Vijay Mallya's Double Life
urning tyre at Formula 1 races in Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai and Bahrain, cheering filly Set Alight at the Mumbai Derby, galloping to South Africa to watch Royal Challengers battle at the Indian Premier League (IPL). April was busier than usual for Vijay Mallya. But VT-VJM, his corporate jet that boasts of a Picasso as part of its beige and cream interiors, made it a breeze for the flamboyant booze baron.
May has proved equally busy. As the IPL winds down, the corporate jet touched down in the south of France, the playground of the rich and famous. There, the Cannes film festival that brings together the glitterati and global media provided the perfect setting for Mallya’s big party.
Previously, he had held parties at Cannes on his 312-foot yacht Indian Empress or at plush seven star hotels. But there’s no need for that anymore. Just a 10-minute boat ride away, on the picturesque island of Sainte Marguerite, is a $60-million villa that he owns. The black-tie event was hosted there on May 16.
Yet, in the middle of all this, Mallya has been leading a double life. He has spent the past few months negotiating for the survival of his empire. His debts have zoomed. So have his losses. The economic slowdown has made his daring bets of the boom period look like risky gambles. He must stem the losses, or even the healthier parts of his business will fall prey.
Since April, Forbes India has tried to get in touch with Mallya as well as the senior management of his group companies in Mumbai and Bangalore for this story. But the officials have been consistently travelling or too busy to respond.
Image: Shot on location at barefoot resort, Havelock Island, Andamans for Kingfisher Swimsuit Calendar 2008. Model: Tamara Moss
Mallya has accumulated about Rs. 14,000 crore worth of debt spread across his liquor and airline businesses through costly acquisitions of global liquor companies like Whyte and Mackay and a bleeding balance sheet courtesy Kingfisher Airlines. In an email to Forbes India just before we went to press, Mallya said the number is “grossly overstated”. Refusing to answer a specific question on the debt he said, “The UB Group comprises several independent public and private companies…. Each independent company has its debt and its cash-flows and there is no case for aggregation.” However, a look at the published results for six listed companies in the group reveals a total debt of Rs. 14,231 crore for Kingfisher Airlines, United Spirits (USL), UB Holding, Mangalore Chemicals, UB Engineering and United Breweries (UB).
At the core of this battle is Kingfisher Airlines, losing cash at an alarming rate in the middle of the decade’s biggest fall in passenger turnout. The debt on the airline’s books is over Rs. 5,000 crore, much of it guaranteed by United Breweries Holding Ltd., the group’s holding entity. As the airline’s monthly losses have crossed Rs. 200 crore, Mallya has no option but to push for more corporate guarantees from his other companies. Already, UB Holding is seeking shareholder approval for doubling the limit of its corporate guarantees to Rs. 12,000 crore. Most of these will be to support loans taken for Kingfisher Airlines.
It’s a pressure cooker situation inside the airline, say insiders. Four months ago, aircraft leasing company GE Commercial Aviation (GECAS) wrested back four jets it had leased to Kingfisher after the airline defaulted on lease payments. Since then, dozens of other lenders and suppliers have begun turning the screws. Among them are oil companies who have threatened to stop supplying fuel, unless Mallya settles their dues of nearly Rs. 1,000 crore.
The face of the smiling host at the French Riviera hardly showed it, but panic is spreading within the UB group. At Kingfisher, Mallya’s attempt to stem the cash burn has yielded few results and the cash-burn continues this quarter. Five of the A330 aircraft that Mallya so fondly fitted with bars, bartenders and chefs are either parked at airports or flying with many empty seats. The lease rental for each of the long-haul planes is about $1 million a month (Rs. 5 crore), and they are being used to operate the airline’s two international flights to London and Colombo.
If you took a peek into Mallya’s second life in the past two-three months, you would see him stalking the dusty corridors of the ministries of finance and aviation in Delhi, schmoozing with junior bureaucrats that he would have otherwise never condescended to acknowledge. The purpose? To lobby for soft loans and softer terms for airline repayments plus permission for foreign airlines to invest in Indian carriers. But the policy is in a flux and his bitter rival, Naresh Goyal of Jet Airways, has managed to counter-lobby and delay a decision till now.