Vijay Mallya: A Maverick

Leadership is a constant theme and emphasis at CMC. In fact, one of the ways we describe CMC students is “Leaders in the

Making.” Identify and discuss a person, fictional or nonfictional, who has helped shape culture and thought. You may select

someone from any field: literature, the arts, science, politics, history, athletics, business, education, etc.

Vijay Mallya, an Indian airline and brewing tycoon, is an unconventional businessman. He is the owner of the world’s second largest spirits company and also of one of India’s largest airlines, and his business success is one of many examples of the economic rise of India. However, even in a country where millionaires are springing up by the hundreds, this liquor baron is in a class of his own. A self-styled “King of Good Times”, he lives his life to the fullest and unrepentantly displays his wealth, having no qualms about living the way he does. To the rapidly expanding Indian upper middle-class he is an inspiration, a person who challenges the deep-rooted Indian ethos of saving and sacrifice.Mallya’s father, Vittal Mallya, was a rich industrialist who deftly bought the shares of a brewing company, United Breweries, during a time when the Indian government was proposing prohibition. Vittal’s intuition told him that the government would find prohibition to be impractical, and when the idea was shelved a few years later, he found himself at the helm of United Breweries. When he suddenly died of a heart attack in 1983 at the age of 59, his frivolous 27-year-old son Vijay was suddenly thrust into the chairmanship of a $100 million corporation. For a person braded as a playboy and more into fast cars, planes and women, this change was dramatic. Vijay handled it smoothly, growing his United Breweries Group into a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, with interests in Brewing, Airlines, Formula 1, Real Estate, Information Technology and Television. His airline, Kingfisher Airlines, is said to be the world’s fastest growing. It offers a premium service at an unapologetically premium price, while still remaining profitable in a low income country like India. However, Mallya’s business success is not the reason for his deep influence on the culture of India’s upper middle class; rather, it is his choice of lifestyle. Unlike the other billionaires of India, Mallya is very visible in the Indian media, hosting and attending numerous parties, buying the latest jet or showcasing one of his 250 odd vintage racing cars. With four private luxury jets, 26 mansions around the world, the world’s most expensive yacht, 200 odd racehorses, and a Formula 1 team, he is looked up to by millions of Indians as their role model. He is regarded as the ultimate lifestyle icon, inspiring the young, burgeoning middle class to live their lives in a very different manner than that of their parents. He has come to represent the success of risk taking and free enterprise, challenging the notion of the previous generation that a fixed salary in a government owned firm was the way to subsist. For a country so marked in the contrasts between the haves and the have-nots, Vijay Mallya immediately strikes a chord with people dreaming about a better life. In the days of socialism in India, between 1947 and the early 1990s, the country was economically stagnant, with the government having almost no success in bringing the country out of the extreme poverty that it was facing. People saved up almost all of the little money that they earned and for the average Indian, dreams always remained dreams. Then, after a financial crisis in 1990, the government has had no choice but to break its shackles on the economy and quite inadvertently, it has unleashed an economic boom of unprecedented scale. With a massive number of people joining the middle class, the way of life that had been practiced for the past couple of generations is being fundamentally confronted. Thus, in this modern, increasingly prosperous India, Mallya’s way of life challenges the mindset of saving that is so entrenched in Indian culture. Mallya probably is more of an icon to the upper middle class than to the lower sections of society, but he certainly gives out a radically new message to Indians declaring that “Greed is good.” Of course, on one hand it can be argued that his lifestyle promotes unabashed consumption and shows no respect for the natural environment, but for the average middle-class Indian, he represents their dreams and ambitions. At the same time, it is true that for the 600 million Indians surviving on less than 2 dollars a day, Vijay Mallya’s life means absolutely nothing. Yet, for the middle class that he has influenced, he has shaped a booming economy made up of hungry consumers with growing disposable incomes. Personally, I respect him not because his lifestyle is one that I seek, but because he is someone who has radically defied existing notions. He is a maverick, and I believe that any far-reaching change in India is going to have to come from people like him who have the courage to challenge the status quo.

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