It’s a particularly scorching day as I make my way to the Indigo restaurant in Colaba, Mumbai. I am meeting Peter Kerkar, the promoter and executive director of travel and holiday firm Cox & Kings Ltd after a chase of almost a year and a half, so I don’t want to be late.
At 12.55pm, as I walk in, the staff tells me that Kerkar “is already in”. Dressed in cool casuals—a light blue shirt, grey trousers, without a tie or jacket—he greets me with a pleasant smile. “I thought I will come a little early,” he says, allowing me to settle.
Kerkar asks for a Virgin Mary and I settle for watermelon juice. He places his iPhone 5, meant for international calls, on his left and an old Samsung handset, for local calls, to the right. Kerkar, who shuttles between London and Mumbai, wants to settle on the menu before we get into any intense discussion, opting for truffled chicken breast with garlic, mustard and mushrooms.
He says he has been extremely busy since Cox & Kings, through its UK unit Prometheon Holdings (UK) Ltd, acquired Holidaybreak Plc for £312 million (around Rs.264 crore) in an all-cash transaction in July 2011. This was the biggest overseas acquisition by an Indian travel company and the ninth overall by Cox & Kings.
One of the oldest established travel companies in the world, the Cox & Kings story began in 1758, when it was appointed general agent to the regiment of Foot Guards in India. Through the next century, they were agents for most British regiments posted overseas.
In 1947, the British left the country, but bound by strong ties to India, Cox & Kings stayed on. In February 1923, their banking business was taken over by Lloyds Bank Ltd while A.B.M. Good and John Norman Barber acquired Cox & Kings (Holdings) Ltd. In 1980, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) permitted Cox & Kings (Agents) Ltd to transfer its Indian business to Cox & Kings (India) Ltd, though the former continued business from its head office in London.
In consideration of this purchase of business, Cox & Kings (India) issued shares to Cox & Kings (Agents)—as a condition of Indianization imposed by the RBI, 60% of shares were issued to residents of India and the Staff Gratuity Trust Fund.
Kerkar’s father Ajit bought nearly 60% of the equity shares of Cox & Kings (India) for the first time in May 1981. Later, the shares were transferred to Kerkar and his sister Urrshila. “My father was chairman at Indian Hotels Co. Ltd that runs Taj. Cox & Kings was handling several travel deals for the Taj group,” Kerkar recalls. Taj could not buy the company because of The Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act. Instead, their top executives bought shares in the early 1990s. “My father got a bigger share,” Kerkar says.
Peter Kerkar joined Cox & Kings’ London office in October 1986 at the age of 24—straight from Stanford University, US—as its general manager. Though his family had a stake in the company, his start was not smooth. The business was not doing well under the franchisee model with partners and Kerkar’s mandate was to clean up the mess. “My first job was to sack 52 people, the most difficult thing I had ever done,” he recalls. “There was nothing. No office, no telephone, except 12 files and some plastic bags (because the franchise partner took the rest).”
Cox & Kings then had three divisions—air cargo, business travel and leisure travel. Kerkar closed the cargo division and reinvented the firm as a purely business and leisure travel company. He opened an office in the US, approached travel companies and guaranteed competitive rates by tying up with them. The moment Cox & Kings got scale, he terminated the alliances and started growing on his own.
In early 2000, Kerkar saw that airlines were beginning to eliminate travel agency commissions. He transformed Cox & Kings into a travel agency commission-based company to sell holidays and tour packages. His regional focus got him more customers—the company brought out brochures in Malayalam, Tamil, Gujarati and Marathi.
He bought Holidaybreak Plc because he found Europe had great education-focused tours and felt India would be the next big market for these.
"IN PARENTHESIS: Peter Kerkar, who sells holidays to millions, likes to holiday differently himself. He owns a home in Kerry, on the west coast of Ireland. “You have to travel at least 65km to locate a supermarket from my holiday home,” Kerkar says. Kerry is blessed with amazing beaches and plush green meadows. Kerkar swipes his iPhone to show some pictures of his holiday home; he visits Kerry three-four times a year with wife Emma, daughters Jessica and Nayantara, and pets—a pug and a labrador. “It’s a fun place with the best golf course in the world.” Besides golf, he goes cycling, paints and cooks. “People make me cook Indian as I am Indian. At a time, I can cook for 30 people,” he says. He again swipes his iPhone to show some of his paintings, mostly landscapes. "
In 2009, Cox & Kings was listed on Indian bourses; its market capitalization is around Rs.1,617 crore—the largest travel company in India by revenue, among the top three in the world for special education tour programmes.
What will their story be in the next five years? Kerkar says his company will have a greater footprint in India and abroad, owning more hotel rooms for students on educations tours to supplement his education business. “On a long-term basis, we would have only two businesses—leisure travel and education tours,” Kerkar says.
The company plans to sell more profitable products, including specialized international school trips, children’s adventure holidays and study tours, as part of a diversification plan. Kerkar thinks educations tours are quickly picking up in India and his company is ready to catch the trend early. “We have more rooms than any reputed hotel in India. I mean accommodation facilities,” he says, chuckling.
As his next order—caramelized Atlantic scallops with confit lamb and more flat bread—arrives, the usually reserved Kerkar sips a second drink, a Diet Coke, and tells me his love story.
His wife Emma, daughter of Mark Tully, the former BBC bureau chief in New Delhi, had originally applied to Kerkar’s London office the year he joined as general manager. Since the chairman of the company recommended her for the job, Kerkar objected to hiring her. He did hire her later, however.
“I used to talk in Hindi to some of the staff. One day, I found Emma laughing at a comment I made in Hindi. I realized that she could follow the language as she had lived in India,” he recollects.
Kerkar has a strong connection to art and music. “My mother used to be an interior designer for the Taj group for 35 years. She bought art for them. Art was deep-rooted in our family as we were exposed to that much early through our mother,” he says.
“I don’t sing at all,” he goes on. But renowned Hindustani classical vocalist Kesarbai Kerkar was a great-aunt. He is also one of the founding members (since 1989) of the Asian Music Circuit, a leading promoter of Asian music in the UK. It has established a reputation for variety and the high calibre of tours and concerts, as well as the quality and innovation of its education projects.
We agree that we will avoid dessert. By then, he has asked me thrice about the chicken and lamb we had for lunch. I ask him about the best food and services he has had aboard an airline. “Qantas of Australia,” he says quickly. “It has comfortable seats, entertainment options and best food. It’s just out of the world.”
Though he says he does not sing, perhaps satisfied with the meal we just had, Kerkar hums as we leave: “So oh lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz” by Janis Joplin.