Book Review Lounge

Simply Fly by Captain G.R.Gopinath

What a journey Captain G.R. Gopinath seems to have lived so far! Reading his autobiography “Simply Fly” I am envious of him: Not for his money or the number of businesses he had run, but for the experiences he has had the fortune of living through and his perseverance when the going gets tougher.

Nothing can be harder than fighting in a war or living in the inhumane high-altitude terrains of the Himalayas; both of which Captain Gopinath has been through. The two toughest businesses in India to venture will be “Farming” and “Aviation”, the former being a working-class noble profession and the latter a glamorous one with numerous regulations, nothing can be poles apart than these two, yet both are with little to no margin businesses. And Captain Gopinath has ventured into both with no formal experience and made his mark.

Throughout the autobiography, Captain Gopinath quotes and recalls from many of the wonderful books he has read and had shaped him. Just to prepare a list of authors to read, “Simply Fly” is a great read.

The book had the fortune of having a foreword from the (late) former President of India Dr APJ Abdul Kalam who had appreciated Gopinath’s indomitable spirit.

Mr G R Gopinath was born in 1951 in a village called Gorur, near Hassan in Karnataka. He talks fondly of a pretty river called Hemavathy flowing near the village. Gopi’s father was a schoolteacher for his passion to teach and a farmer by profession. His mother’s family hailed from Melkote, famous for its Thirunarayanapuram temple and for Saint Sri Ramanuja. Gopi recalls about his father: “my father was not a typical Brahmin and spoke disapprovingly of the system that encouraged and justified the ‘superiority’ of many upper castes and their exploitation of the artisan class and the Dalits.”. Gopi’s father did not enrol him in a school till the fifth standard, opting to teach himself.  His father had quoted Tagore, “Real education is in life’s experiences; school is like a jail”.

Sainik School Bijapur
Sainik School, Bijapur

While in school, Gopi recalls an incident where his headmaster Mr B.S.Nanjundiah wrote strongly to ministry of defence in Delhi about the competitive admission exam for Sainik School (novel military training school) to be in regional languages including Kannada and to everyone’s surprise the ministry decided to conduct fresh examinations in Kannada – this incident of questioning authority left a lasting impact on Gopi, which in his later years proved valuable during the numerous interactions with the Government for his flight ventures. Clearing the exam in Kannada, he joined the Sainik School in Bijapur, where apart from studies he got into trekking, and went to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling for an adventure course. These ignited Gopi’s passion for trips, travel & adventure. The next phase was spending three years of academic courses in National Defence Academy in Pune, then a year at the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun, after which he commissioned as an officer with the Indian Army.

In NDA years, he got trained on horse riding, weapons training, swimming apart from many other physical skills. Also, at NDA, he recalls in each table at dinner were a copy of the famous poem “IF” by Rudyard Kipling.

In everything that you, if you want to earn the respect of your men, you have to be professionally better than them. You have to work harder than them. You have to stretch yourself than them. You cannot spare yourself  – Gopi’s divisional officer Captain J.S.Verma

The next was Gopinath’s stint in the Indian Army: During Sep-Oct 1971, the Bangladesh Liberation War broke out and he was dispatched to a unit in Sikkim. His close buddies during the war turned out to play major role in his future career and life. This kind of bonding and trust between your colleagues can happen only in armed forces where every day you put your life at hands of your co-workers.

He shares to us, civilians, on how war activities on the ground happen – “In a war the artillery supports the fighting arms, which are the infantry and the armour. A brigade has all the wherewithal to support the solider who goes out to face the enemy”. During this period, observing the operations of the Air Ops (Air Observation Posts) which comprised of small helicopters and aeroplanes, had laid the foundation of Deccan Aviation. He was to then to be made from an intelligence officer (IO) to a gun position officer (GPO), whose job is to deploy guns at the right place at the right time – I wonder what more experience one can get to manage resources better in one’s life.

