Global Economics

India's Life of the Party


They call UB Group and Kingfisher owner Vijay Mallya "the King of Good Times," but he's also enjoying a new level of corporate respect

It's no wonder they call Vijay Mallya the "King of Good Times," because the Indian tycoon sure knows how to throw a party. A week after bagging Scotch whisky maker Whyte & Mackay Ltd. for $1.2 billion on May 16, the 51-year-old chairman of India's UB Group Ltd. staged one of his epic bashes aboard his 311-foot yacht, the Indian Empress, anchored off the French Riviera. Among the 300-odd guests were steel baron Lakshmi Mittal and other Indian industrialists, European aristocrats, and celebrities such as American hip-hop artist Jay-Z. A DJ flown in from Mumbai spun Bollywood tracks. And while Indian dishes such as fish Amritsari and Tandoori chicken were served, the wine that flowed all night came from the Loire cellars Mallya acquired last year.

Mallya, you might say, is Indias Sir Richard Branson. Like the British entrepreneur, he has a larger-than-life personality and owns a slew of businesses, from breweries (his Kingfisher beer is a staple of Indian restaurants from Kolkata to Cleveland) to Kingfisher Airlines, a leading Indian carrier. UB Group is the worlds No. 3 spirits conglomerate, after Diageo PLC (DEO) and Pernod Ricard. Mallyas empire also spans engineering, fertilizers, and petrochemicals. Among his personal investments are thoroughbred horses, a game lodge in South Africa, and small newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area. "I'm not making money on [the papers], but it's a fun business to be in," he says. Mallya's latest move: a May 31 takeover bid for Indian low-cost carrier Air Deccan.

Even in a country thats minting millionaires by the hundreds, the silver-maned liquor baron is in a class by himself. His net worth is estimated at $1.5 billion—a figure he doesn't quibble with. And hes not shy about flaunting his wealth, with a collection of 42 homes scattered across the world, 250 vintage cars, a customized Boeing 727 and two other corporate jets, and three yachts—including the Kalizma, a 165-footer once owned by actor Richard Burton. "Everybody calls me flamboyant, as though it's my middle name, but I've always been the way I am," he says during an interview at his sprawling, 10-bedroom Mumbai home overlooking the Arabian Sea. Mallya is dressed down, in jeans and a bright red T-shirt emblazoned with the Kingfisher insignia. But as usual hes dripping with jewelry—gold chains, an antique diamond-studded watch, diamond earrings, and a gigantic bracelet with his initials spelled out in diamonds.

AN EMPIRE AT 27Despite Mallya's obvious success, his freewheeling lifestyle long cost him the respect of India's straitlaced business community. Mallya was only in his 20s when his father died in 1983, leaving him in control of an empire with annual revenues of $100 million. He spent the next two decades winnowing the 22 businesses he inherited—ranging from a brewery to a drugmaker to a battery manufacturer—to just a half-dozen. Those he kept, though, have flourished. Today, revenues for the UB Group run to $1.2 billion. Yet for years, Mallya was dogged by allegations that he dipped into his companies' coffers to fund his lavish lifestyle, something he vehemently denies. "I was born with a silver spoon, so why should I spend the company's money?" he says.

It wasn't until Mallya launched Kingfisher Airlines in 2005 that he earned the corporate acceptance he craved. With its seatback video screens, smartly dressed flight crew, and attentive service, Kingfisher raised the bar for domestic Indian carriers. The five Airbus A380 superjumbo jets Mallya has on order will surely generate additional buzz. After the Deccan acquisition, Kingfisher will be in a strong position to take advantage of an expected doubling in India's air passenger traffic, to 60 million, by 2010. "Mallya has become an important part of Corporate India," says Vijay Chugh, an analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) in Mumbai. "The airline business has changed his profile completely."

Now, he's aiming to go global. Mallya hopes to begin Kingfisher flights to the U.S. and Britain by the end of the year. He's also stocking up his liquor cabinet. The Whyte & Mackay acquisition gives him an international brand in spirits to add to the French wineries he bought last year from Champagne Taittinger. (He wanted the bubbly, too, but was rebuffed.) The spate of dealmaking has powered a 150% increase in the market capitalization of his eight listed companies over the past year, to $3.5 billion.

Still, Mallya remains quintessentially Indian. He refrains from negotiating during Rahukalam, the hours during the day that some Hindu faithful believe are unlucky. And he has his planes blessed at Tirupati, a Hindu temple in southern India, before putting them into service. That's not to say, though, that he thinks his current streak is just a run of good luck. "I had to show the world that I was quite capable of standing on my own feet, making money and shareholder wealth," says Mallya. "And doing," he adds with a smile, "what the hell I wanted to do."

Lakshman covers India business for BusinessWeek.

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