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Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Vijay Mallya: The tycoon who gave big business a bad name

Mallya's crime was that he let down everyonehis shareholders, employees, lenders and all those who champion free markets

The UB Group is done for. In his lifetime, Vijay Mallya inherited it, and as Mint put it memorably in an earlier piece, “made it bigger, had fun, lost an empire, and walked away into the sunset (almost)". In this unfolding tale, you could see him as a tragic hero in the Shakespearean mode, a Macbeth, brought to his knees by hamartia. Or you could view him as spoilt scion who squandered a group’s sterling reputation and by choosing flamboyance over farsightedness, glamour over governance, was reduced to selling the flagship to save the fleet.

Either way, you would do well not to shed too many tears for the self-styled king of good times. Eventually, even for him, it was time for last drinks, but Mallya refused to leave.

For this is a man who always wanted more. At its peak, the UB Group was a sprawling conglomerate with interests in pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, paints, petrochemicals and plastics, batteries, food and carbonated beverages. Besides liquor from United Breweries, McDowell’s and Carew, it sold squashes, ketchup and jams from Kissan and Dipy’s, pesticides from Finit, Singer sewing machines, chocolates from Cadbury and drugs from Hoechst and Roussel (read more on where those went here).

But that was not enough for him. He wanted all the latest toys in the store—so a little dalliance with telecom, engineering services, cricket, Formula 1 racing and, of course, the passion for flying. And there too it wasn’t just about buying a plane. He had to have an entire airline.

There was the phase in the 1990s when he dabbled in politics. He was close to Ramakrishna Hegde, the colourful and charismatic chief minister of Karnataka. The proximity to a powerful politician was important when you were in the liquor trade and it paid off for Mallya. Except that it wasn’t enough for him to be close to a powerful politician—he had to be the powerful politician. So, at some point, he nursed hopes to be the next chief minister of the state. It was a time in which the normally flashy dresser could be seen in a veshti on his frequent travels to the hinterland. He also sought to establish his patriotic credentials by spending millions to bring the sword of Tipu Sultan back to India from the UK.

But perhaps the realization of how his political ambitions might come into conflict with the good life so important to him, forced him to scale down his ambitions and settle for the comparative comfort of a Rajya Sabha membership.

Wanting more

Oh and that title—Dr Vijay Mallya he was, and you dared not call him anything else in front of his vast, faithful and fawning personal staff. Except that the title was a bit dodgy, an honorary degree in 1997 from Santa Ana-based Southern California University for Professional Studies, a distance-learning and online educational institute.

Why would a successful billionaire with a perfectly decent lineage need a little something before his name? Perhaps it helped stoke his super-sized ego just a bit more. After all, as Vir Sanghvi wrote, “Vijay is never alone. Wherever he goes, friends, employees and chamchas fly with him… And when he talks, there is always the sense that he is addressing unseen multitudes behind your left shoulder."

Now, the problem with wanting more, and more and then some more, is that you can end up like Oliver Twist, with nothing at all.

Just about 25 years ago, Mallya, often celebrated as a shrewd businessman, made what he thought was another smart deal. He sold Berger Paints, which he had bought a few years earlier after convincing HSBC to lend him the money, to the Dhingra family. Mallya’s profit from that deal was $66 million.

Kuldeep and Gurbachan Singh Dhingra went on to build Berger Paints into the country’s second-largest paint maker, and today they are in the Forbes billionaires list with a net worth of $2.5 billion. And Mallya, who was born with a billion-dollar silver spoon, is having to clutch at a $75 million severance package from Diageo, which can’t wait to see his back. Incidentally, that sum is less than the $95 million price tag of his famous mega yacht, The Indian Empress.

There is justice after all.

Maybe, Mallya, son of an illustrious father, and father to a not-so illustrious son, was always trying hard to fill a big black hole in his life.

The king of good times graduated with a bachelor’s degree in commerce from Kolkata-based St. Xavier’s College in 1976, three years before I joined the same college to read English literature. He stayed long enough in the city with his mother to become fluent in Bangla, a language he slips into quite effortlessly when he needs to. The vast, cavernous classrooms at Xavier’s with their theatre-like seating and early morning classes had over the years seen the back of Lakshmi Mittal and Sanjiv Goenka among others, so he didn’t excite too much attention. And then he was packed off to the US to train at Hoechst and Jenson & Nicholson, stints which he wasn’t too excited about.

Taking the reins

The senior Mallya’s untimely death meant that at 28, Vijay became chairman of United Breweries. He spent his first few years in the saddle, years that also coincided with India’s liberalization era, consolidating the group’s dominance in the beer and spirits market. But he was much too restless to stay put for too long.

