From Henry Ford, to John D. Rockefeller, to FIAT’s Gianni Agnelli, the 20th century was the century of the archetypal businessman patriarch. Nowadays, however, that kind of character, the public man with the business empire and strong political and social convictions, is far rarer. As such, talking to Vijay Mallya feels like chatting to an older, more understandable face of capitalism.
That’s not to say that the man, who is an Indian MP as well as the entrepreneur in charge of United Breweries, the Kingfisher airline, the Force India Formula 1 team, an Indian Premier League side and a couple of Indian football teams, is not in tune with current issues. Even after thirty years at the head of a multinational conglomerate, for example, he talks about the worrying levels of illiteracy in Indian adults with the eloquent manner of a man whose finger is still firmly “on the pulse”.
I didn’t miss the irony of sitting down to talk to Mallya in a bar. When I point this out to the man occasionally called ‘the Liquor Baron’, the joke takes a second to register, but this is perhaps the only time in our conversation that Mallya misses a beat. He’s a natural orator, clearly used to holding court in powerful circles.
Although he was in Oxford to talk politics, Mallya is primarily known for his business and sporting interests. Having taken over the leadership of the conglomerate United Breweries aged only 28, the Kartanaka-native is now especially relevant as several of the areas in which he operates, such as Indian politics and F1, are undergoing huge changes. In the wake of this altering landscape, I’m intrigued to know how the man defines himself. I put it to him that he is a man of many labels, and his response, that he’s both “a businessman and a man of all trades”, is telling, Mallya is a man who has made a living out of a sort of ‘trial and error’ approach to diversification.
On this note, we begin to talk about his business interests. In recent times, his airline company, Kingfisher Airlines, has been beset by problems, but Mallya puts me in my place somewhat when I comment on this. “You just can’t judge a career on only one thing, especially a sole failure set against a track record of success”.
A few years ago, Captain G R Gopinath, who founded the airline which Mallya bought and re-branded as the now-defunct Kingfisher Red budget carrier, told the BBC that he wondered whether, as successful as Dr. Mallya has been, he might have experienced more success had he not spread himself thinly.
The man himself, perhaps unsurprisingly, disagrees with this assessment. He tells me that, in reality, “the airline was never the core business”, suggesting that my vision of Vijay Mallya as a man who enjoys speculating to accumulate isn’t far from the truth.
Talking of this setback seems to irk Mallya, and he jumps to the defence of his airline – he explains that “Kingfisher Red’s failure was just a symptom of the wider global economic situation. We suffered due to things like high aviation taxation – it’s easy to forget how bleak the picture was five years ago.”
Eager to steer the conversation towards less murky waters, we talk alcohol. “It’s always been the main focus”, Mallya says, and when you realise that this is the man who owns brands ranging from Cobra beer to Vladivar vodka and Isle of Jura whisky, it becomes clear that this is a man who does indeed know an awful lot about enterprise. I suddenly feel rather indebted to him, though it also strikes me that I must have contributed a sizable amount to his, according to Forbes, $750m net worth.
More recently, the 58 year old has turned his hand to politics. Over the past ten years, Dr. Mallya has been elected as an Indian MP twice, running on an independent ticket. He tells me that he started out with the aim of using politics as a platform to give back to India, but throughout our conversation it is clear that Vijay harbours a certain degree of frustration with the current state of Indian politics. “I wanted to help back productive debate in parliament. It was important that I used my maiden speech to focus upon returning the focus to accountability.”
Given we are now firmly ensconced in the run-up to what will be a controversial general election later in the year, I ask him to explain a little more. Isn’t Indian politics improving along with the Indian economy? Mallya tells me I couldn’t be more wrong, explaining, “Indian politics has degenerated considerably over the last ten years.”
He ascribes much of the blame for this to the fractured nature of politics on the sub-continent, and the disconnect between the various state legislatures and the federal government. “It’s easy to underestimate the cultural differences across India, I’m not exaggerating when I say that the task of getting each state to pull together under the federal government will be a difficult one for the next ruling coalition.”
Mallya caused a good deal of controversy amongst the Indian government back in 2009, when the tycoon spent almost $2 million on Gandhi memorabilia at an auction. He acquired items like the Indian national hero’s eyeglasses and the last cup and bowl he drank and ate from. Many argued that the relics should not have been bought by a private collector, but Mallya points the finger of blame squarely at the government. “I had hoped that the then-government would have jumped at the chance to preserve such items but they didn’t seem bothered.”
He went on to say that he had felt obliged to step in, “it would have been sad to see them go somewhere like South Africa – which does equally have its links to him [Gandhi] – ahead of India where he represents so much.” He nods enthusiastically when I ask whether the purchase was motivated by his own strong sense of nationhood.
It’s impossible to talk of Mallya’s patriotism without acknowledging his sporting interests and his 2007 acquisition of Formula One team ‘Force India’ in particular. Although based over the road from Silverstone, Force India are the only de jure national team in the sport.
“It was really important to have an Indian team in F1,” he says. “There are millions of passionate racing fans in India and I wanted to represent them. It doesn’t matter about the drivers so much. Look at Ferrari who rarely have an Italian driving. It’s all about the team’s heart.” Of course, there are other, personal benefits to co-owning a racing team. “I love being there” he tells me. “It’s a fascinating experience.”
Cricket is another unsurprising passion, given the sport’s popularity in southern Asia, and I sense that as both fan, owner, and capitalist, Vijay might have something to say about the recent changes and long term future of the sport. The International Cricket Council (ICC) have just announced a dramatic change in structure which will hand far more power to the English, Australian, and Indian national boards, and Mallya is a big supporter of this. “Sport must be managed by those who generate the necessary revenue; cricket needs to be marketed well by those who have the resources. I don’t think the ICC would make a decision without the sport’s best interests in mind.”
As the owner of Indian Premier League side the Bangalore Royal Challengers, I suspect Mallya may have a vested interest in the ongoing cold war between the modern and traditional forms of cricket. This only proves half true, however. “The thing is” he says, “that you can’t sell a test match as easily as you can a 20/20 game. The 50 over game just isn’t half as commercial. I wonder whether football would be half as popular if the games were six hours long?”
Speaking to the so-called ‘King of the Good Times’ was undoubtedly an education. The man is forthright, gregarious, and able to offer an unique insight into the rise of Indian business.
As I rise to leave and compliment Mallya on his frequently changing sunglasses (seriously, keep an eye out when the Formula One season begins), I can’t escape the feeling that I’m simply the latest in a long line of people to struggle to get much of a handle on Vijay. The fact is that, whichever of his various jobs or hobbies takes precedence next, my bet is on him continuing to resist any labels. He’ll enjoy himself, he may even make a difference, and he will definitely make more money.