Being an aeroplane salesman, Dinesh Keskar would rather fly Jet Airways, Air India, Emirates or Singapore Airlines—all airlines his company has sold planes to. But the pragmatic president of Boeing India concedes he’ll take anything that gets him to his destination. “We’re in a business and you’ve got to get to the right place (in the shortest time),” he says.
It is this attitude that put Keskar, 55, at the helm of Boeing’s businesses in India in March—he finally moved to New Delhi in July. He’d never planned to spend his life in marketing and sales. A long-time Boeing employee, he simply grabbed whatever opportunities came his way and things fell into place. Keskar is now on his third assignment in India, relocating to Delhi from Seattle. He first serviced the India market in 1988-1989 when he made frequent trips to the country. During his second stint, 1995-1999, he moved base to Mumbai.
Big-ticket: Keskar’s happiest moment was selling three Boeing Business Jets to the Union government in 2003, for the President, vice-president and Prime Minister. Jayachandran / Mint
Our meeting takes place on a late evening in his suite at Hyatt Regency, where he’s staying till he finds a home. While we both order Sprite with lemon, Keskar, dressed casually in a T-shirt and trousers, has a special request: He asks for some aloo bonda (the type you’d pop into pav to make vada pav). It’s not on the menu, but that’s not a problem. It’s easy to see why. When in Delhi, he’s stayed at the same hotel for the past 20 years (and always in the same suite, except once when it was being renovated).
These are tough times for the industry he serves, and in India it has flown into serious turbulence of late. Recently, private carriers threatened to go on strike and then broke ranks as soon as the government decided to crack the whip. The strike threat fizzled out. For the past 30 years, Keskar has observed the industry from close quarters and says with no uncertainty, “Clearly the industry is bad worldwide because of the recession, but in India there’s one word for the reason—overcapacity.” This has already resulted in full-service airlines such as Jet Airways switching a majority of their fleets to an all-economy configuration.
Keskar believes the market for business class travel will survive only on metro routes.
He sounds unfazed since he knows that long-term demand, from India at least, is expected to be robust. He expects airlines in India to break even by March, as long as fuel prices don’t spike again. Passenger traffic, now around 40 million a year, is expected to rise by 8% a year well into the next decade. “The big thing India needs to do is encourage more secondary airports,” he says. With this in mind, Boeing has significantly expanded the scale of operations in India in the past few years. After the Indo-US nuclear deal was signed last year, Boeing is also catering to India’s defence needs. And so, unlike previous occasions, moving back to India last month was an easy decision. “There’s so much more to do now,” he says.
Apart from selling planes, he’s also responsible, among other things, for components worth $1.7 billion (around Rs8,500 crore) that his company sources from India, for the simulators Boeing has set up for Air India, and for its research centre in Bangalore, which was set up in March.
Keskar was born in Rajkot, Gujarat, to Maharashtrian parents. At age 6, he moved to Amravati, Maharashtra, because his father wanted his children to be taught in Marathi. Among the many childhood memories, he distinctly remembers listening to the news of Neil Armstrong’s moon landing on short wave radio. After graduating in mechanical engineering from the Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology (previously known as Visvesvaraya Regional College of Engineering), he headed to the University of Cincinnati, US, for his master’s degree and a PhD in aerospace engineering, where Armstrong was one of his professors.
He then joined the Langley Research Centre at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) as a contract employee, where he spent 18 months. While at Nasa, he would regularly bump into several Boeing employees doing research on the “terminal configured vehicle programme”. Noticing me frown at this description, Keskar is quick to say, “Oh, that’s the test bed formed by the Boeing 737.” He was offered a job at Boeing and after some thought, he moved to Seattle in 1980 as an engineer with the world’s largest aviation company in terms of revenue.
His first big break at Boeing came in 1984 when he was selected for its executive potential programme (or Expo). The company selects 25 out of a total of 10,000 engineers ever year and they are put through short stints in various departments of the firm. “It was during that time that I got to know the people who sell aeroplanes and I got intrigued by them,” says Keskar.
Now keen on a career in sales and marketing, he was handicapped by the fact that he didn’t have an MBA. So he decided to get one. By 1987, he’d completed his MBA from the City University of Seattle with an exceptional 4.0 grade point average. Keskar knocked on the marketing team’s doors and was accepted immediately.
In many ways, he has been solely responsible for Boeing’s strong lead over its main rival Airbus in India. In 1987, when he got his first chance to come to India, he thought long and hard. “Is this what I really want to do,” he asked himself. After all, he was working in the world’s largest aerospace company and there wasn’t much going on in India those days.
But it was seen as a growth market. That was also the year Boeing had lost a deal to Airbus in India. He decided to take on the challenge and his first job was to convince Air India to buy Boeing’s largest plane, the 747. It was a deal that took three years to complete. On 14 August 1991, Madhavrao Scindia, the then aviation minister, signed it. “That was the first sale in my life, $700 million, and it was pretty thrilling,” he says.
The next big opportunity came in 1993, when the Union government decided to allow private airlines or air taxis, as they were known then, to take to the skies. Keskar knew these fledgling airlines couldn’t afford to send their pilots and engineers to the US for training. “So we got our instructors and entire training curriculum to India and we used to run classes at Leela and Centaur (in Mumbai),” he says.
Boeing ended up training around 400 people, so the start-up airlines had little choice but to lease Boeing aeroplanes—they were the only ones that could be repaired in India. Jet Airways bought 10 planes in 1996 and private airlines only flew Boeing planes till 2000.
Before a deal, Keskar always studies the requirements of an airline carefully and only bids if he believes the company has a good chance of success. “This is the reason I’ve never lost a contract I’ve bid for,” he says.
In 2005, Keskar sealed his biggest deal—a $11.6 billion deal with Air India for 68 new planes. Today Keskar, who is married to a former Air India flight attendant and whose association with the airline spans almost three decades, prefers not to get into the nitty-gritty of what’s gone wrong with the airline.