New Delhi: In an exclusive interview, UB Group chairman Vijay Mallya talks about the group’s business and succession plans. Mallya senior was also joined in the chat by his son Sidhartha Mallya, his first interview ever. Edited excerpts:
Your induction into the group happened at a fairly early age as well and it was actually the shareholders who decided that you should take over from your father in 1983. Is that going to be something you will look at while inducting Sidhartha into UB? Will his role be open for discussion and debate? Will the shareholders, for instance, get involved at a later stage?
Succession plan: Vijay Mallya with son Sidhartha Mallya. HT Photo
Vijay Mallya: It is a bit different. My induction started well before 1983 when my father unfortunately passed away. I did my Senior Cambridge examination at La Martiniere in Calcutta and was going to join the St Xavier’s College to do my graduation. In between, in those days, you had a six-month gap and I was put to work. So, I actually started straight out of school.
Sidhartha has really started working after his college, which is a little bit, a few years after I started. The circumstances of my elevation or appointment as chairman of UB were a very moving moment in my life, in October of 1983.
But you struggled. You struggled for quite a while before you actually were able to say that you’d found your feet and your voice. There were always the obvious comparisons with your father and of course you had to deal with the ‘playboy of the east’ kind of labels. Are you worried that Sidhartha will perhaps have to go through some of that?
Vijay Mallya: Absolutely not. Circumstances were completely different. In 1983, you had these large family-controlled groups in India, whether it would be the Birlas or Tatas or the Modis or the Singhanias, and the fathers of the current generation were actually running the businesses. My father was one of their peers.
When my father died and I stepped into his shoes, I was a youngster as compared to all of them. Obviously, given my age at that time, I had different ideas about lifestyle; I lived my life very differently. But yet I was compared to the seniors. And that led to the inevitable media comment about my lifestyle and my capabilities and stuff like that.
Obviously, for a few years I had to sort of bear the brunt of all that. It didn’t wear me down, and I think I proved my point.
So you think it is going to be easier for him?
Vijay Mallya: Much easier because I am still around. He is being inducted as the children of many industrialists in India are being inducted into their respective businesses. So, he is going to be compared with his peers. I was compared to an age level above me.
Your dad has often said that he felt the pressure more so because the buck really stopped with him and he was only 28. In that sense, you don’t really have that pressure. You can always go back to your sounding board and you have that backup. Are you willing to therefore take more risks?
Sidhartha Mallya: In terms of risk, I wouldn’t say it is going to make me reckless in what I do, thinking that I could get away with doing what I want because my father is still around to either take responsibility or pick up my pieces. But I think it is also nice to have that guidance there as well. It also gives you a sense of security knowing that there is someone who has been through what he has as well, that if I ever need guidance I can look up to him, knowing that he is there.
Were you always clear that you wanted him to be part of the business, because you didn’t? You actually wanted to be a doctor and your father was aghast at the idea. But were you always clear that he would be part of the business.
Vijay Mallya: You know I was very close to my grandparents. My grandfather was a doctor. So, therefore I showed some natural inclination to follow in his footsteps till my father put his foot down.
But times have changed. That was decades ago. I have given Sidhartha his choices, his opportunities. In fact I told him that there are three large businesses. There are other businesses, but three large verticals. Choose what interests you most at least in your formative years and he chose the spirits business and that is why I sent him to Diageo where I am proud to say Paul Walsh just sent me an SMS saying he did very well. So, I am proud of him.
Are you feeling prepared for your role at UB? To actually deal with Indian bureaucracy, to deal with state governments specially since this is a very regulated business?
Sidhartha Mallya: No, I fully understand that. But as he said, it is important to understand the core before you can expand. Again, as he said, being an Indian family, having this whole Indian culture around us, being an Indian company, it is very important that they understand India, first and foremost, before going and trying to understand elsewhere. That is something that I have always thought that I probably don’t know enough about India and it is something while growing up I have always wanted to know more about India and it is something I am looking forward to doing.