V PATTABHI RAM
The king of good times is now facing bad times. In one sense he is a fugitive, hiding in England. If you think, he will go behind bars for a long time to come, think again. He has the connections and the chutzpah to swing things his way.
Let me tell you his story.
It was some 30 years ago, when he himself hadn’t turned 30, that Vijay Mallya inherited Papa’s business, the UB Group.
Over time, the liquor baron, now fancying himself as corporate raider, began acquiring companies. He built on some, he stripped some and disowned others; in the process he made enemies, and tarnished a few reputations including that of Manu Chabbria from whom he bought Shaw Wallace.
In 2003, he set up Kingfisher Airlines. In 2006, he got it listed. By 2011, he hadn’t shown a single rupee of profit for his effort. Shortly thereafter, the company was grounded.
Many believe that Mallya’s work-style killed Kingfisher. But, the jet-setting czar, who fancies himself as India’s Richard Branson, thought differently and once pointed an accusing finger at the rising price of Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF). And he had added, “the industry is in serious trouble and we are not worse off than anyone else.”
Should he not have stuck to his liquor business? For someone who spends personal time holidaying in yachts and headhunting models for calendars, was the tricky business of airlines right? If it was about an ego trip, should he not have stuck to owning a couple of aircrafts in which he could have partied and flown to the rest of the world?
In the end, it was about show; about seeking to tell the world that there is a glitzy connection amongst wining (remember Breweries), racing (stakes in Force India which is into Formula One racing) and flying (Kingfisher). The show was e completed by buying media companies (including Asian Age), television companies (including NDTV Good Times), a football team (East Bengal) and of-course a cricket franchisee (Royal Challengers).
In short, the man was all over the place.
Given his glittering background, it was natural he wanted to get into airlines. After all, he had travelled in the best airlines of the world. He possibly thought this business was just an extension of the hospitality business. That, what mattered most was how the guests were taken care of. In a country where the customer is routinely taken for granted, he promised to change the face of air-travel experience and make flying entertaining and enjoyable.
At one level he did deliver on the promise. While his airline did charge premium price they provided top draw facilities. Each seat had a television screen where guests could flip channels of choice. On domestic aircraft it was the first of its kind; you have that privilege only on international aircraft.
He played to the gallery by appearing on those screens welcoming guests. He asked them to get in touch with him directly if they had any issue with any service. The audience lapped it. There was no compromise on food. Otherwise used to banal stuff on many airlines, this was a big relief.
At the airports, you were welcomed right at the baggage-screening machine; you would have someone to help you getting that done; your boarding pass was issued without a mess by ever-smiling employees. It was first class.. I guess overall people loved the experience and it was hep to fly Kingfisher.
Having set customer service in place, Mallya decided to expand. He bought Air Deccan. Capt G R Gopinath, the man who forever changed the face of air-travel, was looking to cash out because his low-cost carrier model was a failing proposition. Mallya hopped into the bandwagon as a knight-in-shining-armor.
The acquisition made sense. It gave Kingfisher access to the Air Deccan market and helped it list on the bourses. In another sense, the acquisition made no meaning. There was no way a low cost airline would work in an outfit which had Mallya’s signature all over the place. Was cost control possible in such a mindset?
In the end, Mallya had overstretched. His flamboyance killed him. A man of his vision should have actually gone places. Law must not only be level for all, but appear to be so. Mallya should be made to cough up what is legally due from him. We should not have a government bending backwards to bail him out the way it did Lalit Modi.