After the war, Gopi was posted in Sikkim for a yar and a half, which was an Indian protectorate then. After Sikkim, he got posted at a picket called 4752, which was adjoining the famous Natha La Pass near the Sino-Indian border and was a staggering altitude of 15,586 feet. Despite the hard-living conditions there, he had the privilege of waking up each morning to the sight of the majestic range of Kanchenjunga bathed in pre-dawn sunlight. The isolation of the picket provided Gopi the solitude to read many of the authors like Tolstoy, Somerset Maugham, Pushkin, and others. He also volunteered for the long-range patrols along the Indo-Tibetan border which was at forbidden heights of six thousand metres. From there his unit got moved to Bhutan to attend the coronation of the 17-year-old crown prince. He then went on a posting to Kashmir where he fell to a glacier, miraculously escaping death, but had his arm crushed. The next four months he was treated to recovery in Srinagar base hospital. Then he spent a year on medical posting in Bangalore, after which he got posted to Trivandrum under Brigadier N.S.I.Narahari, who in later years became the chairman of Deccan Aviation.

Then he went on a road trip on his Java bike across many states of India. Starting from Bikaner in Rajasthan, he travelled 4000 km in three months to Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Ajmer, Delhi, Lucknow, Kanpur, Khajuraho, Sanchi, Bhopal, Ujjain, Mandu & Ahmedabad. It was on the road trip, he decided to leave the armed forces. Having read “Travels with Charlie” by Mr John Steinback, he went around the USA on a 10,000 km hitch-hiking trip with just US$500 – travelling to Washington DC, New York, Ohio, Illinois, South and North Dakota, Montana, Utah, Colorado, Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Nevada, Nebraska, Los Angeles, San Francisco and back. On leaving the Army he got a princely sum of Rs.6,350 and a captured Pakistani Rifle as a souvenir.

The next phase was of Gopi becoming a farmer. He convinced his family to give him the thirty acres of dry tract of land near Belur and Halebid temples, that was allotted to them by the government as a compensation to their original land lost to a dam building project. The land had no proper approach roads and had patches of jungle and scrub forest. He lived in the farm, by pitching a tent and taking in a 15-year-old Dalit boy Raju as his helper and co-resident – Raju later grew-up to manage the farm for Mr Gopinath. With a natural instinct for farming, Gopi quickly learns not to clear up the land; that less farming is good farming; to be careful not to erode an ounce of precious topsoil; to leave the twigs, branches, dead trees intact for the termites to attack which will then spare the good crops & the grown trees; to leave the insects undisturbed by not spraying chemicals; to plant a variety of crops & not to uproot anything that grew on the land. He approaches several banks for loans, before landing one for Rs.1.5 Lakhs from Vijaya Bank thanks to a friendly manager Mr Chandrashekar. The loan was to setup a silkworm-rearing house, raise mulberry, buy cattle, a dairy farm, setup a Gobar gas plant & cultivate bananas and coconuts – see the long list of enterprises he planned at the first stage itself.  During this farming enterprise is when he learned to cut his cost as much as possible.  He observed “modern family inputs more than the output”.

In the farm, to raise coconut trees you need a lot of water and it was proving difficult to do the watering manually. The farm didn’t have electricity connection then, to give one, the Electricity department needed a minimum of 300 HP of utility, the requirement for Gopi’s farm was only 20 HP – this meant he needed to convince several other farmers in the area to sign up for a connection. After that, it turned out he was asked to bribe the local officers, instead of doing that, he went to Bangalore and met the secretary of Department of Electricity and managed to get his connection after much delay. In the interim, he tried an experiment of buying a dozen donkeys for watering the crops, which turned out to be disaster. At that time, in 1984, Rotary International selected Gopi to a scholarship programme in the US for his efforts as a natural farmer. He realized that whatever “was not ecologically sound, was not economically viable in the long run”. So, he employed techniques like harvesting silkworm cocoons in paddy straw which could be recycled as mulch enriched by the droppings of the worm back to the farm – this was a forgotten age-old practice. For this he got awarded the Rolex Laureate Award for 1996 and was invited to deliver lectures at agricultural universities and sericulture seminars.

It was in the humble farm, that his future wife Ms Bhargavi and her family came to meet him in bullock carts and finalise their arranged marriage. The next few years they lived on the farm, to be blessed with their two daughters before moving to the nearest town “Hassan” for the kids school education. And it was in Hassan, he setup his next venture, a motorbike sales and repair shop in Hassan called Malnad Mobikes. It is an interesting story on how he gate-crashed into the corporate office of Enfield in Chennai and managed to leave with a dealership on hand. This symbolises the enterprising attitude of Captain Gopinath which was invaluable during his later ventures.