So, he made his moves, buying firms, acquiring brands, selling assets, all without a care in the world. He was after all a fun-loving young man, fond of fine cigarillos. And with a wicked sense of humour that he occasionally turned on himself. Asked on a television programme about how he reacted to the charge that he was blowing up his father’s wealth, he quipped that his father’s wealth he had long ago blown up—now he was blowing up his own money.

Generally polite with people he didn’t know but candid and effusive with friends, he was nevertheless completely feudal in his behaviour, taking good care of those he liked by paying them handsomely and looking after their families as well. Of course, this came with a price—you couldn’t afford to be a naysayer.

Contrary to the common belief that over the years Mallya made smart business moves only to be tripped up by his airline disaster, the man seems to have made an unusually large number of bad business calls and flirted with financial distress more than once. In fact, a Business Today cover that posed the question “Is Vijay Mallya broke?" is dated February 1992. The story went on to say: “Mallya’s empire is foundering following a serious cash crunch. The whisper in banking circles is that Mallya may have been sold a pup when he went on his acquisition spree two years ago."

Airline fiasco

That sounds familiar. Kingfisher Airlines’ problems are partly because of its acquisition in 2007 of Air Deccan, a loss-making low-cost carrier run on a shoe-string budget, for nearly Rs1,000 crore. IndiGo co-founder Rakesh Gangwal, who knows a thing or two about running airlines successfully, once said that the airline business is like a candle burning at both ends. The window of opportunity to make your profits is small and timing is everything. By buying Air Deccan only because it would allow him to fly on overseas routes, Mallya didn’t give himself the chance of consolidating the nascent domestic business.

His understanding of the business may also have been flawed. Ten years ago, Indians were not looking to board a gold-plated flight. They wanted an efficient, value-for-money transportation option. As IndiGo has proved, flying for Indians wasn’t a luxury but a necessary convenience.

Whether for meetings or for weddings, a flight is about getting there on time with minimum fuss. Consistency, not class, is what the Indian flyer was looking for. With those personal video screens, goodie bags and gourmet meals, the man who often reaches three to four hours late for scheduled meetings misjudged his market.

The fancy frills were important only for the glittering class that oohed and aahed when the pretty young stewardess wiped their glasses in the business class of the short Mumbai-Bengaluru flight (“VJM has such good taste!"). They egged him on during his ill-fated journey: give us more oomph they said, so the food became more esoteric and the pictures in the in-flight magazines more exotic.

But the real flyers, the customer base IndiGo went on to tap so successfully, had no such illusions. Moreover, they had different aspirations.

The world of liquor

Mallya’s big coup had come when he bought Whyte & Mackay, the world’s fourth largest producer of premium Scotch, giving him a major toehold in Europe’s whisky market, which wouldn’t otherwise allow molasses-made Indian whisky. But Mallya made a meal of that one too. Having acquired the Glasgow-based company in 2007 for a steep £595 million, he was forced to sell it in 2014 to Philippines-based brandy producer Emperador for £430 million for antitrust reasons following a move by rival Diageo to buy a controlling stake in United Spirits Ltd.

In his famous mid-1980s battle for control over Shaw Wallace, a company that he desperately wanted as part of his portfolio, he came a cropper against the wily Manu Chhabria, who was roped in merely to meet foreign exchange regulations. Like the lady who went for a ride on a tiger, Mallya found that the potential partner who he believed would be a soft touch had turned into a formidable adversary. It was only in 2002, after Chhabria died, that he has able to wrest control over Shaw Wallace, but at a much higher price of Rs1,251 crore.

For all his political contacts, it was significant that not one politician stepped forward to help him or even support him when he was in trouble. Clearly, he had magnified in his own mind the two-way nature of these relationships.

The inescapable fact is that, despite a head for numbers, he was comfortable only in the protected world of liquor. Used to a business in which growth was guaranteed for the market leader (as he explained once, you drink when you are depressed as well as when you are exhilarated, you drink in a recession as well as in boom times), aviation was an altogether different ball game in which market share wouldn’t always translate into profits (as the example of Air India would show).

In liquor, political contacts were essential to steer through the multitude of sales taxes, excise changes and regulations, which necessitated a trip to the local authorities even if you wanted to change the size of a bottle. In the airline business, however, political contacts were relevant only to the extent of finding you the capital. Come payback time, you were all on your own.

Poison pill

When he was flying high, in 2007, Mallya placed one of the largest ever orders of Airbus aircraft: 50, including A320, A330, A350 and A380 aircraft. For an overleveraged business, it was as good as a poison pill. In contrast, he did steer Force India, the Formula 1 team he put together, adroitly. The small team over-performed hugely on budgets that would be considered shoe-string among the Ferraris and the Toyotas of the racing world.

Having spent a relatively lonely childhood with his father away in Bengaluru while he stayed with his mother in Kolkata, he is very attached to his children, with their names etched on each of the Kingfisher’s aircraft. It wasn’t surprising then that Kingfisher’s launch coincided with his son Siddharth’s 18th birthday; but sadly for Mallya senior, the son seemed to have had little appetite for the business, preferring to spend time in the warmer company of models for the Kingfisher calendar.

