSI). As a team, the Auto Division resolved to make Mahindra the most customer centric automotive company in India. It has been quite a journey since then with many ups and downs, filled with challenges and rewards. Over the last five years, Mahindra has consistently moved up the rankings year after year, reaching the podium by claiming Number 3 position in 2013, and retaining that position in 2014. In 2015, Mahindra achieved its goal by being ranked No. 1 in the SSI study where it tied with Toyota.

“Achieving the pole position in the SSI ranking is a dream come true. The launch of Crusade as an organisation wide initiative has played a key role in getting us to the No. 1 position. It has been a great team effort by all functions right from Product Design to Sourcing to Quality to Manufacturing. Our front line Sales and Customer Care teams along with dealership teams have imbibed the elements of our Customer Promise to ensure that their experience is nothing less than world class. As we exit FY16, all primary outlets in the Personal Channel will have promise statements displayed, thus enabling us to achieve our Promise 2016,” says Veejay Ram Nakra, head of Sales and Customer Service.

Developing the next generation of automotive products requires the experience and expertise of all of Mahindra’s engineers located around the world. While the Mahindra Research Valley in Chennai is the nerve centre of this global R&D network, newer facilities like the Mahindra North America Technical Centre (MNATC) in Detroit, USA and Ssangyong’s research centre in Korea also play an important role. This global talent pool helps the organisation to mature in terms of systems, processes and technologies which in turn deliver world class products.

Developing advanced technology by encouraging innovation is not new for Mahindra. Micro Hybrid in the Scorpio with start-stop technology, alternative fuels like hydrogen powered 3 wheelers, electric vehicles and the Common rail diesel engine were all firsts by Mahindra in India. A. Sriniwas, Principal Chief Engineer, Vehicle Systems, is in charge of the development of 14 major vehicle systems including electricals and electronics. He highlights the fact that Mahindra has developed 24 innovations in the automotive electronics space in India.

For example, the Mahindra Bolero, was the first Indian vehicle to offer remote locking LCD electronic display, and a seatbelt warning system, while the Mahindra Scorpio would warn drivers with an audible message if they had forgotten to wear their seatbelt, left the door open or were low on fuel. Mahindra was also the first auto company to offer a tyre pressure monitoring system, automatic rainsensing wipers, automatic headlights, cruise control, Bluetooth, hands-free telephony, and USB drives. “This history of innovation inspires us to keep moving forward where we are driven to be innovators and leaders,” says Sriniwas.

An important thing is infrastructure and Mahindra Research Valley (MRV) which was built about four years back has helped fulfil this requirement. At MRV, we have one of the largest engine development centres in India and also the best engine development team, headed by R. Velusamy, SVP Engineering and Component Development – Power Train. Our engines have incorporated modern technology at a rapid pace and the engine development capabilities have made us self-sufficient. This has delivered strong brands like the mHawk. “When it comes to concept definition of our engine and analysis for durability, NVH and refinement, we involve AVL for engines and Ricardo for transaxle. When it comes to production development, we do it at MRV. So the concept, definition, and analysis we do at warehouses in Europe, and physical development of the hardware is done at MRV,” says Velu.

However, Indian automotive customers are extremely demanding and their expectations are constantly growing. According to Dr. Pawan Goenka, Execeutive Director (M&M) and Group President (AFS), there are some major shifts in customer expectations and safety is increasingly climbing to the top of that list. "We find more and more customers are becoming aware of safety features and how these can help save their lives in case of a serious accident. Growing number of consumers are willing to pay for safety and Mahindra has made it a policy to offer safety features in even the lowest variant of a new model since the launch of the New Generation Scorpio."

Typically, in the past, safety packages were offered in the top-end variants because there is a cost involved. However, the new Mahindra TUV 300 has an optional safety package, including ABS and air bags even in the entry level T4 version. This has been very well received by the media and automotive buyers.

“This is a big change that’s happening and I will not be surprised if three to four years from now, safety becomes the primary driver of sales in the Indian automotive industry,” adds Dr. Goenka.

