Vijay Mallya, who turned 60 in December, isn’t doing too badly.
Sure, everyone takes swings at him.
And some banks have termed him a wilful defaulter.
But the man—who on Thursday said he was stepping down as non-executive chairman of United Spirits Ltd, the former crown jewel of his shrunken empire—gets to walk away with $75 million that Diageo Plc, which bought a majority stake in the company, partly from Mallya, will pay him. Diageo has also agreed to drop all claims connected to some very serious charges of alleged financial irregularities in United Spirits under Mallya’s watch.
Mallya, who has been downgraded to a former billionaire by Forbes, now doesn’t really have a business group to call his own. His holding company UB Holdings now has 4% stake in United Spirits; he is no longer the largest shareholder in United Breweries; and he has lost management control of Mangalore Chemicals and Fertilizers Ltd.
Vijay Mallya was born in 1955 to Vittal Mallya, the son of an army doctor who quietly built an empire acquiring companies. He was the antithesis of his son and shunned the limelight, so much so that India Today magazine, in a 1982 cover story (a year before his death) said he was almost like Howard Hughes, the famed, but reclusive American businessman.
By 1982, as India Today described him, Mallya Sr was “the undisputed king of the beer, liquor and processed foods industries. His stable of companies include United Breweries, McDowell and Carew, he has a virtual monopoly of the market for squashes, jams, lime juice cordial and ketchup (owning both Kissan and Dipy’s), commands 75% of the domestic pesticide market (Finit), and heads companies that turn out Singer sewing machines, Cadbury chocolates and some of the most commonly used drugs (Hoechst and Roussel)”.
Kissan is now owned by Hindustan Unilever Ltd whose subsidiary Brooke Bond acquired it in 1993. Cadbury was brought back by the parent.
Indeed, the company was entrenched enough in the consumer space to consider launching a cola. That launch, Thril, marked Vijay Mallya’s entry into the limelight.
He never left.
Mallya Jr (whom this article will henceforth refer to as just Mallya) was groomed for the top job by his father and spent time in the US working for Hoechst and Jenson and Nicholson (a paints company he would one day buy, and then sell).
But in 1983, Vittal Mallya died at the age of 59, and a 28-year old Vijay Mallya was named chairman and CEO of the UB Group.
At the time, UB sold about 2.85 million cases of liquor per year, and its beer sales were lower than the likes of Golden Eagle and Mohan Meakins. The conglomerate’s other businesses included pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, paints, petrochemicals and plastics, batteries, food and carbonated beverages and a pizza chain.
Over time, Mallya either shut or sold the pharmaceuticals, batteries and the food and beverages businesses. He spent money diversifying. Apart from Berger Paints, he bought a large engineering firm (Best and Crompton) in 1988; a dying firm called Malabar Chemicals and Fertilizers in a cut-price deal in 1990; and media businesses such as The Asian Ageand the publisher of Cine Blitz, a Bollywood magazine.
Malabar Chemicals morphed into Mangalore Chemicals and Fertilizers, which was bought by Zuari Fertilisers and Chemicals Ltd last May after another takeover battle involving Mallya. UB Engineering (formerly known as Best and Crompton) flourished for a while but is now another defunct UB company after being starved of funds since 2012.
Much of Mallya’s efforts and money, though, went into the liquor and beer business, and his bets proved to be wildly successful.
United Spirits is now the world’s largest liquor firm by volume and sold 120 million cases last year; while United Breweries, the maker of Kingfisher beer, is India’s biggest brewer, far ahead of rivals such as SABMiller.
Over the course of his career, the twice-married Mallya built deep political connections (he became a Rajya Sabha member in 2002) and drew plenty of envy and enmity. His battle with Manu Chhabria is legendary. Mallya was arrested in 1986 for allegedly violating foreign-exchange rules; the allegations were linked to a takeover battle between Mallya and the Dubai-based businessman Chhabria for a liquor company called Shaw Wallace. Mallya was released within a day but Chhabria won control of Shaw Wallace. Mallya would have the last laugh though—in 2005, he bought Shaw Wallace for Rs.1,300 crore from the Chhabria family after his rival’s death in 2002. He also struck a deal with Scottish and Newcastle in 2004, which, at the time, seemed like a sweetheart deal. Although S&N would own almost as much stake as him in United Breweries, it would let him run the company the way he deemed fit, and also give him access to its brands.
That deal marked the beginning of an expensive acquisition spree for United Spirits, topped by the £595 million deal for Britain’s whiskey maker Whyte and Mackay in 2007.
Along the way, he built a reputation for the fast life and flashy parties. He even bought a yacht (the Indian Empress). And in 2003, his UB Group launched the Kingfisher Calendar, which featured top models in bikinis.
Everything else was eventually overshadowed by Mallya’s entry into aviation in 2005. Kingfisher Airlines, launched on Mallya’s son Siddharth Mallya’s 18th birthday, was marketed as India’s only world-class, premium airline with hot food and personable, well-trained air hostesses chosen personally by Mallya. For a while, things seemed fine and Kingfisher quickly became the No. 2 airline in India by market share.
