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Anoop Prakash: The ex-US Marine who now sells Harleys in India

Last updated on: December 14, 2011 13:05 IST

Anoop Prakash: The ex-US Marine who now sells Harleys in India

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Rajiv Rao in New Delhi


I'm on the Gurgaon expressway, going at a relatively sedate 90 kmph considering I'm on Harley-Davidson's XL 883 cc Roadster (Price tag: Rs 7.5 lakh, but around Rs 13,861 a month on an EMI for five years after a 15 per cent down payment, which is perhaps a much less traumatic way to look at it).

It is one of 12 types of motorcycles that the iconic American company has brought to India in a no-holds-barred decision to dominate the market for heavyweight bikes here.

Harley's motorcycles are generally around 50 per cent more than what they cost in the United States thanks to import duties, but its recently built Haryana plant has started assembling three lines (Super Low, Iron, Forty-Eight), effectively bringing that import duty down to anywhere from 30 to 10 per cent.

Following me, some 20 paces behind, is the managing director of Harley's India ops, Anoop Prakash, who is riding a Super Low with the same 883 engine.

The highway is packed with fast-moving, anarchic traffic, which is not the greatest of riding experiences.

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Image: (Inset) Anoop Prakash.
Photographs: Reuters

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Anoop Prakash: The ex-US Marine who now sells Harleys in India

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While it's all right for me who's ridden bikes on and off while growing up in India and living abroad, it's an incredible accomplishment for Prakash, who learnt how to ride only two years ago when he joined Harley, and that too on sedate American highways.

Yet, Prakash looks as cool as a hippo in a watering hole but that shouldn't surprise me. He's an ex-Marine after all, and flirting with death used to be his bread and butter.

The Indian road, like war, is probably just another thing to prepare and strategise for. The traffic gets more bunched up and I flick the throttle up a few notches.

The famous air-cooled, V-Twin engines set at 45 degree angles for which Harley is famous (and has patented) rocket the bike to 130 kmph and into the fast lane accompanied by that distinctive Harley rumble.

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Photographs: Reuters

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Anoop Prakash: The ex-US Marine who now sells Harleys in India

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I race past everything else just so I can ultimately slow back down and cruise comfortably. These V-Twins are what make Harleys so special, spreading an even displacement of torque (70 Nm @ 3750 Rpm) across gears, allowing you, even in fifth, to still lunge ahead like an excitable race horse, which is quite unusual for a motorcycle.

And yet there is something very comforting about the bike. Heavy as they are, these Harleys make you feel secure and safe even at high speeds. Which is great for anyone who's watched the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia one too many times, as I have.

"In business -- even in the motorcycle business -- all I see is people in suits," says Prakash.

We are sitting in Amaranta, a seafood restaurant at the new Oberoi in Gurgaon -- a striking, modernist, glass-entombed hotel whose blood-red carpeted lobby looks like it could belong in a David Lynch set.

We're munching Tawa prawns with coconut feni and coriander and some grilled pomfret, which are delightfully fresh and delicately cooked.

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Photographs: Reuters

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Anoop Prakash: The ex-US Marine who now sells Harleys in India

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Prakash may seem like he's got all the time in the world, riding around rural Haryana with the likes of me, but he's been a very busy man, setting up six dealerships in India, bringing all five families of his motorcycles to the country, and managing to sell 1,200 bikes so far (the most for any heavyweight brand) -- all of it in one year.

It's an impressive feat, but will Suzuki and Honda, both of whom are long established players in the country with solid distribution channels, or even equally legendary bike makers BMW or Ducati going to allow Harley to continue its run?

"Look, we're in the heavyweight motorcycle business," says Prakash. "It's what we do, every day, all day. As a result, we're not distracted by other segments," he adds.

Prakash says India is in a unique place -- with a confluence of wealth, global aspiration and a demand for quality and this makes Harley the ideal contender for the title of king amongst serious motorcycle enthusiasts.

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Photographs: Reuters

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Anoop Prakash: The ex-US Marine who now sells Harleys in India

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Prakash points to BMW's false start and exit from the country as well as Ducati's dealership hiccups. This is where Harley rules, says Prakash. "Our customised experience is hard to match," he says.

"The moment you buy a Harley, you belong to one of the most exclusive, and one of the biggest, clubs in the world. It's a badge of honour," he says, whipping out his Harley owner's card and handing it to me for a peek.

A Harley customer first goes through a boot camp, where he or she may get to try out all the different models available before settling on one.

"Everyone has a different need and we try to fit the right need for the right rider," says Prakash. Then, there's the one thing where all bike makers tend to trip up -- after-sales service.

"We don't open a facility until we can guarantee top notch after-sales service. We've been training technicians all over India. Our head of Service, John McEnaney, has been riding Harleys longer than I've been alive," he adds.

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Photographs: Reuters

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Anoop Prakash: The ex-US Marine who now sells Harleys in India

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Prakash and I are now on a country road somewhere in Haryana that snakes by the foothills of the Aravallis. The air is wonderfully clean and crisp, and yellow blankets of mustard flowers flank the road.

It is a superb riding experience. What makes it even more enjoyable is the terrible shape of the road, dotted with craters, some of them the size of sedans.

We open up the bikes wherever we can, braking hard for the big bumps and flying through the smaller ditches. I come out of a corner and gun it -- and fail to see an enormous crater.

The Harley screams through it, juddering mightily because of its hard suspension, rattling my teeth, but the bike is solidly planted on ground thanks to its heavy frame and fat tyres and it shakes off the encounter as if it were a minor annoyance.

In my rear view mirror, I can see Prakash giggling. "Our bikes are built for Indian roads," he had told me during lunch. It looks that way, although I suspect that after-sales service is probably going to be an overworked department.

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Photographs: Reuters

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Harley, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, probably couldn't land a better candidate to lead its India ops considering Prakash's credentials.

He's a Minnesota native, a Stanford (undergrad) product and a Harvard Business School graduate with a public policy background, who helped build new business lines for clients while at McKinsey.

He also worked as a deputy chief of staff at the office of Housing and Urban Development during the Bush era and is a Republican and good buddy of once-Presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal.

Hanging out in front of the Harley's sleek office in Gurgaon with the company's technicians, marketing guys and service personnel allows for a few laughs and a walk down motorcycle memory lane: old habits of pumping the back brakes on a bike (because our front ones were non-existent, in general), the glory days of Yamaha's nippy RX 100, the ongoing debate about the old Bullets versus the new ones with fuel injection engines (and a more modulated 'thump') and so on.

Clearly, these guys love bikes, and riding, and Prakash allows anyone working for the company to check a bike out for a spin over the weekend. It feels like a family and that's a tough act to beat.


Photographs: Reuters

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