Design is also becoming increasingly important to Indian car buyers. “Till about ten years ago, Indian consumers did not put much emphasis on design and styling, but today that is the first thing a customer expects in a car. A global level of styling is therefore, an important ingredient in our journey to success,” says Dr. Goenka.

Dr. Goenka tells us that his team has anticipated these changes and that M&M was among the few Indian companies to have a dedicated styling department from the launch of the Scorpio onwards. Almost all Mahindra vehicles are primarily designed in-house by Mahindra’s Design team. In fact, design is one of the earliest activities in the four year long vehicle development proces

The design for the new launches this year started as early as 2011. Led by Chief Designer, Ramkripa Ananthan, the Design team designs and develops the renderings and clay models of the new vehicles. These are then rigorously assessed with continuous inputs from senior management before the design is signed off for production.

The Design team is also closely involved in assessing the prototypes at various stages of readiness for production with respect to original intent and also works with the suppliers, Materials management team and Manufacturing department. Kripa and her team want to change the perception that consumers have about vehicles designed in India. “We want them to think that our new models like the TUV300 are the best in the market, not just the best vehicles that Mahindra has ever developed,” says Kripa.

Component suppliers are key partners in Mahindra’s journey to develop new products of good quality, according to Lalit Verma, Senior VP in charge of Component Development and Sourcing.

“Cross leveraging knowledge within the organization and empowering those on the outside, like suppliers, helps us finish strong,” says Lalit. According to him, vehicle development requires many different types of expertise and that is why we rely on codevelopment of the parts with the suppliers, especially when they are proprietary in nature. For critical systems like brakes, HVAC, seats, etc. they have created a cross functional Parts Development team where people from Design and the Manufacturing plant team joined the CDMM team to work together with suppliers on the development of components. The advantage is that the knowledge residing within Mahindra is converted into a pool of knowledge which helped speed the development of new parts and get them First Time Right. The domain experts have been carefully chosen and their capability in respective systems is being built. Their role is to acquire the knowledge and apply all the learnings from previous projects so that best practices can be adopted quickly across the new projects.

Lalit’s team also proactively invests time in enhancing supplier capability through imparting structured training on building the quality culture to meet the targets of Mahindra’s Crusade journey.

Mahindra has also invested significantly in building its manufacturing capability and expertise to ensure the new models that roll off the assembly line are First Time Right and Every time right. According to Vijay Kalra, Chief of Manufacturing Operations, Auto Division, “Our manufacturing plants are among the best in the world when it comes to the types of machines we have, our manufacturing process and the quality and productivity of our work force.”

The pride in his voice speaks for itself. As does the determination. “I think it’s more about a change in mind-set (take targets to win, robust planning and flawless execution) and then about really prioritizing things every day and just working very fast. If we have an issue that used to take 45 days to get addressed, today we are targeting 7 days, and questioning every day why it can’t be 7 hours.” adds Kalra.

Cross functional teams have also been set up amongst the Sales, Customer Care & Marketing teams to enable them to work together during and after the launch of new products. To ensure a delightful customer experience at Mahindra dealerships,these teams trained dealer staff on the new products and worked with dealers to ensure that their infrastructure, processes and manpower were up to the mark. After rigorous audits, 150 dealerships were made Crusade ready with many more to come.

A total of 4000 man hours of virtual learning experiences with cutting-edge Google Glass Technology was delivered to dealer staff including product demonstrations prior to the launches to understand more about the products. New manpower structures, namely product group wise sales teams, were created at the dealerships to handle the new launches.

Accepting No Limits, Alternative Thinking and Driving Positive Change are the behaviours that everyone is expected to demonstrate at AFS, the leadership at Mahindra AFS has strengthened it by ensuring that each and every employee, till the last mile, gets the signature Mahindra Experience of abundant learning opportunities, recognition for outperformance and an environment which is tremendously empowering. This ecosystem built by the Employee Value Proposition at Mahindra results in having a body of enthused employees who strive to give their best every day, day after day.

