January 30th, 2013 (F1plus / Ernie Black).- Indian business tycoon and owner of Formula One's Sahara Force India team, Vijay Mallay, reminds us of a cross of two former F1 personalities, Flavio Briatore and Richard Brason. A Smooth talker, savvy business man (arguably) with a flamboyant flair. He sometimes imitates that lucky cat with nine lives that surprisingly always seems to land on his feet.
His name has been tossed about in the media for a while now with claims of serious money problems. With a net worth of approximately $800 Million as of October 2012, according to a Forbes report, he's hardly in financial hardship.
Vijay Mallay - Back To The Future:
Before we take a closer look at what is claimed to be Vijay's current situation, let's take a look at how he came to be a very wealthy man.
Please follow me on my attempt to bring you up to speed with a very brief history lesson. Vijay's wealth is primarily generated by the UB Group. The UB group or United Breweries Group was founded by Thomas Leishman in the mid 1800's. Vijay's father Vittal became the groups director at a very early age.
Enter the influence of Mahatma Gandhi. I'm not going to attempt to re-create his biography here. I will however, try to connect some dots that make this relevant to Mallay.
In the early 1900's after he became a leader of the Indian National Congress party. His education, influence and public perception was key in convincing India that alcohol was a bad thing. In fact, prohibition was one of Gandhi's priorities.
His argument was that alcohol promoted unholy behaviour and by removing it from Indian society, the middle class, who would be most likely to use it as a crutch, would be able to help revitalize India. As his campaign for prohibition gained speed and gathered support, shares of brewing companies plummeted. Much to the dismay of the British government, which lost out on revenue due to poor sales. (The Bombay Prohibition Act, introduced in 1949 actually still in place today but rarely enforced, actually requires drinkers (in Mumbai) to pay for a permit to consume alcohol. Some states are considered 'dry' as are some religious holidays.)
During this period, Vijay's father Vittal thought to himself that, Hey, Indian's like their beer. He thought, this Gandhi chap would go away, die or lose influence and eventually Indians would go back to their beloved beer. With this in mind, he started buying up as many shares as could afford. Vittal was right. Eventually, India re-embraced their beer and spirits making him a very very wealthy man. Unfortunately for him, he passed suddenly in 1983 at young age leaving Vijay at the helm of the empire he had created.
So what's all the buzz about?
Mallay's Kingfisher airlines apparently is choked by $2B of debt. Employees of the airline apparently had not been paid regularly. Some claiming that it has been several months since they have been paid. During the time of the Indian GP in 2012, an employee's wife took her own life out of desperation allegedly. Disgruntled employees of the airline protested Vijay and his 'in your face' lavish lifestyle during the Grand Prix weekend as well.
There were reports that Indian regulators had doubts about the airline's ability to operate which caused the airline's license to be suspended and the fleet to be grounded. Tax authorities apparently had grounded Mallay's personal Airbus A-319 luxury jet. A warrant for his arrest as well as some of his executives was apparently issued for passing fraudulent cheques.
The bad news didn't stop there. Apparently, Mallay's administrative offices failed to issue payment of four other jets on lease, which forced US based IFLC to reclaim them. As you can see, I use the term 'apparently' quite freely because I don't want to make a statement which is based on reports by the media and not confirmed by government officials. I have made inquiries, however I'm still waiting for responses from many sources.
Near the end of October in 2011, Mallay and partners sold just over 40% of the Formula One team to an Indian company called Sahara India Pariwar. Thus the name change from Force India to Sahara Force India, which is the company's trading name. This may have been one of the first indications that Mallay's empire was under financial stress.
To explore all possible reasons that Mallay may be running into trouble is a daunting task. He's got his fingers in so many pies, in addition to the airline: Formula One, UB, technology, pharmaceutical and real estate ventures. India's economy is considered to be on a slight decline, and this in a way opens the doors to foreign investors who want directly compete with Mallay for the same slice of pie.
In my discussions with F1 journalist of 30+ years, Joe Saward who knows Vijay personally, I've learned that Vijay really does a knack for recklessly spending his fortunes. I believe his exact words were, He (Vijay) is doing a great job of pissing his fortune away).
Mallay finally caught a financial break late last year when he sold a majority stake in United Spirits, which owns over 50% of the market share to British giant, Diageo. The deal was said to be worth around the $2 Billion mark. This should give Vijay a little extra green in his pocketbook to help quiet down creditors.
The media might be to blame for embellishing the situation and stirring the pot, however, where there is smoke, there is usually fire.