Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Vijay Mallya

Vijay Mallya heads a multinational conglomerate that recorded $1.6 billion in sales last year. He has homes around the world. The walls of his Sausalito mansion feature Picasso, Renoir, Chagall, Turner. He has one of the world's foremost collections of classic cars.

He is a member of the Indian Parliament, leader of a political party, a player in the fields of media, technology and commerce.

But Mallya wants more: big-time American business success.

"I want to achieve market leadership in this country, because this represents the biggest challenge,'' Mallya said in an interview in his Sausalito home.

Mallya thinks he has the products to do it: a "pesticide" that he says will work for organic farmers, and a spray to rid households of dust mites.

For Mallya, it's a departure from his core business as India's leading brewmeister. He produces the top brand, Kingfisher Beer, and in the U.S. he is expanding his Mendocino Brewing Co.'s operations.

In some ways, it may seem that Mallya, 47, spreads himself fairly thin. He has 26 homes around the world ("I counted once," said Tony Bedi, who runs Mallya's American United Breweries International), including residences in Sausalito, Napa, Trump Plaza in New York, a castle in Scotland, Monte Carlo, and homes in every major city in India, including New Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore,

Goa and Calcutta.

His antique racing cars number more than 260, stored in 10 countries. He's got two yachts in California, a few in India, the famed Kalizma -- a 165-foot Edwardian yacht once owned by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and now based in the Mediterranean -- and a 187-foot yacht under construction in Australia. He also owns a Boeing 727 and a Gulfstream jet, and he pilots his own planes and boats, Bedi notes.

Yet Mallya is nothing if not a businessman. "I work seven days a week," he says, always plugging in, even while basking in his hedonistic lifestyle. His UB Group encompasses more than 60 companies in six main business lines: alcoholic beverages, engineering and technology, agriculture, life sciences, media, and leisure.

Mallya inherited the UB Group from his father, who died of a heart attack in 1983, when Mallya was 27 years old. "He dropped dead at a party," Mallya said. "One week after he died, I was voted chairman and CEO of a public company."

At the time, Mallya said, he had a reputation as something of a playboy, but he also had been a keen student of business.

Not that he had much choice. "I wanted to be a doctor like my grandfather, " Mallya said. "My father put his foot down and said, 'No, he's going into business.' Did I choose? No, but I came to enjoy it."

Mallya was an only child, and his father, part of the first generation of businessmen to achieve success after India's independence, had high hopes for him. "My father was a very strict man," Mallya said. "He was very wealthy, but he brought me up normally. He was a great stickler for performance and hard work."

His father made him take a job as a $40 a month store clerk in "the small sleepy town of Shahjahanpur," in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. "All I had for transportation was a bicycle," he said. "The nearest movie hall was 12 miles away."

Mallya hated it, but came to value it later for the character it instilled.

He attended university in Calcutta, earned a master's in business in India as well, and earned a doctorate through correspondence from the University of California at Irvine. Today, his contemporaries call him Dr. Mallya.

After his schooling was complete, Mallya was living in New Jersey, working for Hoechst, a pharmaceutical firm now known as Aventis, a firm in which his father had a significant ownership stake.

At the time, his father was also schooling Mallya in the basics of the UB Group, formed in 1947 when the elder Mallya bought a controlling stake in Kingfisher Beer. "He passed along many responsibilities in 2 1/2 years, as he became more and more confident in my capabilities," Mallya said.

Vittal Mallya died when Vijay Mallya was in the United States. The heir quickly applied some American business lessons to the enterprise.

"I shrunk the spectrum of businesses tremendously," he said, gradually exiting the processed food business, petrochemicals and plastics, batteries, paints, pharmaceuticals and others. In some cases, he said, he saw multinational corporations coming into India, and he sold out to the competition.

For instance, he had a carbonated beverage business, but "I saw Pepsi and Coke coming and I said, 'I'm outta here.' I shut it down."

"This concept of competitive advantage, I must give credit to my time in the U.S.," he said. "My first stint in the U.S. really influenced my business life a lot. I looked at things in an American way, and not in an Indian way."

He whittled the group from 20 business lines to six, focusing on areas of core competence. He gradually "beautified" the businesses before selling them off. He entered new markets, such as fertilizer, recognizing India's agricultural economy.

He boasts that UB has grown from $100 million in sales when he took it over to $1.6 billion today.

Kingfisher, the flagship product, was the fourth-selling beer in India when he got the company; today it is the runaway leader, with more than 25 percent market share.

Mallya credits marketing for that jump -- with no small credit to his own role. He appears in Kingfisher's ads. "I am the brand ambassador," he said,

and, citing Kingfisher's slogan, he added, "I am the 'King of Good Times.' "

People who know him vouch for that. "He's a man with money who knows how to spend it," said Dicky Gill, a former race car driver in India. "There are rich people all over the world, but he knows how to enjoy himself."

Dilip Massand, who ran a promising dot-com catering to Indian Americans called, had a whirlwind negotiation with Mallya one weekend in New York. Mallya was smoking his customary cigar, drinking a beer, living, Massand said, "like a maharaja."

"He has a commanding presence," Massand said. "One thing you could see with him was the aura of patronage. ... He was tremendously gracious and generous with his friends. For the time you're with him, it's champagne wishes and caviar dreams. But when it boils down to business, he's a tough dollars- and-cents man."

