When I call Gary Kingshott, the JetLite (India) Ltd CEO is, appropriately enough, boarding a flight. He is en route to his home in Mumbai—where he spends weekends, working weekdays at the JetLite offices in New Delhi. We agree to meet at the old East Indian Bandra Gymkhana. It is close to his Bandra home and usually where he chills out on weekends. “It reminds me of the football clubs in Australia," he says, as we sit down a week later to tea and coffee. “It’s cool, there’s cricket on, you can get active with a pool upstairs and tennis, and it gets very lively later at night."

He seems at home here, this tall, trim, formally dressed Australian. Naturally, we talk turnaround. How does he do it? And is that why he’s called Garry Slingshot Kingshott? He smiles. “Maybe it’s because I was associated with a couple of turnarounds in Australia." These include Ansett Australia airlines, travel agency Traveland and travel logistics company Showgroup. But Kingshott hasn’t always been an airline man—he has marketed seafood, beer and even Melbourne (during his stint as CEO, Melbourne Convention and Visitors Bureau).

Plane talk: No more free rides. (Jayachandran / Mint)

It’s not an easy task. With nine of 24 aircraft grounded and huge accumulated losses, Air Sahara in April was, as Kingshott describes it, “a mess".

Yet, six months later, losses are coming down. “From a $12 million (approx. Rs48 crore) loss in April to less than $5 million in October, we are on schedule to break-even in December," declares Kingshott.

The partnership with Jet Airways, coupled with Kingshott’s Australian-style management, seem to have worked. “There are no more than five levels of management between me and the baggage loaders," says Kingshott, who began by slashing the JetLite headcount by 50%, from 4,300 to 2,000. Entire functions such as security and payroll were outsourced to Jet Airways. Seven of nine grounded aircraft are back up in the air, on schedules that are planned synergistically with the Jet Airways network. Per seat kilometre costs have been reduced by 37%.

Plus, you can no longer go celebrity spotting on their flights. “Sahara did carry a lot of people for free," shrugs Kingshott. “It’s amazing there are no stars anymore," a young pilot told him. But Kingshott, who watches Bollywood on subtitled DVDs and whose favourites include Saif Ali Khan and Preity Zinta in Salaam Namaste, was clearly unmoved. “It’s how it should be," he responded, “you can’t run an airline and just keep giving tickets away." Jet’s only remaining star connection is with a director on its board— Shah Rukh Khan. “I meet him at board meetings, and he has a view—and he knows where he can add value," says Kingshott.

So when did Kingshott first hear of Jet Airways? “When Naresh Goyal came on my cellphone," says Kingshott. “I was sitting in my office in Melbourne when my cellphone rang and Naresh came on and said, ‘This is Naresh Goyal, and I run Jet Airways’. I think I said, ‘I’ve never heard of you and I’ve never heard of Jet Airways’, which was true at the time. So he talked a little about Jet and then he said, ‘Would you be interested in coming to India? And how much do you want?’" Twelve months and two meetings later, Kingshott did indeed come, to take over as commercial director.

And was moving halfway across the hemisphere, from Melbourne to Mumbai, something of a culture shock? “Not really," says Kingshott, recalling his first impression of Mumbai, off a flight in 2005. “It felt like Bangkok circa 1985—coming out of the aircraft into a hot and steamy night; dogs running around the streets; lots of people; taxi touts—all that sort of thing. It felt very familiar actually; like another large Asian city."

And now? Kingshott may work weekdays out of New Delhi, but his heart is clearly (in more ways than one) in Mumbai. I grab a cue from Mario, the waiter at Bandra Gymkhana, and ask him about his girlfriend. “Jacqueline," he smiles, “loves Bombay and Bandra even more than me." The two Australians frequent many suburban restaurants, such as hot favourite Soul Fry and China House; they shop (even haggle) on Bandra’s Linking Road.

And, then, there are the bikes. Kingshott has an Enfield Bullet, and Jacqueline has both a bicycle and a Honda Activa. “It’s an Indian institution; the longest continuous production motorbike in the world, and a wonderful piece of machinery," Kingshott says of his bike. Besides Mumbai, he has also biked up the ghats to Matheran with a group of five. He usually spends weekends at his Bandra apartment, a place he moved into more than a year ago, after a short stint at Powai’s Hiranandani Gardens. “It was a beautiful apartment," he says of that first flat, “but it didn’t feel like India. Despite the lake, it was very dusty and, then, there were supermarkets with trolleys. It didn’t feel right, you know," he quips, “where were the cows?" Bandra, with its greenery and its Melbourne-like byways, obviously feels better.

But come Monday morning, and it’s back on the first flight to New Delhi, where Kingshott scans daily revenues and load reports, and on-time statistics to keep the airline up in the air. A 9am SMS from central ops every morning keeps him informed of how well the network is doing that day, as Kingshott strategizes on brand and business. “Someone told me that IBM had a motto in the 1980s when it was struggling. ‘Steal shamelessly’, it said, and that’s what I do. Why reinvent the wheel?" So, Kingshott bases much of his modelling on the successful Qantas-Jet Star partnership. The Australian full-service carrier Qantas has made, in the last few years, an unusual success of low-cost partner Jet Star. And, now, JetLite, along with Jet Airways, is moving fast in that direction. Starting a couple of weeks ago, hot meals for JetLite have been replaced with more economical boxed snacks. The crew for the Boeing 737s will be reduced from six to five members, and will now be in a new uniform (“No short skirts like most of the other airlines who all, to me, look like they came out of Europe somewhere"). JetLite will begin operations to West Asia early next year, as soon as regulatory approvals come in, with fares that, Kingshott promises, will be competitive with low-cost carriers.

I ask Kingshott if he has been approached by rival airline Kingfisher. The last year has seen a significant exodus of senior Jet Airways managers to Kingfisher. And now Jet Airways CEO Wolfgang Prock-Schauer is reportedly the latest and most high profile to be making this move. “Certainly Kingfisher seems to have fairly deep pockets when it comes to capturing Jet people; but then if you want good airline people in India, where else do you go but Jet ?" says Kingshott, who maintains he will be a Jet man for some time yet. For now, he’s getting set for his Christmas holidays—to Melbourne to visit daughters Hannah and Rebecca, and to Adelaide where his mother lives.

He is already working on his next project—an ocean-rigged cutter yacht “between 40ft and 50ft long that’s capable of ocean passage". He plans to sail around the world in it. And, yes, that is why he has just ordered the book How to Sail Around the World off Amazon. Really.


Garry Kingshott

Born: 21 December 1952 (Melbourne, Australia)

Education: Company directors course from the Australian Institute of Company Directors; a course in strategic thinking and management from Wharton Business School; marketing planning from University of New South Wales

Work Profile: Joined Johnson & Johnson in 1974 as a sales rep; general manager, South Australian Brewing Co., in 1990; joined Ansett Australian airlines in 1990 as general manager, sales and marketing, and went on to become CEO of Ansett International Ltd in 2000; joined as chief commercial officer of Jet Airways in 2006 and became CEO, JetLite, in 2007

Hobbies: Biking, yachting and golf

(Write to lounge@livemint.com)