After bike dealership, Gopi started an Udupi Hotel called Yagachi Tiffin. Just before the inauguration of the hotel, he had lost his chief cook and other helpers, not to delay the launch, he recruited a wedding cook and ran the show. And this no-compromise on the pre-set launch date will be a recurring theme on his later (helicopter and Airline) businesses. The next enterprise was Hassan Investments which was to do stock market trading for about two years. Following that was an agriculture equipment selling and consultancy firm in Hassan and Bangalore by partnering with his Sainik School friend Mr Harsha Gaonkar. For this Gopi wanted to be the reseller of Jain Irrigation in Jalgaon – once again he went direct, he landed in Jalgaon and went to meet the founder Mr Bhawar Lal Jain to convince him. To drum sales for the new business, he loaded on his car all the agricultural equipment and went farm to farm meeting farmers of all sizes.

His experiences so far made it obvious to him on the “corruption” in India. This led him to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), an unknown entity in Karnataka then. Once he had the opportunity to host in his house in Hassan, (India’s PM in later years) stalwart Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee. On party ticket, he contested for state assembly from Gandsi, with a slogan “Model Farmer, Model Soldier”. He went around to over 200 villages to campaign door-to-door. During one campaign rally he stood his ground and refused to yield time for Janata Dal supremo Mr Deve Gowda (who later went on to become the Chief Minister of Karnataka and then India’s Prime Minister). In the election Gopi only managed to get 7,000 votes out of the 1,40,000 that were polled, and he returned to his farm.

Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first – Ronald Reagan in 1975

The next move by Gopi was to settle down in Bangalore, again for his kid’s education and to grow his farm equipment business. Around that time, he got an opportunity to go to China on an exchange visit to learn about their farming techniques and share ours. This visit exposed Gopi to the breakneck growth happening in the Chinese economy and the possibility of something similar that can happen in India, following the liberalisation unleased by then Prime Minister Mr P.V.Narasimha Rao. Inspired by a Vietnam girl’s story who bought a helicopter to transport businesspeople and the sick from/to the remotest part of the poor country, Captain Gopinath saw a new opportunity, to rent helicopters. The applications would be in land use mapping (remember, these were pre-drone days), petroleum and mining industries, videography, film shoots, medical evacuation, apart from tourism and VIP visits. This led to Gopi partnering with his old buddy, Capt. K.J.Samuel to start a helicopter rental company: Deccan Aviation in 1995. This was when India did not have a single helicopter company other than the public sector Pawan Hans.

A true entrepreneur is one who creates wealth where it did not exist earlier by creating a new market and a new customer. They create something new, something different, they change and transmute values; and, on a size and scale that will impact society – Peter Drucker

The first step in Deccan Aviation was to get a license from Government. Without big pockets, this was no easy task. Between them, they settled for a two-pronged approach.  Sam would keep visiting Delhi, proceeding from the bottom and move upwards. While Gopi would go top-down, using his NDA and Army network of friends. They took a vow not to give up until they got a licence. Gopi narrates his experience of how the files for the license were stuck in the Indian bureaucracy at the Join secretary level, the minister’s office and then at the DGCA’s office.

Simply Fly - A Deccan Odyssey by Captain Gopinath
Simply Fly – A Deccan Odyssey by Captain Gopinath

Remember this was when they did not have any monies, no pilots, no crew, not even a single helicopter with them. To get the money, they approached several banks for a loan. One of them was TDICI (offshoot of ICICI), where Gopi met Mr Vijay Angadi, while that didn’t yield any loans, the meeting was not wasted by Gopi who asked Mr Angadi to refer him someone who will provide the finance expertise for this venture and that’s Gopi found Mr Mohan Kumar who went on to become the single most important factor in the success of Deccan Aviation and to the later ventures of Captain Gopinath. Later, the team managed to convince KSIIDC of Karnataka State Government to give them a loan of Rs.43 Lakhs.

If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs – David Ogilvy

The next step was to form a small board, all the directors of an aviation company in India had to be vetted by several security agencies and by home ministry amongst others. Followed by that was to get a business plan prepared by TCS. The next step was to get a hangar space – for that Captain got an appointment and met the then C.M. of Karnataka Mr J.H.Patel and got him to give permission to use the Jakkur Airfield. Unfortunately, the principal of the flying school in Jakkur objected to CM’s decision, even though the school was defunct for years. Soon, a committee was formed to look over the objection, which then cleared it.