But its extravagance and expansion, largely fuelled by money borrowed from banks such as State Bank of India (SBI), were out of touch with the difficult market conditions.
In December 2007, Mallya announced a buy-out of the low-cost carrier Air Deccan, a shabby, down-market airline, primarily to fly global routes. Indian rules only allowed airlines that had been in existence for five years and Deccan ticked the box. The deal worsened Kingfisher’s already high debt burden. It also heightened comparisons between Mallya, known as much for the breadth of his ambition as his flamboyance, and Virgin’s Richard Branson. Indeed, when he was once asked whether he was the Indian Branson, Mallya laughed and said Branson was the British Mallya.
Between 2009 and 2012, Kingfisher would accumulate losses of over Rs.6,600 crore and debt of over Rs.7,000 crore. Kingfisher shut its budget airline in 2011; in 2012, the firm reached a nadir. It did not have money to pay employees and creditors. Staff began to strike work regularly because of non-payment of salaries. Its bank accounts were frozen; Kingfisher grounded most of its flights which caused hundreds of cancellations and the firm lost its No. 2 position. Soon after, the firm shut operations and its licence was suspended by the government. Even then, Mallya hoped to get a foreign airline to invest in Kingfisher after the Indian government allowed foreign direct investment (FDI) in airlines in September 2012.
But Kingfisher, which had never made a profit, never flew again.
No one knew it then, but that appears to have been the beginning of the end game.
The following three years got successively worse for Mallya. He sold stakes in a bunch of businesses. Some (such as the shares he sold in Cadbury) were residual stakes, but he was also forced to sell a majority stake in United Spirits to Diageo in 2012.
Thursday’s resignation, then, was coming a long time although it took everyone by surprise. Last April, the board of directors at United Spirits asked Mallya to resign from the board after an internal probe allegedly found financial irregularities at India’s largest liquor company. The probe had already claimed then United Spirits finance chief PA Murali, known to be close to Mallya.
While United Spirits sought his removal from the board, Mallya denied any wrongdoing and defiantly continued as chairman.
The fight with Diageo came at a time when Mallya was in a seemingly weak position. His indebted UB empire, built mostly through acquisitions, was shrinking fast. Lenders were cashing out Mallya’s pledged shares as UB companies, primarily the defunct Kingfisher Airlines Ltd, failed to repay loans. Over the past six months, several lenders including State Bank of India and Punjab National Bank named UB Group a “wilful defaulter.”
India’s banking regulator was forcing banks to clean up their books. Since his appointment as central bank governor, Raghuram Rajan frequently railed against the kind of loans public sector banks gave to Kingfisher. In January, Rajan again made a veiled attack against Mallya, who had celebrated his birthday with a typically lavish party the previous month.
“If you flaunt your birthday bashes even while owing the system a lot of money, it does seem to suggest to the public that you don’t care,” Rajan said in an interview with NDTV, apparently referring to Mallya.
Clearly, things didn’t look good for Mallya.
“I saw him a month ago. He was gloomy and grumpy. We did not speak much, unlike in the past,” a person close to Mallya said.
Another person said Mallya grew tired with the frequent legal proceedings.
For instance, Mallya had to physically appear at Esplanade court in Mumbai last year to seek permission from the court to travel abroad.
“Earlier, Mallya used to avoid appearing in the court physically. But now he was forced to appear personally,” he said.
Yet, less than one year after demanding his resignation, Diageo on Thursday agreed to pay Mallya $75 million. And drop all claims connected to alleged financial irregularities by the liquor baron.
“This a clean break for USL (United Spirits), the board, Diageo and their relationship with Mallya and his dubious past. The company had already written down the amounts owed to it by other companies,” said Shriram Subramanian, founder, InGovern Research Services, a proxy advisory firm. “Mallya, too, is free from the scrutiny and glare of USL shareholders.”
However, as far as banks and regulatory authorities are concerned, Mallya is still accountable for his alleged financial irregularities, Subramanian added.
The exit deal with Diageo will not be Mallya’s last.
Entities controlled by Mallya still own about 32.4% of United Breweries (Heineken, which acquired S&N owns more, around 37.5%), 4% of United Spirits and 22% of Mangalore Chemicals. These stakes are worth roughly Rs.7,900 crore (as per current market prices), but more than half the shares in United Breweries and United Spirits are pledged to UB Group lenders. UB Group’s primary investment vehicle, United Breweries Holdings, is in deep trouble. United Breweries, which is listed in Mumbai, has given corporate guarantees worth Rs.8,159 crore to cover Kingfisher’s debt and is facing winding up petitions in courts.
The rapid unravelling of the Mallya empire has been well documented, but didn’t seem likely a few years ago. Until the downfall of Kingfisher, Mallya built an enviously successful conglomerate over more than two decades of canny deal-making.
Advancing years, a momentous failure in the airlines business, a wilful defaulter status, allegations of financial irregularities may have forced Mallya to leave and lie low but knowing the man, a second innings in entirely within the realm of the plausible.