By Jayanth Ramanujam
This is simply one of the best books that I have ever read. I saw this book for the first time in Crossword. As is my practice, I glanced through the blurb (back cover) to see if there was anything interesting that would merit a buy. I decided to pick up the book amongst many others on that day. Usually, I’m selective on autobiographies / biographies since they tend to be either self-glorifying or a chronological disaster, both of which are boring.
Reading through the first few pages, I realized that Gopinath had a wonderful gift of writing. The tone of the book was in line with the title – Simple. Yes, as normal, he started out with his childhood and took us along the roller-coaster ride, which his early years offered.
At the heart of the book, one could sense a very restless mind, which longed for action, to make a difference not only to his life but also to the society at large. He has delved extensively into his years as an adult, which is the career and earning phase of our life. This maverick has forayed into varied professions (or passions) like army, farmer, Udupi hotel owner, Bullet showroom dealer, politics and most recently, aviation pioneer.
His first career in the army took him to far-flung borders of India. His notable experiences were in the northeast at the time of liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.
His experiences as an ‘educated’ farmer take you to a dry and rocky land on the outskirts of Hassan (180 kms. from Bangalore), which he took from his father as a challenge to make it fertile and cultivable (and achieved it). He just had one servant boy to help him out. At the same time, he also got involved in studying organic farming techniques, which took him to many foreign lands and help implement the same in his farm.
He recounts enjoyable chance experiences, which led to him to taking over ailing ventures as varied as an Udupi hotel and Enfield Bullet showroom, both in Hassan and turning them around into successful ventures. The difficulties he faced in obtaining financing due to the inherent risks and the babudom present in India is well depicted.
For me, the most enjoyable phase of the book – one that I was eager to read was his foray into the aviation business. Contrary to public perception, he did not start with Air Deccan – what we know as low-cost airlines. He in fact started out on a premium helicopter service, which would connect remote parts of the state / country. He vividly describes experiences he had with diverse group of customers like politicians (how can you miss them?) who paid and who did not, businesspersons, spiritual gurus and finally, few common citizens who patronized the service.
During this time, he had the inspiration to conceive a low-cost airline with a business model similar to the one, which was already running reasonably well in the USA. Thus was born, Air Deccan, India’s first low-cost airline. During the initial days, skeptics, the author included scoffed at such an idea. But, as all successful concepts, this one grew into our systems with the passage of time and thus found acceptability. Its primary aim was to open up the aviation sector affordable to the common man and dare say, that this has changed the face of the aviation industry in India.
There are occasions, in which he relates the problems he faced while implementing novel concepts like e-ticketing, eliminating intermediaries (agents), no in-flight hospitality, optimizing the flight staff, connecting far-flung areas of India, etc. He was seen mainly as an intruder who had sort of gatecrashed into the monopoly, which was held by Indian Airlines, Jet & Kingfisher. This made them to rethink and rework their strategies (ethically and otherwise) around Air Deccan. On one instance, he recalls that the early morning scheduled flight from Ahmedabad did not take-off. What a way to start the day with angry passengers demanding to fly and being all alone in the midst of hostile unaccommodating competitors! When he investigated, he found to his surprise that all the staff in Ahmedabad ranging from the ground staff to the baggage handlers to the flight personnel to the pilots had all put in their mass resignations that morning and jumped ship to Kingfisher who offered them a marginal increase in pay.
The first thing that hit me right in my face was that attrition is pervading everywhere!!!
Another interesting encounter (a series of them) talks about Gopinath meeting Vijay Mallya in Bangalore. For those of you familiar with Bangalore, Vijay Mallya’s house (call it a mansion) is on VittalMallya Street. Coincidentally, Gopinath also stayed in an apartment in the same street. When both met in Mallya’s place, Gopinath was overwhelmed by the riches on display, which had a silver column in the garden, Mallya’s CFO was smoking a cigar and Mallya himself was seated in what was like a throne. Mallya in his own inimitable way put things in perspective when he told Gopinath that two entrepreneurs from Karnataka, staying in the same road and having the same vision should work as one. Gopinath very smartly pointed that the difference between Kingfisher and Air Deccan was evident from comparing the houses, which both lived – one was a palace and the other, a humble apartment.
Gopinath concludes the book by mentioning the merger process between Air Deccan and Kingfisher, which culminated in India’s pioneering low cost carrier, was completely taken over by Mallya.
All in all, a wonderful read. At the cost of repeating myself, I would like to say that this readability is due to its inherent simplicity. Pick it up and go for it…
Until the next time, God bless…