By his past experiences of getting covered in media for his farm and then on his political misadventure, Gopi had learned the art of working with the media to feed them with interesting stories and in return to get coverage for free – remember these were pre social-media days. The media attention made Mr Mike Robbins, who headed Bell Helicopters, Asia to call Gopi. Mike later helped Deccan Aviation to get a helicopter leased from a Japanese leasing company ITC Leasing. Next was to get the funding to pay for it, which happened through the first investor Mr S.N.Ladhani, who owned the largest botting unit for Coca-Cola in India. Mr Ladhani took 10 per cent equity of the company at a capital infusion of Rs.21,00,000.

Often life is influenced by and steered by chance events – Somerset Maugham

Around the time, Gopi had enrolled for a management programme by Henry Mintzberg. The first leg of the programme, was in Lancaster in UK which was chosen for its rich tradition in the humanities; the second leg was at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo; followed by INSEAD in Fontainebleau; and then to McGill in Montreal. The management programme gave Gopinath the opportunity to interact with Prof.  Henry Mintzberg, who visited his farm, which led to more media coverage and free publicity for Deccan Aviation. Gopi also learned from Masanobu Fukuoka, the god-figure of organic farming in Japan; Jonathan Gosling, the management guru who came in the 1960s came to the Himalayas in search of the elusive nirvana and instead got married to Susanna, a German who he met three times in three different places; Professor Nonaka, the sage of knowledge management and author of “The Knowledge Creating Company”; and from Yves Doz, the professor of Global technology and innovation in France.

Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer celebrated for his natural farming
Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer and philosopher celebrated for his natural farming

As his usual style by then, he set the launch date for the helicopter service on 5th September 1997 though many things were not in place yet. Now, several approvals were still pending from DGCA, the customs for the helicopter, from RBI for transferring money to the Helicopter leasing company to have the Helicopter flown in from Nepal and others. Karnataka CM was to launch the service on 9 A.M. on that day, but till the last minute DGCA officer had not given the approval to show his displeasure, so Gopi takes a risk and gets the Helicopter flown for the launch and later getting the approvals. This dare-devil attitude, though not recommended and may not be legal, is what I feel separates Captain Gopinath from any other entrepreneur.

When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it creative. I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product” – Ogilvy.

Soon, the helicopter company starts getting business: A visit by the CEO of Bank of America, Kannada and Hindi film industry hiring their helicopters for shootings, and not only rich people but a small time trader selling chillies on village bazars gifted a helicopter ride for his sister’s wedding at a cost of Rs.75,000 which got covered by NDTV. Similar was a story of a girl Kaavya, who wanted to gift her father a helicopter ride to Madikeri in Coorg. Gopi gets interviewed by the famous travel writers Hugh & Colleen Gantzer, got him featured in the book “East India Company” by Macmillan. Another time, their Helicopter got featured during a cricket match live commentary by David Hooks and Sunil Gavaskar.

Deccan tapped the Heli-tourism space by advertising “Dial-a-Chopper”. Later he moves his advertising engagement from the large Hindustan Thompson Associates (HTA) to a local start-up “Orchard Adverting” – this theme of going with a local & small player is one that Gopinath repeats many a times. One of his many celebrity clients was Mr John Gray, the author of “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus” who wanted to do a temple tour and meet with a (then) relatively less-known Swamiji in Penukonda called Swami Kaleshwar, who blessed John to get featured in Oprah Winfrey’s show twice. Another one was his Holiness Sathya Sai Baba, Puttaparthy. Deccan also undertook several medical evacuations and rescue missions saving countless lives.

While bidding for the project to do aerial survey for a JV between Cairn Energy & ONGC, Gopi reaches to their independent aviation auditor Mr Barry Havery to mutter the name of the best helicopter operator in the oil industry, the Bristow Helicopters, UK. Gopi flies to Bristow and meets their team and gets them to give him one helicopter to begin with as a partnership. While the deal was discussed, a senior manager at the firm reminded about the bitter experience they had with India & ONGC in particular when they put off the decision on a tender for a whole year which caused the helicopter to remain idle and losses for Bristow – an example of the political and bureaucratic dithering that’s common with government projects in India.

