Mumbai: Is the rest of the world ready for Vijay Mallya, India's spirits and airline tycoon?
It had better be.
Mallya, 51, who built one of the largest Indian airlines through aggressive marketing, pocketfuls of cash and a big domestic deal, is getting ready to take his fleet overseas. He plans to fly Kingfisher Airlines, known in India for saucy flight attendants, top-notch service and the slogan "Fly the Good Times," direct to the US and Europe next year.
On 20 June, Mallya furthered his overseas goals with a $7 billion (Rs28,525 crore) 50-aircraft order at the Paris air show. "Our strategy at Kingfisher is to open new long-haul routes and expand existing ones," he said in Paris.
The deal, for 50 Airbus planes, includes five A340s, which are only economical to fly on long-haul trips. Mallya already has on order five of Airbus's jumbo A380s, which he plans to fly non-stop to the US East Coast, and five additional A340s, which he plans to fly nonstop to America's West Coast.
Mallya's success rate so far is commendable. He took over a sprawling group of family businesses at age 27 and turned them into one of the most respected, well-known conglomerates in India, UB Group, multiplying revenue tenfold along the way. Taking Kingfisher Airlines international is the next logical step, he said.
"Any serious airline has to look at a worldwide network," he said during a recent interview in Mumbai, as he smoked several cigarillos and drank scotch over ice. "Today, there is serious international growth in and out of India," he said. "It is an opportunity one should not miss."
Mallya's successes in other businesses are legendary in India, but his foray into international air travel comes at a time when airlines with even deeper pockets, from Dubai to Singapore, are eyeing the Indian market. And he also must face domestic start-up airlines like Jet Airways and SpiceJet that have been capitalizing on India's rising middle class and increasing penchant for travel.
In India, the number of passengers flying domestically has increased by nearly 40% percent in the past year. The number of international passengers flying from India increased by 25%.
With the new order, UB Group is certainly focused on the future. The order made on 20 June, plus other outstanding orders, will bring Kingfisher Airlines' fleet from 30 aircraft to 135. The airline, which started in 2005, has not yet made a profit, though Mallya predicts that will come during the next fiscal year.
As a startup, Mallya claims that Kingfisher has some advantages that existing US and European carriers do not. "These airlines grew so large and so unwieldy over the years that they are difficult to manage," he said. "We have built Kingfisher brick by brick, making sure along the way that we don't overstaff ourselves, that we use the right technology, and that we plan everything to be neat and tight and efficient," he said.
While he characterizes his business plan as tight and efficient, Mallya himself is the sort of unfettered corporate czar that most American boardrooms have not seen in at least half a century. He surrounds himself with a close group of longtime advisers; he also wears diamonds, holds business meeting at his house that go until 5 a.m., winks at female journalists and flaunts the "good times" motif in most aspects of his life.
Mallya's driveway holds a Mercedes, a Ferrari and a Bentley. His ornately decorated living room is filled with silver-gilded furniture and art including a marble statue of a nymph. His CD collection includes an extensive selection of dance, lounge and party music.
In India, where the middle class is rushing to embrace "good times," Mallya's image and lifestyle have become part of the company itself. The country's young population "look on me as a kind of an icon," Mallya said. "That works well for me, and it works well for a business too," he said.
What remains to be seen is whether the rest of the world will embrace him, and his airline, as well.
Pending regulatory approval, Mallya hopes to start flying nonstop from India to the US West Coast as soon as next year, after the first of a group of long-haul carriers is delivered. He pulled up a consultants' report showing that if Kingfisher were to fly direct from San Francisco right now, planes would be nearly full.
Mallya, who has a mane of dark hair touched with gray and a hearty laugh, looks at first like he might have been indulging in a bit too much of the good times lately, contributing to dark circles under his eyes. The tired visage, though, is the result of a meeting that ran until the wee hours of the morning, he said.
"We do about this once a month," said one legal adviser who was still at Mallya's house the next evening.
In fact, one thing that Mallya's carefully crafted reputation may be hiding is the fact that he cannot seem to stop working. "I get off a plane at two o'clock in the morning and I'm looking for my secretary because I want to know what's going on," he said. Then he quickly added: "I work hard and I play hard too. There is nothing wrong with that."
Airbus booked more major orders for its A350 XWB aircraft on 20 June, The Associated Press reported from Le Bourget, France. The Russian airline Aeroflot signed a firm deal worth $3.2 billion for 22 of the revamped A350 aircraft, and Airbus received commitments from Afriqiyah Airways to buy another six planes worth $1.6 billion.