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The Leading Lady Of Electric!

By Anvita Pillai, @Anvitap21,

Added 19 September 2022

From humble beginnings in Odisha to becoming the CEO of Mahindra Electric Mobility, Suman Mishra’s journey is nothing short of a tale of zealousness. In an exclusive conversation with The Machinist, she talks about her journey, role in women empowerment, MEML business, future plans and more. Excerpts…

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Starting from the famous land of temples, Odisha, to becoming the Chief Executive Officer of the world’s pioneer electric vehicle manufacturer, Mahindra Electric Mobility (MEML), Suman Mishra is an out-of-the-norm leader in the Indian automotive industry. She has managed to make a mark through her decisions and skills in an industry that is rather a paradigm of male dominance.

An academically inclined Mishra was in the top 5 per cent of the class with first-class honours in BASc in Computer Engineering from Nanyang Technological University Singapore and rounded off her education with an MBA from the US Ivy League, Michigan Ross. 

MAKING THE OBVIOUS CHOICE

Her professional journey has been of equal verve spanning several industries and functions. “I have so far worked in Singapore, USA and India and in functions including sales, finance, pricing, manufacturing, procurement, organisation structure amongst others across the retail industry, financial services, automotive and assembly, chemical industry and technology. This has helped me appreciate both the common challenges, approaches and best practices across industries,” cites Mishra. However, to her, working in the manufacturing sector was a natural choice. She remarks, “I have always had a proclivity towards manufacturing industry from my specialisation with Tauber Institute of Global Operations, MI; McKinsey & Company’s industrial operations practice where I worked with auto and industrial majors.”

Since her take over as the Senior Vice President at Mahindra Group in 2015, she has worked in a variety of roles including strategy, automotive business transformation, group capital allocation, etc. So, she reveals, “The shift to Mahindra EVs was a natural transition.”

THE PANDEMIC & LEADERSHIP

Mishra stepped into the role of CEO at MEML in mid 2021. As the CEO, her regular KRA would include driving performance transformation across sales, marketing, product planning, development, scaling up expertise, etc. However, when she took up the role in 2021, it was far from what was stipulated or expected from her. Taking over amidst a raging pandemic wasn’t easy; the company’s main business line – the electric three-wheelers – had registered a strong slump. “The three-wheeler industry registered sharp degrowth after the pandemic and is yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels. The pandemic significantly affected the earnings of our customers, particularly in the passenger segment,” she mentions.

Further, trying to create and scale a new category in the context of these market conditions was the biggest challenge the company faced. But Mishra suggests, that what helped them recuperate was focusing on customers. “We focused on delivering customer-centric solutions through our electric vehicles which provide a better total cost of ownership and a superior driving experience.” 

As a leader navigating through, perhaps, the toughest of times, Mishra gave out the golden rules which she swore by:

  • Staying Grounded: As a leader, it is important to stay grounded to the purpose which works as a north star for decision making
  • Having A Clear Vision: The role of a leader is to establish a clear vision with clear priorities while decluttering distractions along the way
  • Aligning On Common Goals: A leader must build a team which is aligned behind a common purpose and willing to strive to reach overall company goals

Needless to say, it has been working wonders for the company. Mahindra Electric closed its current financial year with a market share of 73.4 per cent, making it amongst the top electric three-wheeler manufacturer in the country, experiencing a whopping 214 per cent growth from financial 2021.

WOMAN LEADING WOMEN

Breaking gender stereotypes has been an ingrained facet of Mishra’s upbringing, which she translates into her leadership style. Being a “woman” leader only meant a chance for her and the company to motivate and ingrain the mindset of ‘merit over gender’. She alludes, “We make every effort to actively hire women and provide them with opportunities to fulfil their potential. Mahindra believes in gender equality, and as long as the candidate is fit to carry out the role, they are hired based on merit.”

Currently, Mahindra’s EV division employs more than 100 women in various pivotal roles in its Chakan and Bengaluru offices. The female employees are part of the assembly and testing teams at the manufacturing plants, as well as are involved in operating, supervisory and executive roles.

BUSINESS PLANS & CREATING OPPORTUNITIES

While India’s EV market is proliferating, it is still at a very nascent stage, and Mahindra Electric’s objective is to support the increase in the penetration of electrification. With India’s EV segment turning highly competitive, Mahindra Electric plans to lead the segment by capturing a rather promising market – lastmile mobility.

The increased penetration of e-commerce has been a silver lining for the company, too, in the last two years considering the business boost it has presented to its cargo segment. “In the cargo segment, growth has been somewhat better driven by increased penetration of e-commerce,” Mishra mentions.

A recent report by World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) titled, ‘Advancing electrification of e-commerce deliveries in India’, India’s e-commerce sector, which will contribute to nearly 3.5 per cent of the country’s GDP, will witness a 100 per cent adoption of EVs. This would ultimately curb 44 per cent of the CO2 emissions by the sector’s conventional vehicle counterparts and reduce consumption of 30 billion litres of fossil fuel per year.

According to Mishra, the company plans on monetising the opportunity presented by the e-commerce sector to its best capacity. She emphasises, “I believe we will continue to innovate and evolve in this journey to self-sufficiency and set up our own India model to lead the world in electrification led by last mile mobility.”