While on a project with Discovery Channel for “Seven Wonders of the World” in India, Gopinath recalls the nightmare of getting government permissions for aerial filming due to the archaic rules of 1937 which banned aerial photography. For a filming to take place over six to seven days, the approvals and permissions from the government departments took over six months and the crew members names once given, cannot be changed.

Later when he added another helicopter from Mr Douglas Cavanaugh of ITC Leasing, they had to fly the helicopter from Singapore to India – not an easy job. Gopinath along with his pilot Captain Sam flew from Singapore overland to Malaysia to Thailand, enter Myanmar (fly over the usual 1000 feet to avoid any attacks by small fire arms by the rebels there), fly over Arakan mountain range to Bangladesh, then Dhaka to Kolkata, and then to Bhubaneshwar, Vizag, Tirupati, to finally landing in Bangalore. They had flown over 6000 KM a journey that took them over a week – Helicopters can’t fly after dusk and had to be a primarily on an overland path. The duo had to get permissions from many ATCs across several countries, the worst was the cumbersome customs clearance procedures once they entered India. What an adventure this should’ve been and the sights they would’ve seen flying over these many countries!

Then came general elections in India – the rides during the elections were to be an adventure of their one with one politician putting a gun to the head of the pilot when asked for the payment; in one occasion stones were pelted; during one trip when then BJP Chief Mr Venkaiah Naidu was on board, a petrol bomb was thrown. One tragic incident happened when Capt G.V. Menon was piloting a helicopter carrying then Lok Sabha speaker Mr G.M.C.Balayogi from Bhimavaram to Hyderabad crashed and killed the three occupants including the pilot and the speaker.

Kruger National Park, South Africa
Kruger National Park, South Africa

The next turning point came when a lady from South Africa named Ms Beulah Bonugli called to hire helicopters for sight-seeing. That call and the subsequent friendship, got Gopinath and his family to visit the estates in South Africa owned by Mrs Beulah (who had a fascinating story of escaping from an abusive marriage in Rhodesia and to building a fortune for herself through hard work) and to the Kruger National Park. Later Gopi leased two Pilatus aircrafts from Mrs Beulah to run as chartered flights in India. He recalls how smooth the immigration checks and the facilities for tourist were in Kenya when they travelled to Masai Mara Game Reserve, Mount Kilimanjaro, Djibouti and return home via Aden & Dubai. As they returned to India, Gopi’s family along with foreign pilots landed in Mumbai but were not allowed inside the terminal buildings to even use the toilets (Pilatus had no toilets) as they were scheduled to do the immigration in Bangalore – what a shame and once again shows what’s wrong with the Indian bureaucracy. Adding to the insult, the foreign pilots were asked to pay customs duty of US$200 on the residual fuel of two hundred litres in the aircraft.

Later with the support of Mr Chandrababu Naidu, then CM of Andhra Pradesh Gopi sets up a base in Hyderabad. They also expanded to do ferry services for the Vaishno Devi pilgrimages. Once when then CM of Karnataka Mr S M Krishna wanted to travel by a charter plane to Palani Temple, Deccan Aviation found an old abandoned airfield in Dindigul for landing. This led Gopinath to have his pilots to map across India, over five hundred existing but unused airstrips and airfields.  Then on a trip to the USA for a helicopter convention Gopi got to fly with Southwest, the mother of all low-cost airlines. It was 2002, USA operated over 40,000 commercial flights a day, India operated only 420. Before launching a low-cost airline, Gopi, in his usual style, wanted to speak to the best person on the field – he found Connor McCarthy, deputy COO of Ryan Air under Michael O’Leary. Mr McCarthy sent a 2-page contract and billed Euro 13,400 for talking with Gopi for 16 hours over two days in Dublin.

After meeting with McCarthy in March 2003, Gopi gave himself six months for the launch of the new low-cost Airline. Once again, Mr Ladhani, the original angel investor for Deccan Aviation, agreed to fund Rs.5 Crore. The model they would go for was to connect the small towns and cities to the metros; and the pricing was to be different and will be about 25 to 30 per cent above the AC first class in Rail. India’s civil aviation was filled with corpses of several private airlines including East-West, NEPC, Modiluft, Damania, UB Air and Gujarat Airways. There was a near triopoly status between Indian Airlines, Jet Airways and Sahara. And this was the space Gopinath was entering.

