After steering Suzuki Motor Corporation (SMC) for nearly half a century, the company’s 91-year-old chairman Osamu Suzuki announced his intention to finally retire in June this year.
Suzuki would be best remembered for not just shaping SMC in becoming the largest small carmaker in the world but also for making Maruti Suzuki a household name in India.
Back in 1980, when the Indian government decided to hunt for a partner for the newly nationalised company, Maruti Udyog (Maruti Motors previously), that was set up by Sanjay Gandhi, the second son of prime minister Indira Gandhi, some of the European and American carmakers evinced interest.
Global interest starts in Maruti
Renault, Volkswagen, Ford, Peugeot, and MAN were among those that showed interest in partnering Maruti Udyog while Fiat and a few others did not appear enthused by the idea. Renault nearly made the cut, but for its inability to produce a fuel-efficient and light-on-pocket car like the Ford Model T, the engagement ended abruptly.
This was the opportunity that Osamu Suzuki, the fourth president of SMC, was waiting for. After being rejected by the Indian government twice, SMC was accepted as a reserve candidate after the third try, following sustained negotiations by Suzuki.
Suzuki personally met the Indian investigation team that was visiting Japan to finalise a partner in 1980-81. RC Bhargava, the current chairman of Maruti Suzuki, was part of that delegation.
Suzuki enters the scene
While SMC’s rival Daihatsu was set to become the preferred choice, as per news reports, Suzuki’s enthusiastic involvement in the meeting with the Indian delegation turned the tide in favour of SMC.
Since it was Suzuki who showed intense keenness in the Indian project, which was highlighted by his desire to become the ‘Number 1 carmaker in India’, the project to deliver a low-cost car took off speedily but smoothly.
First car rolls out
It took just 14 months for Maruti Udyog to roll out the car in December 1983, with M800 becoming the first model out of the production lines in Gurgaon, Haryana.
The easy-to-manoeuvre M800 became an instant hit with the buyers against the built-like-a-tank Hindustan Motors’ Ambassador and the Premier Padmini. The Omni, the second car by the joint venture, and the M800 clocked sales of 100,000 in just five years of launch.
SMC raises stake in Maruti
Post the economic liberalisation of 1991, SMC raised its stake in Maruti Udyog to 50 percent from 40 percent, paving the way for Suzuki’s dream of becoming a global leader in small cars through the Indian gateway. The Indian operations grew to such an extent that it surpassed sales of SMC’s home market Japan.
Suzuki himself has been so fiercely protective of SMC’s share in the Indian market that he decided to drop the alliance with German giant Volkswagen after it was discovered that the alliance could lead to SMC losing its stranglehold of the Indian passenger car market.
A maker of premium hatchbacks and sedans, Volkswagen was eager to learn the art of making small, cost-efficient cars like Suzuki for India.
"Osamu Suzuki is stepping down from Suzuki Motor Corporation but he is not leaving Maruti Suzuki. He will continue on our board and he will continue to be a senior advisor to SMC. Its just a change of designation and younger people will take more responsibility. For Maruti Suzuki it wont make any difference as far as I can see. Osamu Suzuki knows Maruti Suzuki better than anybody else in Japan", Bhargava said to Moneycontrol.
Osamu Suzuki’s India visits
Despite his age, Suzuki travelled to India often to attend most of the board meetings. As per the 2019-20 annual report of Maruti Suzuki, Osamu Suzuki attended each of the five board meetings, besides the annual general meeting.
He even attended meetings with Indian government officials on a regular basis. Suzuki also made it a habit of visiting the manufacturing plants run by Maruti Suzuki and SMC in India. He was the lead figure from SMC during the foundation-laying ceremony held in 2015 when Gujarat became the third location for a car manufacturing plant from Suzuki.