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BW Businessworld

Giving Wings To the Dream

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Somewhere deep into his autobiography, Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar Gopinath lets on that the idea for setting up India’s first low-cost commercial airline was not originally his. The thought was planted in his brain by K.J. Samuel, buddy from the National Defence Academy and co-founder of the former Air Deccan. That, of course, does not take away from Gopinath who went on to blueprint and execute  the idea and, in the process, make aviation history in India.
 
Gopinath’s enterprising nature was evident right from early childhood, which was spent       in the village of Gorur in south-western Karnataka. The son of a Brahmin schoolteacher of modest means found his way into Sainik School and, eventually, into the Indian Army out of a strong desire to experience the world beyond his village. 
 
The army stint, though relatively short, taught the young Captain critical organisation and mobilisation skills. When Gopinath returned to his village soon after resigning from the army, much to his mother’s delight and his father’s dismay, it was already clear to him that entrepreneurship was the way to go.
 
Air Deccan was preceded by several other attempts at starting diverse businesses, including silkworm rearing and a helicopter service that did quite well.
 
The book is not always easy to read. The upside is that Gopinath attempts to tell a story on entrepreneurship without choosing the ‘how to be a successful entrepreneur’ style often favoured by many successful entrepreneurs. The downside is that writing is clearly not the author’s first calling and, therefore, he falls back ever too often on quoting classical writers, both Indian and western. Better editing would have sorted out the problem perhaps, but somebody forgot to do that.
 
The story of the making of Air Deccan is the most interesting part of Simply Fly. The story has been told several times, and in different ways in the media. Still, it remains fresh. Like Kishore Biyani, founder of Pantaloons Retail and the Big Bazaar phenomenon, Gopinath also saw the huge potential of monetising the small town, middle-class consumer early. 
Unfortunately, this part of Gopinath’s entrepreneurial journey begins to unravel only towards the end of the book. Perhaps, conveniently so, since it saves the author the trouble of going into a lot of detail on why the pioneering Air Deccan business model did not ultimately sustain. When UB Group promoter Vijay Mallya, whom Gopinath describes as “a good model for a modern maharaja”, acquired the airline in mid-2007, it was clocking losses at over Rs 200 crore.
 
The jury is still out on whether the Rs 3,000- crore that Mallya paid for Air Deccan will come good. The low-cost airline, now re-branded Kingfisher Red, continues to struggle to find a workable business model. The deal, if not anything else, did establish the former army captain as a shrewd deal-maker, and in spite of his assertion that he did not become an entrepreneur to “make money for myself”, he left the deal table with more than enough cash to start a new venture.
 
Gopinath does attempt to explain what may have gone wrong with the Air Deccan business model, but mostly in terms of negative competitor strategies, inefficient government airport staff and other market dynamics such as choppy stockmarket, that were beyond his control.
 
At times, the reasons he relates for the business floundering sound incredulously naive. For instance, it is impossible to believe that Air Deccan’s consistently poor track record with flight schedules was singularly the fault of a poor reservation system sold to the airline by Interglobe Technologies.
 
Gopinath conveniently forgets that Air Deccan was also notorious for shoddy on-ground customer service at airports when flights were delayed. In effect, he blames everyone, but his own inability to execute as CEO, which is actually quite understandable in an autobiography. This is why biographies, even unauthorised ones, work so much better.
 
The story of the son of a poor village schoolteacher rising from humble roots to become multi-millionaire is not entirely uncommon in this country. Several successful first-generation entrepreneurs from the pre-information technology era trace pretty much the same route. Reliance Industries founder Dhirajlal Hirachand Ambani is an easy example to pick. In fact, Gopinath’s story is no less inspiring, but it preaches too soon. There are many lessons that aspiring entrepreneurs can learn from this autobiography, but sadly, not the two most important ones — how to build an institution, and humility. 
(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 29-03-2010)