Ajay Singh, Entrepreneur and Director, Spicejet

Ajay Singh
Sportsman, entrepreneur, policymaker, art collector, movie buff, turnaround man...There is a lot that SpiceJet's Ajay Singh has done in his life. Sudipto Dey finds out what makes the man tick

In his school days, he played cricket with Shah Rukh Khan. In his working life, he has turned around the loss-making Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), helped draw up the National Telecom policy and IT Act, started budget airline SpiceJet, and is currently in the midst of starting an auto parts contract manufacturing unit. To say that Ajay Singh’s interests are eclectic would be an understatement.

The 41-year-old director and co-promoter of Delhi-based budget carrier SpiceJet says he is truly driven by two things—sports and movies. He captained his school cricket team, with Shah Rukh Khan as his wicketkeeper, way before the thin line between cricket and movies had blurred. Singh has dabbled in hockey, tennis, football, table tennis and golf. A well-equipped gym on the top floor of his house, next to the TT room, keeps him engaged for at least an hour each morning. However, the family outing most looked forward to remains teeing off at the JP Greens golf course with wife Shiwani and 11-year old daughter Avani.

Sports, says Singh, has been a great teacher, and has helped him in the day-to-day running of his business interests, ranging from airlines to manufacturing, software to energy. "Sports inculcates the spirit of leadership and teamwork. It also teaches you how to act in adversity and press home advantages for your team. Running a business is very similar," says Singh, who was reluctant to join his family business. "Back then, I wanted to be part of policy making in the government," he says. But the thought of having to work under a rigid political system kept him away from the civil services.

Stint with babus

Opportunity knocked in 1995, when he was put in charge of a turnaround team for Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), a loss-making PSU with 40,000 employees and only 400 buses on the road. While turning around DTC operations over the next two years, Singh says his biggest learning—something he had not been taught at B-school—was the need to communicate with stakeholders in an organisation. "I realised how important it was to get employee support to successfully run any organisation," he says.

This was followed by high-profile stints in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s NDA government as OSD (officer on special duty) in two key ministries—telecom and IT, and information and broadcasting. But it was his proximity to BJP leader Pramod Mahajan that put Singh in the spotlight. A recast of national broadcaster Doordarshan and drawing the contours of the National Telecom Policy and the Information Technology Act followed. "I realised the power of leadership in government, and how it can make a difference to the lives of millions of people," says Singh. Those heady days also had their share of duds, such as a proposal to restructure the Prime Minister’s Office on the lines of the US President’s office in Washington DC!

When the NDA government failed to regain power in 2004, Singh says he was virtually without a job. That’s when SpiceJet happened.

Learning to fly

He, along with friends, invested in a defunct airline struggling to get off the ground. "Nobody took us seriously, even competition left us alone, thinking we would fail," he recalls. This, however, gave the airline the room to be what it wanted to be. SpiceJet took off, literally as a garage operation from an office outside the cargo terminal at the Delhi airport. After in-depth studies of the business models of several international budget carrier models such as Ryan Air and EasyJet, and Air Deccan, the country’s first budget airline, Singh finally figured out where he wanted to place his airline. "We wanted to run a low-cost operation, but not a cheap one. Our aim was to be McDonald’s in the sky," says Singh. "Gopinath played a tremendous role in pioneering the low-cost model in the country. His intentions were great, but his model was flawed," says Singh of Captain GR Gopinath, considered the father of budget airlines in the country.

Initially, a lot of time was spent overcoming credibility challenges and putting a professional team in place. "I was involved in every decision, right from the colour of the airplanes and the staff uniform to the accent they spoke in," says Singh. As one of the promoters, his key role was to keep his team motivated. Three years after setting its vision and processes in place, SpiceJet had 17 aircraft and connected 18 destinations across the country. Singh then gradually moved himself to a more strategic role in the company.

Playing the doctor

But the adrenalin rush that comes from the challenge of kickstarting a start-up, or

"Sports teach you how to act in adversity and press home advantages for your team"

turning around a "potentially sick unit", is too difficult to stay away from. Last year, he teamed up with former President of Hyundai Motors, BVR Subbu, whom he has known since Subbu’s Telco days, to bid for and bag Daewoo India’s defunct car manufacturing plant at Greater Noida, for Rs 765 crore. Their plan is to pump in another Rs 500 crore to spruce up and modernise the plant, and contract manufacture engines, gears, components and frames of various vehicles for global original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Ajay has big faith on the project. "It will be a 3,000-people operation in the next two years, and will probably turn out to be a much bigger venture than SpiceJet," says Singh.

The serial entrepreneur in him is also planning a $500 million start-up venture fund before the end of the year, along with international partners. Still guarded about his plans, he says the fund will help him bootstrap start-up operations.

Though new ventures and business-related travel—typically seven to 10 days in a month—puts his work-life balance under much stress, Singh manages to spend the weekends with the family, watching movies. He is currently planning to put up a 20-seater theatre in his basement, with the works, including a giant screen, and the latest digital projection and acoustics system. The price: Rs 15 lakh. But the sheer joy of being with his family wipes out all pecuniary considerations in such matters. With a gym on the roof and a movie theatre in the basement, Singh sure has his house in order from top to bottom.

Art collector

His other major passion is collecting and preserving rare paintings, largely belonging to the Bengal School of Art that flourished during the early 20th century. That was an interest he acquired through his Kolkata-born wife, Shiwani. Over the years, as he learned to appreciate art, their collection grew. Today, the couple owns 300-odd paintings, including some by Noble laureate Rabindranath Tagore, his nephew Gaganendranath, and a few by contemporary artists like Ramlal Dhar and Subho Prasanna.

Singh says Shiwani and he decided to collect paintings as part of a desire to preserve history. Only a handful of paintings are on display in the drawing room and lobby of their South Delhi home. The rest of them are carefully wrapped and tucked away in huge trunks.

"The idea is not to flaunt them. We are just extra cautious about not disturbing them," he says apologetically. The investor in him has also poured some money into an art fund along with some friends. But Singh says he hardly gets time to track its progress. However, he is convinced that over the years, "the price of Indian art will follow a similar trajectory to Chinese art". Is an art gallery next on the agenda? Singh is noncommittal: "Maybe someday".

So, what does he want to do the most in the world? "I would like to travel to newer places, watch more sports than I do now, and at some point, make a comeback to working in the government and public space." Given his track-record as an achiever, chances are, Singh will no doubt make a comeback. That’s an art he has mastered over time.

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