Over the years, IR practices at Mahindra AFS have also built one of the most harmonious and empowering shop floor cultures in the industry. The approach is to establish connect with employees at rational, functional and emotional touch-points across generations. Initiatives like Employee of the month, Jagruti and Mahindra Skill Excellence provide platforms to recognize superior performance while Rise Awards for workmen (i4) provide a platform for their creative talents to receive recognition.

Vivek Nayer, Chief Marketing Officer, says that while developing the marketing strategy for each model in the Mahindra portfolio, he and his team aim to retain some common elements between all the different vehicle brands, while at the same time, create adequate differentiation between them in terms of values, personality and positioning.

“If you look for a common thread between all our brands, you would see that it is the tough and rugged Mahindra DNA. Whether you look at the TUV300 or you look at the upcoming S101 or you see the New Age XUV500, our vehicles’ go-anywhere ability is the common thread that we leverage and keep reinforcing for all our brands through our communication and experiential brand building events under Mahindra Adventure,” says Vivek.

The other key element of the marketing strategy during launches is a 360 degree launch campaign. It starts with a lot of prelaunch activity on digital and social media about two to three weeks before the launch in order to create buzz and anticipation among potential buyers, fans, influencers and the media. This was done for all the recent launches including the New Generation Scorpio, the New Age XUV500 as well as the tough & stylish TUV300. This is accompanied by a pre-launch PR event for journalists where the brand name, styling inspiration for the SUV and some sketches are shared with the media. Experiential test drives for journalists were also done for the new Thar CRDE at our 4*4 Offroad Academy track in Igatpuri. The launch itself is webcast live to ensure maximum reach. In fact, the recent TUV300 launch was watched by almost three lakh people.

“We support the launch with a multimedia campaign comprising TV, Print, Digital & Social Media, displays at airports and malls, hoardings, road shows etc. so that we connect with consumers at multiple touch points where they are present. Digital and social media are two-way and lean-forward media. Our millions of fans on Facebook and YouTube are there because they love what Mahindra and its SUVs stand for. We’ve been one of the pioneers in digital and social media in the country, and not just in the automobile industry. Many companies are still sitting on the fence and wondering whether to move, but we moved whole heartedly to social media and digital media more than five ago. Finally, the one thing that differentiates our advertising from most others is that it is always based on some real consumer insight about our target consumers. That is the key guiding principle and touchstone by which each and every campaign is created by us.For example, in the case of the TUV300 we found that there were a lot of people who felt that toughness should not be only for flexing muscles and showing off but it should be used for doing something good in society. That is the key insight on which the current TV ad of TUV300 is based, ending with the sign off line - ‘Tough is what tough does’,” says Vivek.

So much dedication from every corner of the Auto Division must require a lot of inspiration and motivation from its leadership. According to Pravin Shah, President and Chief Executive, Automotive Division, the secret is open, transparent and frequent communication with his teams so that everyone is aware of the latest developments on a regular basis.

There are structured monthly review meetings with the Automotive Executive Council to understand the regular operations of the business, and challenges faced across functions. The council then deliberates on action plans to mitigate these challenges and plan ahead. On a monthly basis, Pravin’s team also circulates a sales update, along with other key highlights and achievements across plants. They also have a quarterly video series called ‘Game Changers’ where Pravin himself shares unique perspectives on leadership styles with all middle managers.

Every three months Pravin circulates a personal communication to everyone in the Automotive Division, highlighting the quarterly performance and shares his personal perspective on the industry and the thrust areas for the next quarter. Twice a year he also shares a video message highlighting the sector’s areas of outperformance, challenges and the way forward for the business. “I always use my visits to the plants, MRV and field offices to interact in open forums and try to understand the ground realities and concerns on a continuous basis to improve our performance,” says Pravin.

The sense of pride is unmistakable in every conversation, as is the hope and belief that FY 2015-16 is going to be a winning year for Mahindra’s Automotive Division. The strong customer response to new products like the TUV300 and Jeeto certainly bode well for the future, and are a testament to the commitment and effort of every employee within the company.

Here’s to a brilliant year for M&M - Yeh Saal Hamara Hai.

Koeyli Jaluka and Darius Lam