Bangalore: How do you order planes worth Rs12,000 crore from Airbus with just Rs1 crore in the bank ?
How do you haggle down the price of an aircraft from $55 million (around Rs250 crore) to $28.5 million ?
How do you meet the chief minister of a state without an appointment?
Why was Air Deccan eventually sold to Vijay Mallya even after having reached an “in-principle” deal with the Reliance-Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (R-Adag)?
What was the role played by current Karnataka Congress president R.V. Deshpande in swinging the Air Deccan deal for Kingfisher Airlines Ltd?
Answers to these questions and more are addressed by G.R. Gopinath, the man who pioneered low-cost flying in India, in his autobiography Simply Fly: A Deccan Odyssey. The 399-page book, priced at Rs499, has been published by HarperCollins and will be launched on Friday by Infosys chairman N.R. Narayana Murthy.
Itinerant entrepreneur: Gopinath has worn a dizzying array of hats, in a career that continues to evolve. He was a motorcycle dealer, hotelier, stock broker and politician before he entered the aviation sector. Hemant Mishra / Mint
Extracts of the book first appeared in Business Today magazine last week.
Captain Gopi, as everybody calls the 58-year-old, has worn a dizzying array of hats, in a career that continues to evolve. From a small-town boy near Hassan in Karnataka, he became a military officer, who saw action during the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. At 27, he chucked his military career to become an award-winning farmer. He was a motorcycle dealer, hotelier, stock broker and politician before he became an aviation entrepreneur.
A compulsive multi-tasker, Gopinath has inherited the story-telling ability of his uncle, the famed Kannada literatteur Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar, and it shows in the interesting manner in which he tells his story.
Some of the transitions he attempted in his chequered career were neither easy nor smooth. He writes movingly of his first attempt at farming a piece of land in which 800 coconut saplings, painstakingly planted over 20 acres, were washed away overnight by a stream in spate due to heavy rains. With equal felicity, he writes about the hilarious episode of his experience with donkeys he bought to fetch water from a stream, arising from his “ignorance of donkey psychology”.: “When urged to carry the pitchers back to the farm from the stream, some animals stuck their hooves into the ground and refused to move. Some raised and kicked their hind legs in air, some sprinted… Some simply stood still, some kicked, some brayed, some ran amok.”
For the record, Gopinath succeeded in all his avatars, except the one as a politician, although some people would say that he won in this too—by losing.
The book includes some well-known stories such as the one on how he started Air Deccan. On a transit stop at the Phoenix airport on way to a helicopter convention, Gopinath saw that the airport handled 1,000 flights and 100,000 passengers a day. “I found it difficult to believe that this back-of-the beyond airport, in the middle of a desert, handled more flights and passengers than all the 40 airports in India put together (then).” Thus was born an airline with the idea to make flying accessible to the common man with low-cost fares. He vividly describes the travails and tribulations of running an airline.
Why did Air Deccan, which needed an urgent infusion of cash to stay afloat, eventually go to Mallya instead of Anil Ambani? Gopinath writes of how on the day when R-Adag was to sign the final deed (for acquiring a 26% stake in Air Deccan), Amitabh Jhunjhunwala—whom Gopinath describes as the right-hand man of Ambani—called to say that R-Adag was also talking to SpiceJet Ltd and they would like to close both the deals together and wanted a 15-day extension. That delay helped Mallya, who had been wooing Gopinath for a stake and had been repeatedly rebuffed.
“Mallya was calling from Monte Carlo, where his $100 million yacht, Indian Empress, was berthed and (where he was) hosting his famed annual party on the event of the Formula One race,” writes Gopinath. He adds that Mallya spoke to him in Kannada and made an elaborate pitch. Gopinath agreed, provided Mallya deposited Rs150 crore by 2pm, three days hence and the balance Rs410 crore within four weeks. “The deal was concluded in 45 minutes,” he writes.
From being on the opposite sides of the road—Gopinath used to live in a flat opposite the bungalow where Mallya resides in Bangalore—the two have now become neighbours; Gopinath bought the bungalow next to Mallya’s sometime back.
Despite his considerable success and wealth, Gopinath still remains a small-town boy at heart and this is evident in his description of a meeting with Mallya at the latter’s house. “Everything about Vijay Mallya is grand and larger than life. The driveway to his bungalow is lined on either side by eye-catching grottos, fountains, cascades and majestic figures in stone. There is regular boulevard with ornamental palms, creepers and well-manicured flower beds… Vijay Mallya sat on a swing on a raised deck in the veranda. Mallya is a good model for a modern maharaja… When I drew closer, I saw that the swing on which Vijay Mallya was seated was made of solid silver, his feet rested on a silver stool. Silver was the counterpoint: the foil. Solid antique gray silver!”
His description of a meeting with Ambani is equally evocative.
“We met over lunch. He served me the food himself and proved to be an extraordinarily gracious host. He was not in the least pompous, but exuded a quiet acknowledgement of his own sense of power… Sitting before him I felt the aura of the power of colossal wealth and far-reaching influence. The lunch meeting lasted for three-and-a-half hours. I spoke for half an hour about my dreams. Anil Ambani spoke non-stop for the next three hours. He said nothing about Reliance, said nothing about investing in Deccan. He told me the story of how his father had built Reliance.”
After selling his low-cost airline, Gopinath entered the air cargo logistics business through Deccan Express Logistics. It is unlikely that this will be the itinerant entrepreneur’s last essay.
Professor Henry Mitzberg, a renowned academic and author on business and management, says in the afterword: “Conventional farmers exploit, Gopi explores. He plants experiments, fertilizes with imagination and harvests the ideas that take root. These he offers on the open market for the price of our attention.”