Michael Laybourn, one of the founders of Mendocino Brewing Co., said Mallya helped save his firm, giving it an infusion of capital, acquiring other companies, and providing great synergy by putting it in charge of Kingfisher's American operations.

Laybourn remembers one episode in which he shipped the company's newest beer from its brewery in Ukiah to home base in Hopland -- down the Russian River in a raft. "Vijay went along with it. He even left his entourage behind, " Laybourn said. As they floated lazily downstream, Laybourn said, " 'Vijay, do you ever get a chance to calm down and relax like this?' He says, 'Never.' He got a little break there for at least half an hour, but if he had fallen in,

he'd have ruined all his little machines."

There were some culture clashes when the flamboyant Mallya took over the hippie-like Mendocino operation. India's class system was hard to swallow. "People working for him from India are right there all the time, anytime he clicks his finger, and he doesn't have to describe why," Laybourn said. "Certainly he's a member of the ruling class."

Mallya sometimes can still cause a stir in the microbrew industry, but generally, as with most of his businesses, he lets his delegates run the operation.

Mallya is something of a celebrity in India. His homes appear in society magazines. His name makes bold type in gossip columns. Everything that happens to him seems to generate news -- like the time this past summer when his helicopter crashed. (It plunged 150 feet straight down, but no one was killed, and Mallya walked away unscathed. "The message is from above," he said. "I have a second life.")

By the time of the crash, Mallya had already embarked on his political career. He is a member of Parliament, and leads the Janata Party. His goal is to empower India's vast population of youth. His pitch is: "I'm a wealthy man. ... Therefore, my government will not be corrupt."

He wants to toss out the old leaders, and establish term limits. His party is small now, but in videos he is seen flashing a "youth power" sign, making a "V" with his fingers as throngs of people cheer him in the streets.

In his political ventures, Mallya starts addressing the seeming disconnect between his wealthy lifestyle and the teeming poverty often associated with India.

"Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister of India, once said that only 10 percent of what is allocated for rural development reaches the people, and the other 90 percent is lost to corruption and inefficiency," Mallya said. "We are not a poor country. ... We are among the top five industrialized nations in the world. We have huge natural resources. We have a vibrant agricultural economy and among the lowest cost of agricultural production in the world. We have huge food surpluses. In the high-tech fields of information technology and software development, we are world-beaters.

"Why is India still referred to as a poor country? Because the billions allocated to the poor don't get to the poor. It's a big challenge," he said. "It's all a question of management and discipline."

Mallya initially got into agriculture by taking over a state-run fertilizer business and restoring it to profitability. Now he intends to get into the organic market with SoluNeem, a pesticide made from India's neem tree that may be used in organic food production. It may be a shrewd move, as the Organic Trade Association reports 57 million acres around the world are in organic production, with demand for organic products increasing to $23 billion.

But it's not without competition. The Organic Materials Review Institute notes at least 11 other neem pesticides on the market, and says others have run into problems trying to become water soluble while not changing the chemical makeup into something that would be prohibited on an organic farm.

Meanwhile, Mallya's children are growing up American. He had come to the Bay Area when his wife was having a difficult pregnancy, and doctors ordered her to stay. They bought the 11,000-square-foot mansion out of foreclosure for $1.2 million when it was just a shell, and sank many times that amount into its renovation.

Lawsuits followed, but ultimately Mallya built his dream home, with views stretching from Belvedere to the Bay Bridge and San Francisco. It's one of the most prominent homes in Sausalito.

Mallya is also something of a player in town, as the owner of MarinScope newspapers, publisher of five small weeklies in Marin County. But aside from making his classic cars available to local parades (some of the cars are worth $3 million; Mallya himself has raced in his 1913 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, among others), Mallya has not gotten involved in local politics.

"When you come to a town like this," said Mayor Amy Belser, "and you have money, and you buy the newspaper, and you buy this huge house that's been in contention for years, people take notice. But to my knowledge, he hasn't made any particular enemies that I know of."

(There might be one: Among those who sued over the construction of his house was the next door neighbor, former Mayor Bill Ziegler. Mallya said he won the suit, and bought Ziegler's house. "I've got a plan for it," Mallya said, eyeing the now-vacant home in a prime spot overlooking Bridgeway and the bay. "I'm going to make it part of my deck." Ziegler did not return a phone call seeking comment).

The house is chock-full of art and furniture purchased at auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's, from chairs that he said he out-bid three museums to get, to a gold 1872 Steinway piano, to all those famous painters. He leads a tour into a bathroom to show off an antique fountain he had converted into a basin.

"It's so unique, either you love it or you hate it," he said. "I'm sure whoever designed it 100 years ago thought it would be in an English garden, not in some washroom."

Mallya must drive harder bargains in business than he does in negotiating with his family. How else to explain the Indian beer baron's compromise in the familial debate over giving his teenage stepson his first car?

Mallya wanted him to drive a scuffed-up beater, like he had to do when he came of age. He recalled his days of grunt work in Uttar Pradesh.

But Marin County peer pressure is a powerful force. Mallya folded and gave the boy a Mercedes ML.

"It was a compromise,'' Mallya shrugs. "But he does not get to drive my Ferrari!''

1 comment:

cancerleocusp said...

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