Chennai-born Mittu Chandilya is the type that turns challenges into opportunities. The 32-year-old CEO of AirAsia India, who was once a part-time model and entrepreneur, talks to T. Krithika Reddy about returning to his roots, his vision for the air travel industry in the South and how passion plays a stellar role in success

While I wait in the lobby of the luxurious Grand Chola to meet Mittu Chandilya, images of baby-faced CEOs crowd my mind. Is he one of those casual new-age honchos you could exchange high-fives with, I wonder, re-reading his resume, in which his modelling days keep drawing my attention.

When Chandilya glides in, wearing a suit jacket teamed with jeans, he appears catwalk-perfect. But the ramp association stops with his looks. He is now headed for the runways! The iconic Tony Fernandes of AirAsia, who rewrote the rules of success in the international airlines industry, has picked the 32-year-old to head AirAsia India. Naysayers in the corporate world haven’t stopped talking since. But the former model-and-entrepreneur-turned-management consultant seems confident as he readies his operation for take-off.

Talking to Chandilya for an hour feels like reading a dozen how-to-succeed tomes. In a style that’s formal, yet relaxed, he discusses the need for companies to have clear mission statements, explains why it is sometimes important to overturn conventional wisdom and avers that only hungry tigers that are cautious while being fearless are capable of making a big leap.

“It’s a dream comeback,” says Chandilya. “I’ve returned to Chennai, the place of my birth, after being all over the world — Canada, the U. S., China, Malaysia and Singapore. I have pleasant memories of growing up in Mandaveli — feeding goats on the road outside my grandparents’ home, visiting the Kapali temple and travelling on overcrowded buses (29C route). Flyovers and the Metro Rail have changed the face of the city, but its soul and the down-to-earth nature of its people are intact.”

After schooling in Rishi Valley and The School, KFI, Chennai, Chandilya studied at the Lehigh University (Pennsylvania) before doing his MBA at INSEAD (France-Singapore). At 19, he won a grant for a start-up and the prototype he built was bought by an FMCG company for a huge sum. “With the money, I purchased a house for my parents (who now live in Canada), sent my sister to university and paid up my loans. At 23, I was the general manager of a company which I had helped out with successful mergers and acquisitions. My first assignment was shutting down a plant in Colorado and moving it to Mexico for cost reasons. Imagine interacting with the union and people as old as my dad who thought I was denying them a livelihood. It was tough, but I managed to build credibility.”

Chandilya worked in China and Malaysia before moving to Singapore where he headed the travel and hospitality segment of the consultancy firm Egon Zehnder. “When you look at things from a consultant’s perspective, the experience is totally different. It’s like doing many MBAs because you are interacting with directors and CEOs who are forced to open up. You get an idea of business challenges — from acquisitions to cost pressures. My stint at Egon Zehnder gave me a complete perspective of the airlines and hospitality businesses and the trends emerging in these sectors.”

But the “wow factor” of being a CEO was not something that attracted Chandilya to AirAsia, a joint venture between AirAsia, Tata Sons and Telstra. “It was the discussions I had with Tony and team about the goals for AirAsia India. To me, what’s interesting is changing the way the aviation business is run — from improving things at the ground-level at airports and building infrastructure to changing the way the government looks at the industry. People might think it’s a kind of naïve bravado. But when someone says the odds are stacked against me, I feel all the more energised and optimistic to take on challenges.”

It’s about a month since Chandilya has moved back to Chennai. He’s already reaching for the skies — goal-wise. “We plan to launch before Deepavali. Our aim is to provide a safe flying experience that’s affordable so every minute detail is being looked into. Chennai is our corporate hub and we will be concentrating on intra-South travel. Mumbai and New Delhi have been ruled out for now, but we are considering a couple of tourist destinations in North India. The focus will be on connecting the metros and tier 2 cities in the South. There is bound to be a disparity between our vision and the reality in our country. But I feel it’s our job to close the gap. Today, air travel has become like the Internet. Flying is no longer a luxury. Which is why I feel at least 60 per cent of our passengers will be first-time fliers.”

For Chandilya, the company’s vision includes the office structure too. “We are consistently committed to addressing cost issues. There is no hierarchy in the office. I have no PA. I’ll take a call on that after the critical hires are in place. Our small management team is prepared to roll up its sleeves and work. People are not given fancy designations. We have a different approach to recruitment. All that matters to me is passion for the job and the hunger to achieve goals. Which business school someone comes from is probably the last thing I look at. People from top-notch institutions are high-maintenance, and already have a sense of accomplishment. I want people who can accomplish goals with us. If you don’t perform, it’s as good as stealing from the company because you are paid to work! As a CEO, I would like to drive the brand and make an impact as soon as possible. The life of a CEO is very short — maybe five years?” he laughs.

Though Chandilya’s dreams are airborne, he is grounded as a person. “I spend a lot of time with my three boys. They give me tremendous energy. I don’t want to miss out on the key moments in their lives. On the weekends, if you see someone chasing three boys in three different directions on Elliot’s Beach, that’s me.”

RAMP TO RUNWAY I started out as a model doing many print ads and television commercials. I’ve also done some ramp shows. After moving to the U.S., there were good opportunities in the world of television. But after sometime, I realised that using my looks to make money was a temporary thing. There had to be value beyond looks, so I switched to a corporate career.

HOW-TO GUIDE I love speaking to young people and motivating them. In fact, one of my passions is giving lectures in educational institutions.

FITNESS AND ME Having been a model, fitness means a lot to me. I still run three kilometres a day and do weight training in the morning, and go for a swim in the evening. I’m conscious about what I eat. I’m a big fan of American football. I have friends in the league circuit and continue to be in touch with them. I learnt tennis from Ramesh Krishnan during my school days and won a tennis scholarship in the U.S.