Lunch With The FT : Maharaja Mallya

Saturday, November 3, 2007

I am waiting for the billionaire Vijay Mallya in the living room at Niladri, his south Mumbai seaside mansion.  He’s running late, so there’s plenty of time to take in the room, which combines extravagantly carved Indian antiques with model aircraft on display stands…..The liquor and airline baron brands his businesses with his Kingfisher label, securing brand recognition across Asia that rivals that of Richard Branson.  It’s a family business, but one Mallya has expanded and made conspicuously successful.  Earlier this year the 51-year-old, estimated by Forbes magazine to have a net worth of $1.5bn, made headlines in the UK by acquiring Whyte & Mackay, the Scotch whisky maker.  He was in the news again in Europe this month when he became joint owner of the Dutch Spyker Formula One racing team.  I am prepared for his lack of punctuality, having seen him turn up two hours late to his own press conferences, but it is now 6pm, three hours after I arrived.  I am hungry, but I am only booked in his diary for “tea with the FT”. My mind wanders.  Suddenly, word reaches the supplicants in Mallya’s living room that he has been upstairs all along, watching coverage of a strike at a state-owned rival, Indian Airlines.  Then, with a booming, gravelly voice that enters the room before its owner, he is among us, railing about the reporting he’s just seen.  His glittering earrings, long silver hair and ample frame speak of first-hand experience of the good times in a country that still bans alcohol in at least one state.  But my hopes are dashed when he spends another hour wandering around the room, ranting unselfconsciously on the telephone about the strike and his takeover deal.  Eventually he puts down his mobile and invites me into the dining room.  We sit at one end of a long, glass-topped dining table surrounded by chairs with silver inlay and gold velvet upholstery.  In contrast to the regal setting, Mallya is dressed in a red Kingfisher T-shirt, jeans and matching red-framed glasses and loafers.  Once we are alone, Mallya switches persona from impatient tycoon to charming and informal host.  He apologetically explains that his lateness is “not out of lack of attention to other people’s time – it’s just that I’ve got too much to do”…..

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I have had plenty of time to formulate my first question: how does Mallya feel he fits into India’s corporate world?  Most of his grey, besuited business peers are afraid to be photographed with even so much as a beer in their hand.  Mallya hosts boozy parties on the 311ft Indian Empress, the world’s fifth-biggest luxury yacht, and publishes a calendar featuring models in bikinis.  He wanders around parties at his villa in Goa followed by two servants; one carrying a tray bearing his whisky and the other an ashtray and his cigars…..“My own lifestyle got intertwined with the brand personality and so without really planning it that way I became almost my own brand ambassador and that’s just the way it’s kept on developing,” he says….He did his first big deal, buying and subsequently selling UK-headquartered Berger Paints for a $66m profit.  “The first thing I did is I went into my mum and said: ‘I made this money.  Now let nobody say that I’m blowing away my inherited wealth.  Now if I buy a fast car or a yacht or a plane nobody has the right to complain because I made this money myself.’”  And spend money he did.  He forks spicy mutton curry on to a chapatti and I prise a prawn out of its shell as he describes how he relaxes.  When he is not on one of his yachts, he visits one of 40-odd international homes using his corporate jet, an Airbus 319, which he describes as his “flying apartment”.  He drives fast cars and is a pilot – recently he flew around the US in his own small aircraft, stopping in Santa Fe to buy art.  My impression of him as a modern successor to India’s former maharajas is reinforced when he describes how his collection of 250 classic cars consists largely of vehicles that once belonged to the country’s princely classes.  In the colonial era, India was a key market for Rolls-Royce, he says, embarking on the tale of one of his vehicles.  Between the wars, a maharaja was treated with disdain in a London showroom.  “This maharaja got so mad that he ordered six Rolls-Royces and converted them into garbage vehicles.  And I bought one of them.  So I actually have a Rolls-Royce garbage truck.”…..I ask him how this hedonistic ideal fits with his religious beliefs but he sees no contradiction.  “I remember when I was a young boy,” he says, “and my grandfather used to have his afternoon siesta and make me lie down next to him and teach me all about the [Hindu] epics, the Mahabarata and the Ramayana.”  Each year he fasts for 42 days, during which he eats one meal a day, abstains from meat and alcohol, and dresses in black.  All of his aircraft are blessed at Tirupati, a southern Indian temple.

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