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Corporate Sep 27, 2012

Is Vijay Mallya India’s worst businessman?

By R Jagannathan

It may be a trifle uncharitable to hit a man when he is down, but Vijay Mallya has served as such a wonderful example of how not to run a business, that one has to set scruples aside. There are larger lessons to be learnt from his impending failure with Kingfisher Airlines.

Jim Collins, management guru and author of several best-selling books on corporate success and failure (Built to Last, Good to Great) examines the reasons for why good companies fail in another book (How The Mighty Fall). This book gives five broad reasons why top-performing companies lose their way and collapse to either mediocrity or even bankruptcy.

In the red. Reuters

Of the five reasons, the first two relate to the causes of failure (management hubris, leading to over-reach and expansion beyond the core) and the other three to how managements respond to crisis when things start going wrong (denial of risk, grasping at straws for salvation and capitulation to irrelevance).

In Mallya's case, he has not only managed to qualify on all five counts, but has added several bits of foolishness of his own. Jim Collins will have to add a few chapters when he learns about the Mallya mishaps.

Let's begin with Collins' five reasons.

Hubris: Mallya's Kingfisher foray had all the wrong reasons for entry and staying the course to disaster. He entered the business for the glamour it brought to his portfolio (which is why, in any Kingfisher flight, Mallya talks to you directly on the video), rather from any special understanding of competitive advantage. He wanted to be India's Richard Branson, forgetting the success is not easily copied.

In India, given high fuel prices and related costs, success in aviation depends on reducing costs all the time. In contrast, Mallya ratcheted up his costs wherever he could - from handing out earphones to all passengers to serving high-cost gourmet meals in business class.

When he bought Air Deccan, he failed to see that running a low-cost carrier is different from a full service airline. He made the mistake of calling it Kingfisher Red - another pointer to hubris ("my brandname") - and reduced his full-service brand to the level of a cut-price carrier despite much higher costs.

In this morning's Business Standard, Mallya has gone on record to say that "I am a businessman and my businesses are for sale at the right price."

He said that in the context of his flagship United Spirits, not Kingfisher. In the case of Kingfisher, which has Rs 7,000 crore in accumulated debt and a further Rs 7,000 crore in losses, he missed the bus for getting the right price years ago. He will get no price for Kingfisher at all.

Overreach: Mallya's prime folly, which again flowed from hubris, was overreach. The overreach happened at several levels.

First, he failed to understand the difference between running a business with 25-35 percent margins (booze) and one with 1-2 percent margins, or even losses for long periods of time (aviation). He failed to see his managerial limitations in this new business where he didn't have a clue on how to run it.

As we noted before, in the US, the last 30 years have seen nothing less than 50 airline bankruptcies. In India, we have seen at least 10 failures since aviation was opened up to the private sector in the 1990s. But Mallya does not seem to have noticed any of this. He assumed that since he was so successful in liquor, the airline business should be a breeze.

Trying to run an airline like the liquor business was his first mistake. It was also a case of unrelated diversification.

The second overreach related to his expansion with the acquisition of Air Deccan. Despite the odds, the fact is Mallya did create the best airline brand in Kingfisher. Business passengers were shifting from Air India and Jet in droves to Kingfisher, thanks to Mallya's no-expenses-spared approach to Kingfisher First Class. But when he suddenly decided that he wanted size and scale, he bought Air Deccan at a huge premium (Capt GR Gopinath's airline was roughly where Kingfisher is today-on stretchers-but Mallya didn't see that). Worse, he named it Kingfisher, too. Do you name a loser the same as a potential winner?

Mallya can be excused for running a lavish Kingfisher, but trying to run a cut-rate carrier like Kingfisher was folly dipped in red ink from day one.

This double overreach-from profitable liquor to an unprofitable airline and even further into a discounting airline-set the stage up beautifully for Mallya's ultimate failure.

Denial of risk: It is one thing to blunder into an unprofitable business, quite another to bet the farm on it. But this is precisely what Mallya has done. He has staked almost his entire liquor business to save a sinking airline.

In business you can succeed by doing one of two things: avoid putting all your eggs in one basket (and so spread the risk), or you can put all in one basket (that is, focus on one business and stick to your core competence) and watch the basket like a hawk.

Mallya did neither. He put all his eggs one one flight to disaster - including his shareholdings and personal assets - and failed to focus on what makes an airline succeed.

Today, if Mallya is talking to Diageo to sell a stake in United Spirits, it is largely because he has pledged too much of his liquor business and his personal assets to keep Kingfisher afloat. He threw away his good business to rescue the bad.

Did Mallya not understand, at least as late as 2010-11, when everyone knew how the aviation business was going down hill?

Did he not understand the risks involved? Like a gambler who thinks the next throw of the dice will get him his jackpot, Mallya bet the farm after his Titanic had already hit an iceberg.

Grasping for Salvation: Nothing exemplifies a bankrupt rescue effort more than Vijay Mallya's constant refrain that he is talking to investors on Kingfisher. He has been talking about this for nearly a year now, even while banks have moved in on his properties and aircraft lessors have been willing to pay Mallya's dues to the Airports Authority of India (AAI) just to repossess their aircraft.

When aircraft lessors pay somebody to repossess what is theirs, this is a telling indictment of what they think Mallya's chances of a rescue are. And yet, Mallya tells his shareholders that he is in talks with foreign airlines to sell a stake.

This may be factually true, but why would any airline want to buy a stake in a company with Rs 7,000 crore in losses and an equal amount in debt? They will buy only if Mallya keeps his debts and sells the airline for Re 1. They will buy his assets (the remaining brand value of Kingfisher and its airport slots) and let him keep his liabilities (debts, etc).

Clearly, Mallya is living in "cloud cuckoo land" - to use HDFC Bank CEO Aditya Puri's colourful phrase, used in another context.

Capitulation to irrelevance: Vijay Mallya is clearly going through the motions in talking about saving his airline when it does not have a snowball's chance in hell of being saved.

What he should be doing is abandoning the airline as a mistake, and save his shareholdings in the liquor companies, to the extent possible, from his creditors.

He is still making vague and irrelevant statements on FDI in aviation, and how fuel costs are so high - as though a reduction is fuel costs will help him in anyway.

If fuel costs fall, they will fall for everybody, and the resultant fare war will damage Mallya more than his rivals. A fare war has already broken out, but Mallya seems to think salvation lies just after the next mirage.

So far, Vijay Mallya has gone by the textbook-Jim Collins' textbook-to show he can fail successfully.

There is nothing in the script so far to show he is not a member of India's Worst Businessmen's Club.

by R Jagannathan

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