NEW DELHI (Reuters) - With one of the world’s most expensive yachts and a cricket and Formula One team, Kingfisher Airlines’ billionaire Chairman Vijay Mallya is known as “King of the Good Times” for a jet set lifestyle that shadowed India’s own rise as an economic power.
Now India’s “Richard Branson”, a symbol of the hands-on, publicity-hungry and ambitious Indian entrepreneur, faces the possible collapse of his debt-ridden Kingfisher Airlines -- and some soul searching about his extravagance.
His troubles have coincided this year with India’s own slow growth, high inflation and corruption scandals that threaten the entrepreneurial self-confidence of an Asian economic juggernaut that likes to see itself taking on the world.
Like other billionaires including Mukesh Ambani and his $1 billion Mumbai home, Mallya both fascinates Indians aspiring for wealth after generations of forced frugality and jars with others in a country where around half live in poverty.
”While he was doing well, he was signifying the resurgence of India. To a very large part of the middle class, he was what everyone wanted to be,“ said Prahlad Kakkar, a well-known advertising executive. ”He was the symbol of new India - flamboyant, high-risk, wealthy and not ashamed of it.
“Now when everyone is tightening their belts .. there is an eerie feeling that he’s irresponsible.”
Kingfisher has become one of the main casualties of high fuel costs and a fierce price war between a handful of airlines which, between them, have ordered hundreds of aircraft for delivery over the next decade in an ambitious bet on the future.
Rising crude prices, a depreciating rupee and cut-throat competition have eroded the finances of his airline - named after his famous brand of Indian beer - despite industry passenger growth of nearly 20 percent this year.
The 55-year-old Mallya, with his Branson-style flowing silver hair, is chairman of United Breweries (Holdings), a conglomerate with interests as diverse as aviation, breweries, biotechnology and real estate. The group has annual sales of more than $4 billion.
But it is his ownership of Kingfisher Airlines, which accounts for nearly one in five flights in India, that perhaps made Mallya most famous.
He helped transform India’s airline business by focusing on services like good food, personal screens on domestic flights and airline ushers who attend to customers as they arrive at the airport.
“He altogether brought a different level of service into the domestic skies,” said Kapil Kaul, chief executive for the Indian subcontinent and Middle East at the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA), an aviation consulting firm.
On each flight, Mallya appears on a recorded message on the inflight entertainment system, boasting of hand-picking each of the airline’s hostesses who “have been instructed to treat you in the same way as if you were a guest in my own home”.
Worth $1.1 billion, according to Forbes magazine, his lifestyle fascinated many Indians, including the nearly 700,000 that follow him on Twitter.
Mallya flies around the world, dining with football stars and Formula One drivers and appearing with models on photo shoots in locales like Mauritius, continuously name-dropping the rich and famous on his Twitter feed. His 312-foot yacht, the Indian Empress cost almost $89 million.
Highlighting his global ambition, Mallya also owns a Scottish whisky company. He once personally flew in his private jet from New Zealand to Scotland with three bottles of whisky found left from British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1907 Antarctic expedition.
He built a luxury Kingfisher villa in Goa famed for its lavish parties, has befriended Bollywood stars and has a collection of dozens of vintage cars worth millions.
He publishes a Kingfisher calendar of beautiful Indian models - often appearing flanked by them in photoshoots.
“In Mauritius. The 2011 Kingfisher Calendar is going to rock. Great locations, stunning models .... A lethal brew!” he tweeted.
Mallya was the son of Vittal Mallya, a liquor baron whose United Breweries was once a major supplier of British colonial troops in India. He soon made a fortune buying up breweries in the pre-economic reform decades of post-independence India.
Vittal’s U.S.-educated son Vijay took over the UB Group as chairman in 1983 at the age of 28 and quickly expanded the group. Its core breweries and liquor business has around half the market share in India.
Mallaya’s lifestyle is not without critics, with some saying it is directly linked to the airline’s problems.
“Mallya’s flamboyant lifestyle is responsible for the debts that Kingfisher Airlines has incurred,” Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray was quoted as saying by local media.
“He has many businesses -- liquor, IPL and F1 teams. He has many bungalows and a cruise boat. He himself does not know how much he spends on cheer girls during IPL (cricket) matches.”
The BJP said it would oppose a state bailout for Kingfisher, which means pressure will remain on Mallya’s United Breweries to keep the airline in business.
“Those who die must die,” Indian auto industrialist Rahul Bajaj told local media, referring to Kingfisher Airlines.
Mallya himself says he will bounce back, and often criticises what he sees as a sensationalist press out to get him.
“To write the epitaph of Kingfisher airlines constantly is not fair,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Anurag Kotoky and Annie Banerji; Editing by Jon Loades-Carter