With the innovation spree in the EV sector, wherein manufacturers are working on building inhouse batteries to match the demands and requirements of India, Mahindra Electric has no plans on slacking to build in-house batteries. Mishra mentions, “Mahindra Electric Mobility continues to focus on its in-house battery pack manufacturing as well as BMS development. We are also exploring partnerships with tech-driven companies as well as start-ups for alternate chemistry batteries, and recycling.” 

India’s EV ecosystem is evolving, however, working independently is no longer going to help, creating synergies would; Mishra envisions a combined effort to be in play. “Globally, the automobile industry is at the cusp of a major transformation. Growing concerns about energy security and environmental pollution clubbed with rapid advancement in technologies for powertrain electrification, innovative models and everincreasing customer expectations are transforming automotive businesses,” she implies.

PUSH STARTING THE LONG JOURNEY

Being at par with the world in EVs is still a long road ahead and shifting from the dependency created by ICE vehicles will be a difficult journey to make. However, Mishra believes with policies on the demand and supply side, such as FAME-II, PLI, GST, road tax waiver and state-level incentives, the GOI has enabled this transition and created a strong jumping-off point for the industry. She adds, “The Phased Manufacturing Program (PMP) in FAME-II and now the PLI Schemes for ACC, auto & auto components are aimed at the development of domestic manufacturing ecosystem of EVs and its components, including battery cells, thereby increasing the domestic value addition and creating capacity building and employment opportunities. These initiatives and policy level interventions are expected to reduce import and bring in lower costs, thereby, making the EVs more affordable.” She further emphasises that the rationalisation of Basic Customs Duty (BCD) on critical components used in EV manufacturing has also helped OEMs to encourage indigenous manufacturing of such components.

Price is a major tipping factor for the Indian audience. Given that EVs are priced on a higher end compared to one’s average ICE engine vehicle, opting for them has not been on high priority for customers. However, Mishra believes, the bold policy reforms will see India succeed in making EV technology more affordable and accessible for everyone, but it will be essential to continue the policy for long-term growth. She emphasises, “Specifically, the demand incentives for EV buyers should be continued till the time price parity between EVs and ICE vehicles is attained. Similarly, the FAME-II Scheme and the state EV policies need to be extended to envisage benefits for customers for a further period to compensate for the time lost due to Covid-19 and to ensure that momentum is maintained.”

Mishra also points out that While EVs are priced at a premium to their ICE counterparts, they deliver a significant total cost of ownership (TCO) advantage. She explains, “For example, based on average usage of a CNG three-wheeler over five years of its lifetime, an EV helps the customer to save in the range of Rs 2 lakh considering all the operating, financial, maintenance expenses. The TCO will continue to improve as we see cell cost reduction, semi-conductor availability and achieve economies of scale.” She emphasises, “Once customers realise the benefits of EVs, both financial and environmental, the pace of adoption will go up significantly.”

IS EV TRULY SUSTAINABLE?

The “sustainability” factor of EVs has been questioned for quite a while now. Several studies suggest that electric vehicles are no less damaging to the environment than one’s average diesel engine vehicle in terms of carbon footprint. The green vehicles are only truly green from an emissions perspective and lack to be thereof sustainable or green right from manufacturing to charging, yet. However, Mishra opines that EVs create a lower carbon footprint throughout their lifetime than the traditional ICEs even after accounting for the production emissions. There is a lot of scope for further reducing the carbon footprint across the value chain, such as production, transportation, charging, recycling etc. “Dialogues and partnerships have to be initiated where companies can work on pilot projects starting from manufacturing to recycling with the right support from the government,” she suggests.

Additionally, the push by the government is also technologically agnostic not limiting to certain battery chemistry. Industry and ecosystems globally and nationally have already started working on alternate chemistries, fuel cell technologies, etc. She emphasises, “Increased investments in renewable energy solutions and advanced recycling plants will reduce over-reliance on rare earth metals such as lithium.”

THE ELECTRIC FUTURE

The year 2022 so far has been full of milestones for Mahindra Electric Mobility. Mahindra’s last mile products have cumulatively travelled more than 427 million kilometres and saved more than 42835 metric tonnes of CO2, so far. Its electric three-wheelers alone have covered more than 115.12 crore kilometres and Mishra believes this is a testament to the company’s technological prowess as well as reliability. The company’s Treo auto is currently amongst the topselling electric three-wheeler in the passenger category with a market share of 70.4 per cent while the Treo Zor is leading the cargo segment with a 52.1 per cent market share.

More and more customers prefer opting for Mahindra Electric’s vehicles because of the significant savings due to the ever-increasing petrol/diesel/CNG prices, advanced li-ion technology, and favourable government policies. The high reliability of the EVs, extensive service network and aggressive marketing, as well as sales policies, also contributed to this success.

Talking about what lies ahead for them, she says, “We have a range of new as well as exciting products lined up for this financial year. We have launched the all-new Zor Grand electric cargo three-wheeler in this quarter.”

“We will continue to bring in customer-centric products to the market and keep delighting the customers by giving them a true EV experience. The 800+ service touchpoints, easy finance options and superlative reliability of our offerings will help improve the ecosystem for our customers,” signs off Mishra.

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