It’s half past noon at Udyog Vihar, Phase IV, in Gurugram. There is a continuous bustle in the narrow lane leading to 319, a non-descript building that houses the country’s second-most profitable airline. The contours of the eight-storied structure aptly epitomises the company’s credo — low cost and no-frills. The spartan reception is teeming with crew members who have come to attend a training workshop. As the decibel level ups with the constant chatter of the crew, the receptionist requests them to vacate the reception. “Sir is on his way”, she says. Within seconds the crew dissipates as Ajay Singh, steps out of his Mercedes and walks into the building.
It would be easy to deduce that the 52-year-old founder, clad in blue jeans and a red t-shirt, is feared by his employees, but conversing with chief financial officer Kiran Koteshwar reveals the deep sense of respect that the staff has for Singh, who owns 60% of the airline. It’s not surprising given that a majority of the 8,000 employees owe their jobs to the IIT-Delhi alumnus, who resurrected the airline from a near-death experience four years ago. Having joined in 2005 when Singh had teamed up with Bhupendra Kansagra to run what was then called ModiLuft, later renamed SpiceJet, Koteshwar has seen it all. “I respect [Kalanithi] Maran but the unfortunate truth is that this is an industry that needs a hands-on promoter who is equally passionate about the business. The idea of a professional management is still utopian in the Indian context, especially for a sector that’s as nascent and evolving as aviation,” says Koteshwar. The owners of Sun TV group had in June 2010 bought out Wilbur Ross and other investors in a Rs.7.46 billion deal that saw the politically-affiliated businessman acquiring close to 38% stake, which subsequently rose to 66%. After a decade of losses piling up to Rs.6.87 billion, the airline had turned the corner with a profit of Rs.614 million in FY10. But things began unraveling after FY11 with the airline slipping into the red over the next three years with losses totting up to Rs.18 billion.