Vijay Rekhi. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Vijay Rekhi. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Vijay Rekhi: In high spirits

The founder of alcobev companies Unibev and Vizanar talks to 'Mint' about his first drink, hanging out with Caribbean cricketers and his 'rollicking' 15 years as MD of McDowell

Vijay Rekhi has fond memories of, among other things, the vehicles he has owned. Starting from a bicycle when he was 11 years old to buying a Vespa scooter as an 18-year-old and then getting his first car, they mark some sort of milestones in his life.

He bought his first car, a second-hand Fiat, in 1970 for a specific reason. He was 26 years old, living in Mumbai, and had a new girlfriend. The monsoon was approaching and he didn’t want to get wet when he took Zarine, who later became his wife, out for coffee.

The executive director and co-founder of Unibev, a beverage-alcohol start-up, and founder-chairman of alcobev and FMCG advisory Vizanar, grins when he recollects the story of how he sold the scooter, borrowed money from his father for the car but realized he did not have enough money for petrol.

“I didn’t even know how to drive then; a mechanic in the company only told me how to change the gears," says Rekhi, now beaming. “The joyful part is you have to (parallel) park between two cars in Mumbai but who taught me how to park? So there I am, on the road with my girlfriend, and I can’t park the car."

Two weeks before his 74th birthday, I meet the Bengaluru-based Rekhi at the O22 restaurant at the Trident, Bandra Kurla Complex, Mumbai, a couple of hours before he flies back home. It’s cocktail hour—we sit by the windows facing west with the sun going down—but he chooses a cappuccino.

Rekhi is a short, portly man, with twinkling eyes, a chirpy sense of humour, and a sharp memory that recollects incidents and people’s names quickly. He needs no prodding to talk—he starts to answer as soon as the last syllable of the question is spoken.

For example, he remembers having his first drink with “one Captain Maman", a stranger who wanted to meet him because the two of them were to join the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad—its second batch—in 1965. He remembers downing a few quick martinis during an interview for a job, which he eventually did not get.

The company he made his career in was United Breweries (UB) Group—he retired in 2011 from United Spirits Ltd (USL). USL and UB were group companies owned by Vijay Mallya; in 2012, Mallya sold a controlling stake to Diageo in a high-profile acquisition.

There are two subjects Rekhi does not want to talk too much about—Partition and Mallya. The former because it does not matter in the present context, he says, and the latter because of Mallya’s current troubles with the law.

Born in Lahore, Rekhi was 3 when his grandmother clutched a parcel of gold ornaments, boarded a train with the rest of the family and reached Mussoorie during Partition. In September, when it became too cold, the family migrated to Delhi, he recounts. His mother’s father was murdered at his home by his own employee in Lahore but his father’s family reached India unscathed. “I have no ill will or fondness… Pakistanis are nice people outside their own land," he says.

With a degree from Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi, he had an abridged stint at getting a master’s degree from the Delhi School of Economics before the IIM-A opportunity came about. He got in on his second attempt.

“So young Mr Rekhi wormed his way into IIM and the rest (of his career) is written on the base of management education," he says, referring to himself in third person a few times during the conversation.

Rekhi landed his first job, post IIM-A, in Mumbai with a cable marketing company. His initial impression of life in Mumbai was: “A grotty office, salary of 700 a month, and a two-wheeler under my ass. I was a paying guest in Colaba—I had a job, no girlfriend."

He switched to marketing the next year with Polson Ltd, a company producing butter and coffee, among other things. He remembers another funny—in retrospect—story. “They wanted to introduce canned fruits and vegetables in the market. Its unique selling proposition was that it would be canned in Kashmir. Sounds sexy, doesn’t it?" He went to Srinagar for the first time, oversaw everything being packed and labelled and watched the goods being dispatched from 5,000ft in the hills to Mumbai. But disaster followed. “Due to the air pressure difference, all the cans burst. There was no (adequate) technology at the time. The entire consignment was rejected. I was a brand manager then."

When he moved in 1972 to beverage company Herbertsons Ltd, which was later acquired by UB Group, whose then chairman was Vittal Mallya, Rekhi got a foothold into the group he would leave 39 years later. “They took me as brand manager for Dippy’s, Kissan’s (jam) surrogate, because I had some experience of not launching Polson’s canned fruit," he says, laughing.

In 1986, he was further inducted into the alcohol business through Phipsons and Co. in Kolkata as its chief operating officer. In the early 1990s, he also worked as regional director for Berger Paints in Trinidad in the Caribbean. “I met Charlie Griffith at a social event—besides Wes Hall (both West Indian former fast bowlers)—and told Griffith that he cracked the nuts of our captain (India’s Nari Contractor was hit on the head with a bouncer)," he remembers. “My sons went to the same school as (former cricket captain) Brian Lara and had the same coach."

He returned to Bengaluru in 1993 as the deputy president of UB Group’s spirits division and three years later, became its president. “When I left in 2011, we were the world’s largest spirits company—and I had a rollicking 15 years as managing director (of McDowell and Co.) and president."

Between 2001-02 and 2010-11, for which data is available, USL’s annual profits grew from approximately 16.5 crore to 570 crore. “When I joined, the company was doing four million cases. When I left in 2011, it was at 114 million cases," he says.

“There is this Indian belief that there are two souls meant to be with each other," Rekhi continues. “(Vijay Mallya) and I together had produced results and magic. I believe that (the time when Rekhi was asked to retire from USL) was the inflection point—from that day the company never looked up. I don’t want to comment further (about Mallya)."

After serving for three years as the chairman of the executive committee on USL, Rekhi moved on to start his own consulting firm, Vizanar, derived from the names of his family members, including sons Naresh and Rakesh. The company keeps him busy because he can’t just “sit, read newspapers and watch TV", he says. He paints occasionally and his taste in spirits has evolved from Black Dog whisky in the early years through single malts to Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir now. “Whatever is my age in numbers, the mind has to be active and I still bring the same urgency to assignments. I can’t faff around—focus and finish, that’s my attitude," he says.

In 2015, Rekhi incubated the idea of a premium alcohol beverage (alcobev) start-up with IMFL (Indian-made foreign liquor) brands. Unibev launched L’Affaire Napoleon brandy last year and two premium whisky brands (Governor’s Reserve and Oakton) this year with premium rum, vodka and beer as possible future offerings. Even if the market is dominated by USL and Pernod Ricard, he says, there will be a space created for these brands where “Mr Rekhi becomes relevant".

“I don’t have the scale I used to have in USL, you learn to adapt," says the grandfather of two boys, getting up to leave for the airport. “Scale has its own relevance. Backed by cash, it gives you heft. But now I am on the other side of the counter as we are a start-up."

As we walk to the exit, we agree that the best part of flying is to be able to take a nap, guilt-free.

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