Mallya’s extravagance, though, is legendary. Why spend a penny when a pound will do just fine? For an important meeting, he once flew 20 of his executives to Amsterdam, because he couldn’t come to Bengaluru. It is the kind of swag that sub-standard Bollywood movies celebrate and perhaps he did have one eye on Bollywood in most of what he did.

In fact, in this season of biopics, some intrepid Mumbai director is sure to be working on a film about the man and in that Vijay Mallya would be the tragic hero, destroyed by his gigantic love for life and an unforgiving system.

Sadly, the reality is different. Indeed, if it is possible in a crony-capitalist society like India where the super rich have always been immune to the laws of the land, Mallya really got what he deserved. Kingfisher was an objective correlative for everything he stood for—excesses, glamour, recklessness and complete disregard for the rights of others. Its closure was an apt metaphor too.

The thing is, Mallya never saw the difference between his personal money, his companies’ money or that of the banks. It was his, all his. There were houses in various countries, game lodges and tropical islands, the race horses he was so fond of, the 250-plus cars and the jet. That last was a peek into his personality—a Boeing 737 specially fitted for his needs and capable of flying from Bengaluru to London without refuelling and equipped with all the bells and whistles that you would expect of a playboy billionaire, including a special throne-like seat with VJM embossed into it.

Set that against the State Bank of India (SBI) ATM outside the office canteen in UB House in Bengaluru, where a printed sheet declared “This ATM is out of cash" in 2012, almost suggesting that SBI (which led the banks in lending vast sums to Kingfisher Airlines seemingly without adequate collateral) couldn’t trust him not to pull out money from its ATM.

Personality change

By this time, as Kingfisher’s troubles came to a head and the airline was forced to suspend operations—permanently, as it turned out—he lost a lot of his effervescence. Indeed, for the first time in a career full of ups and downs, he looked a beaten man. More than one person spoke of how he would turn up for Royal Challengers games in Bengaluru’s M. Chinnaswamy Stadium with a glazed look on his face—the stress there for all to see.

Kingfisher had been his dream project, one he had hoped would define him. He was involved in every aspect of its running, from selecting the air hostesses to recording the megalomaniacal welcome message for all passengers. But all it managed to do was tote up Rs16,000 crore of accumulated losses by October 2012.

His crimes were plenty and serious—not depositing the mandatory TDS (tax deducted at source) and employees’ provident fund contributions were criminal offences with serious consequences in most countries. How he got away with it in India boggles the mind and only confirms that he had cultivated contacts everywhere.

Do men like Mallya take the capitalist system forward? By manipulating and perverting the rules of doing business, they actually create a moral hazard, besides a “fiddly empire of firms" as The Economist called it. Investopedia defines moral hazard as “when a person or entity engages in risk-taking behaviour based on a set of expected outcomes where another person or entity bears the costs in the event of an unfavourable outcome".

The loans he stockpiled were at public expense and while the banks that eagerly doled them out are equally guilty, the ultimate victim is the shareholder. Mallya the private businessman is a terrible advertisement for capitalism as much as Raghuram Rajan, the central bank governor under whose watch the banks are being forced to mend their ways and go after defaulters like Mallya, is actually a poster boy for a free market system.

It is a strange paradox: if you look at the example of Mallya and Kingfisher, India should rank very high in terms of ease of doing business. Starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting electricity, registering property, getting credit, protecting investors, hours per year spent preparing tax returns and total tax payable as share of gross profit—Mallya couldn’t complain he had a problem on any of these counts. Indeed, the very ease of doing business his way led to more than $2 billion of debt, most of which is unlikely to be repaid.

Way too much attention is paid to his silly parties and his adolescent swimsuit calendars. Would it have made any difference had he been austere, dressed down and rarely appeared in public? The Reserve Bank of India has a list of serial defaulters and most of them are paragons of personal virtue.

Equality and opportunity

Mallya is no agnostic either. He has been known to imbibe the teachings of Sri Ravi Shankar and has joined pilgrims on their march in Sabarimala, Kerala. While Rajan may have been right about the impact on public perception of a man who owes public institutions millions celebrating his birthday lavishly, it isn’t Mallya’s biggest fault.

No, Mallya’s crime was that he let down everyone—his shareholders, his employees, his lenders and all those who champion free markets with minimum government intervention.

Political philosopher John Rawls posited that we should put all our effort into seeing to it that “the rules of the game" are fair. Once society has been organized around a set of fair rules, people can set about freely “playing" the game, without interference. Mallya, and business tycoons like him, call into question the Rawlsian vision of equality of opportunity. In doing so, he has given big business in India a bad name.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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