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Cambridge Executive MBA team takes up cycling

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Bringing the Tour de France to India – a nation with scarcely any culture of sports cycling – has proved an ambitious task for its organisers. But despite the challenges, the Tour de India ran its first races in Mumbai, Srinagar and Delhi in 2012. The following year, with Jaipur replacing Srinagar in the three-city tour, the event gained official recognition from UCI, the world governing body for competitive cycling.

Today, a group from the Executive MBA programme at Cambridge Judge Business School are planning the next stage of the Tour de India’s development, in fulfilment of their Team Consulting Project. Lead member Rav Seeruthun says:

We’re looking at scaling up the Tour in both time and capacity over a period of five years. When we came on board, we could see there was a great vision and plenty of passion, but we perhaps weren’t seeing much longer-term planning. So how could we add value?

Group project

The Team Consulting Project is a distinctive and essential component of the Cambridge EMBA. It embodies the programme’s ethos of learning through doing, with teams working on live projects with blue-chip companies and international organisations across the world. In this case, Rav was able to form a partnership with Vaibhav Maloo – managing director of Indian energy company Enso Group, which holds the rights to the Tour de India – and Dr Akil Khan, vice-chairman of its healthcare subsidiary, Ensocare.

From his cohort, Rav put together a team with the complementary skills required for the project. He says: “We needed a marketer, so we asked Graham Gordon – he’s marketing director for a company called Masternaut – and we also wanted an entrepreneur. That was Jason Thorpe, who set up his own company, sold it for a seven-figure sum, and was then brought back into its management.

“It was important for us to have a communications expert who could also deal with corporate responsibility. That role was filled by Hannah Harrison, who looks after a similar brief for SABMiller. Finally, we required someone with technical skills in financing and planning, and we enlisted Simon White, who is a director of an insurance firm in the City.”

Dr Akil Khan of Ensocare says: “The Cambridge Judge Business School EMBA team really did add strategic value to the Tour de India. Team selection is critical on any project and I think they got the right mix of experience and expertise.”

Fact-finding trip

Just four months after the team first convened in May 2014, they departed on a fact-finding trip to India. Rav says: “We hit the ground in Mumbai and had meetings with all the major stakeholders, getting an idea of what they were trying to achieve with the Tour de India and where they wanted to go next. We started an in-depth analysis and asked detailed questions, because we honestly believe that the market timing is correct for a cycling boom in India.”

Strategic aims

During their time in the country, the group developed a more detailed understanding of the strategic aims of the Tour de India. In a nation that has traditionally viewed the pushbike only as a means of travel for those unable to afford motorised transport, promoting the health benefits of cycling is of great importance. Rav says: “You have a burgeoning middle class in India, who now see it as a health exercise, which is great – particularly with diabetes and obesity prevalent in the population.”

Another long-term goal is to develop India’s status as a sporting nation. “Apart from cricket, India doesn’t really compete in any global sporting activities. So how can we get sport higher up the agenda? We believe the Tour de India could eventually be big enough to do that.”

Hybrid approach

A question that the group needed to consider was whether the Tour should be a mass-participation event, or aim to be more of an elite competition along the lines of the Tour de France. The group’s conclusion was that in the foreseeable future, it should remain a hybrid of the two. Rav says: “There’ll never be a grand tour of India, because the road infrastructure isn’t there. So we think they’ll need to take a similar approach to what marathons do, with competitive races run by local clubs, plus something that engages the people. That way, sponsors will get the exposure they need and there’ll be the level of mass participation you see in the London or Mumbai Marathons.”

Cultural challenges

Anecdotes told to the group from the two previous editions of the Tour de India brought home the particular challenges of mounting an event in India. During one race, a potentially dangerous situation erupted over a bridge in Mumbai. Rav says: “The police closed the bridge, but a state minister turned up in a limousine, and ministers have the power over local police forces. He told them to let him through, and suddenly there was a minister’s car driving through the middle of all these cyclists. So you have to plan for the unexpected.”

Beyond this, the team found the insight into business practices in India to be particularly valuable. Earlier in 2014, the whole EMBA cohort had taken part in a study trip to China, which is often paired with India in discussion of emerging economies; but the group were struck by the lack of common ground between the two cultures.

Rav says:

The biggest take-away for us was that every culture is different; doing business in India is nothing like doing business in China. For example, we could never work with local stakeholders over the web: the culture is all face-to-face. And businesspeople in India need to trust you very early in your relationship, before they feel comfortable with sharing information.

What’s more, it’s a measure of the team’s commitment to the project that they will travelling to India for the 2015 Tour to see the impact of their work – and to get in the saddle and take part in the race themselves. “It’s slightly crazy, but you don’t get many opportunities like this,” he says. “And it’s more of a challenge for Hannah, who doesn’t cycle and has had to learn from scratch. But we’ll race at the back of the pack and take it gently – and we’ll be expecting the unexpected to happen!”