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Updated: May 12, 2014 23:16 IST

Good and bad times with Vijay Mallya

Aarati Krishnan
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THE VIJAY MALLYA STORY: K. Giriprakash; Portfolio/Penguin. Rs. 299
THE VIJAY MALLYA STORY: K. Giriprakash; Portfolio/Penguin. Rs. 299

Is Vijay Mallya the Richard Branson of India? Or to put it as Mallya once did – Is Richard Branson the Vijay Mallya of UK? On the contrary, after reading ‘The Vijay Mallya story’, an independent account of the liquor baron’s life by seasoned journalist K.Giriprakash, one is left with the impression that the two really have very little in common, apart from flamboyant personal style.

If Richard Branson made his first forays into business as, well, a virgin to the corporate world, Vijay Mallya inherited the flourishing United Breweries and acumen from his hard-nosed entrepreneurial father Vittal Mallya. The book begins with an account of how Vittal Mallya, a whiz at reading balance sheets, acquired stakes in a British-run company selling bulk beer to the troops, added to its repertoire with the takeover of McDowells and rapidly transformed it into a pan-India distillery giant.

Vittal Mallya’s success and reputation, the book recounts, helped the young Vijay enjoy a privileged childhood, which consisted of schooling at Kolkata’s blue-blooded La Martiniere, whizzing around in a Standard Herald car (whose silencer Vijay had removed for maximum effect) and graduation from St. Xavier’s. He was groomed at the many businesses that made up his father’s sprawling business empire, from liquor distributor Phipson’s to pharma giant Hoechst. Vijay’s elevation to the group’s chairmanship at 28 was sudden and precipitated by the unexpected demise of his father in 1983.

However, Vijay Mallya’s style of doing business was as different from his father’s as chalk from cheese. Where Vittal believed in running a tight ship, with himself firmly at the helm, his son believed in a hierarchy manned by Ivy League professionals, often roped in at fancy pay packets. Where Mallya senior was frugal and focussed on manufacturing efficiency, the young Vijay laid great store by consumers and brands, roping in celebrity endorsers, venturing into Formula 1 racing and flagging off the Kingfisher calendar to make sure that the Kingfisher brand was every consumer’s ideal of having a ‘good time’. Until the diversification into aviation, this focus did pay rich dividends for the UB group as its strong brands kept competitors at bay and valuations soared on their dominance over the market.

If Branson’s new business forays, into airlines (Virgin Atlantic), telecom (Virgin Mobile), music (Virgin Records) and space travel (Virgin Galactic) were into heavily competed businesses and motivated by a certain naïve idealism in taking on a Goliath, this book shows that Vijay Mallya thrived on the opposite. He actively sought out firms in heavily regulated sectors — liquor, pharma, fertilisers, airlines — adept as he was at negotiating the labyrinth of taxes, takeover rules, lobbying and policymaking, to turn around these firms to fit in with his king-sized ambitions. The chapters on how the tycoon pursued rival Shaw Wallace & Co for two decades, fought a pitched legal battle with many factions of the Chhabria family and finally succeeded in bringing coveted brands such as Royal Challenge, Hayward’s, Officer’s Choice and Director’s Special into the United Spirits fold, offer a glimpse into Mallya’s dogged perseverance

The book, compiled almost entirely from a journalist’s repertoire of third-party quotes, sources and anecdotes, thankfully avoids the adulatory note that some writers are prone to in profiling the King of Good Times. For those who don’t care for corporate intrigue or takeover battles, anecdotes about the idiosyncrasies of Mallya the man, should make for a good read.

There’s one account early on, about how VJM (as he was known within his empire) ordered one of his British managers to procure him a brand-new Mercedez Benz. The manager, pointing out that Mallya already owned over a 100 cars, including two brand-new Mercs acquired quite recently, protested. But never one to take ‘no’ for an answer, VJM peremptorily ordered him to have not one, but two Mercs, parked in his driveway by the evening! There’s also a hint of the tycoon’s habit of being exceedingly late to even critical business meetings.

The one section of this book that skims over the details and leaves the reader a little dissatisfied, are the chapters dealing with the crash-and-burn of Mallya’s pet venture — Kingfisher Airlines. Given his fondness for ‘good times’, one can guess why Mallya started the ultra-luxurious Kingfisher Airlines. But having positioned his airline exactly where he liked it and gained a reputation in the market, what made him take over the low-cost Air Deccan? And how come a man who had negotiated so many successful takeover bids and steered so many ventures in the past, failed to recognise the obvious signs of impending disaster, in the mounting losses and rising debt at Kingfisher Airlines from Day One?

Even if Mallya entered the aviation business purely because of vaulting personal ambition, it is hard to fathom why he failed to cut his losses while the times were still good.

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