He met with then Minister of Civil Aviation Mr Rajiv Pratap Rudy, through Mr Venkaiah Naidu, to whom Gopi sold his vision of an LCC. The first three airfields Deccan will start operations were to be Vijayawada, Rajahmundry and Hubli. Gopi went to Toulouse in France to meet with the CEO of ATR, Mr Jean Michel Leonard and he got them to sell them five aircrafts with all possible assistance – Deccan will pay an hourly lease rental and ATR will maintain the aircraft end to end. Then Gopi assembled his core team – Capt. Rajiv Kothiyal joined as the Chief Pilot & Employee #1 of Deccan, Ms Vijaya Lucose to manage cabin crew, Mr R. Krishnaswamy to head airport services, and the next was Mr Ajay Bhatak for the IT.

Deccan wanted to sell directly to the traveller through the Internet and not through the agents. The tickets were to be sold on discounts when bought in advance of 180 days. The leaders in legacy Airline ticket booking software were Saber, Galileo and Amadeus. For Low Cost Carriers (LCC), Navitaire based in Denver, owned a software platform called Open Sky. Not wanting to take risk on a critical component, Gopinath wanted to go with Navitaire and their team was discussing for four months with Deccan and Citibank who were to provide the payment gateway, only to realise their system won’t integrate with Citibank and an upgrade is not yet planned. Pushed to a corner, Gopinath signs with an Indian software company Interglobe Technologies who had showed great energy and enthusiasm to develop the booking software within forty-five days.  The system would allow passengers without a credit card to place a hold on the ticket for a few hours to go to a Deccan’s city office and pay in cash. The maintenance of computers, VPN & LANs across airports was outsourced to HCL.

As with the helicopter business, the approvals and clearance from DGCA, Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS), AAI and Ministry of Civil Aviation took time. But with the minister Mr Rudy making an announcement in the parliament on the launch of a LCC called Air Deccan the bureaucracy read between the lines and things started moving. This required meetings with then Defence Minister Mr George Fernandes. The DGCA headed by Mr Satyender Singh, known to be a stickler for rules, quoted a 1937 Aircraft rule refused permission to have the aeroplanes painted with advertisements from Sun Microsystems and NDTV, and went with sending the files directly to the Minister Mr Rudy for approval.

Air Deccan’s mantra was to be “Safe, Swift and Profitable”. To make the buying of tickets, Deccan tied with many retail outlets including internet enabled India Post offices & Reliance Internet Cafes. In the initial years, Air Deccan didn’t even serve water for free, tied up with Gopi’s wife Bhargavi’s bakery for the food that was being sold onboard and later to Café Coffee Day, these brought revenues instead of becoming a cost centre. So did the outsourcing contract of the In-Flight magazine to the publisher of Men’s world magazine.

The first commercial flight happened on the 23rd August between Hyderabad and Vijayawada with Mr Chandrababu Naidu and Mr Venkaiah Nadu on board, unfortunately a small fire broke out in one of the engines which was immediately put out. But this cased huge uproar in the media which Air Deccan had to navigate through. Then, to scale the business Air Deccan discussed with Singapore Airlines and Sir Richard Branson to invest, but the deals could not go through because of India’s FDI rules at that time didn’t allow them. They also had issues with Citibank, who were taking two-and-half minutes to complete the payment gateway transactions, so Air Deccan moved to ICICI.

R K Laxman's Common Man - Air Deccan
R K Laxman’s Common Man – Air Deccan

A big coup for Air Deccan was of Gopinath’s meeting with the famous cartoonist Mr R K Laxman who is known for not agreeing for his works to be used in advertisements. In this case he readily gave permission to Gopi to use his “common man” as the mascot for the airline. Even after the stock market crash, Air Deccan managed to raise $75 million from their IPO. Following a warning from the former operations head of Gujarat Airways, that Air Deccan must scale fast, or risk losing their key professionals to the new airlines that are about to be started. Though Gopinath took measures towards this, it was not enough to prevent the warning to come true in the later years. Gopi decided to order 60 Airbus A-320 planes for a staggering value of Rupees 12,000 Crore with just over a crore in the bank account. Deccan introduced e-coupons for frequent travellers and the Re.1 and Re.500 tickets if booked in advance.

As they scaled, they faced a lot of issues of cancellations and delays. So, Gopinath hired Mr Warwick Brady from Ryan Air as the COO who sourced other experts from British Airways, Ryan Air and KLM. This was the time of the emergence of new airlines including Spicejet, Kingfisher, Go Air, Paramount and Indigo. Kingfisher begun to aggressively poach the employees from Air Deccan and offered them with inordinately high salaries – the exact problem that was warned to Gopi by the senior person from Gujarat Airways. Around this time, Gopinath had met with Mr Vijay Mallya on his invitation in his palatial residence – the meeting showed to Gopi how different the two were.

As Air Deccan solved one problem, another kept popping up. Their turnover had crossed Rs.2,000 crores and there was little debt. But a major misfortune happened to the IT system and it collapsed. The reservation software had been outsourced to IGT which was headed by Mr Rahul Bhatia who had assured them the same features and scalability as that of Navitaire and that was not happening. On top of it, Rahul Bhatia had now tied up with Mr Rakesh Gangwal to launch their own airline Indigo, in direct competition to Air Deccan and Indigo had selected Navitaire over IGT’s, showing their lack of faith on their own software. This forced Air Deccan going in for a reservation system from Radix, a US-based IT company. But the switch was not smooth, as Radix didn’t have correct data from the IGT’s system on tickets that had been sold, which led to double-booking for the same seat. This led to a massive storm brewing against Air Deccan.

Hand-written tickets of Air Deccan in 2007 [I suppose they should've been around the time the IT problems were happening]
Hand-written tickets of Air Deccan in 2007 [I suppose they should’ve been around the time the IT problems were happening]
This was also the time Air Deccan was losing about Rs. 1 crore every day, not a huge sum for an airline, but was surely incinerating their capital. Vijay Mallya was sending overtures to invest in Air Deccan, but Gopinath decided to sell to Reliance Mr Anil Ambani, initially 26% and later 51%. Unfortunately, Reliance deal kept getting delayed. Unable to risk any further, Gopinath capitulates and agrees for an investment from Vijay Mallya. The deal was for an initial deposit of Rs.200 crores for a 26% stake, then an open offer for 20% with a total investment of Rs.1000 crores. The stock which was trading at Rs.125 was sold to Vijay Mallya (Kingfisher) at a premium price of Rs.155. Vijay Mallya kept his word and did the whole Rs.1000 crore investment.

After that, the problems between the two started, which were primarily around the culture and what the business meant to Gopinath and to Vijay Mallya – for the former, it was getting the common man to fly, for the latter it was to provide a “Good Time”. This led to the rebranding of Air Deccan to Kingfisher Red, raising the floor prices, eliminating Re. 1 and Re.500 tickets, offering free water, cutting of loss-leading routing and not rerouting the freed aircrafts and so on. Finally, Gopinath had to surrender and agree for a full merger with Kingfisher. Briefly, before that Air Deccan stocks reached a peak of Rs.330 and commanded a market cap of US $ 1.1 Billion. Thus, ending on a high-note a fascinating part of Gopinath’s journey with Air Deccan.

Kingfisher Airlines in 2006
Kingfisher Airlines in 2006

In India, the cargo logistics were not matured. For example, Air Deccan, to get a spare engine once from Delhi to Calcutta, there were no direct cargo flights big enough to carry one, they had to fly the engine out of India to Singapore, then from Singapore to Calcutta (sending an aeroplane engine by road would have voided its warranty). This incident had seeded an idea with Gopinath, who decided to start his next venture to be that of an integrated Air Cargo provider. For that he selected a FedEx veteran Mr Jude Fonseka and with him on board starting for a new journey. The book was authored in 2009, so the story stops there.

Closing notes:

This is one of the best autobiographies I have read, and I wish an abridged version will be included in school syllabuses across India. May his tribe of fearless entrepreneurs grow increasingly in India.

Reading through the book, I wish I had used my experience in National Cadet Corps (NCC) during my school days to opt for a short-term service with the Indian Armed Forces after my graduation – it would’ve turned me into a better leader.

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