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Profile | 'The great survivor' Naresh Goyal throws in the towel

Financial crises and allegations of dubious funding and muscling out competitors -- Naresh Goyal weathered it all. Nearly.

March 25, 2019 / 06:26 PM IST

Jet Airways founder Naresh Goyal founder has agreed to step down as chairman. For someone who created and nurtured Jet Airways with so much passion, it is time for him to hand over the baton.

Over the course of the past 25 years, Goyal has piloted Jet through several storms, financial and otherwise. He negotiated each of these thanks to his superb negotiating abilities.

With Goyal's innings concluding, here's his back story.

The journey

Goyal entered the travel business after starting a ticketing agency in the ‘80s. Fiercely ambitious, as India liberalized its economy, he set his eyes on the prize: he wanted to open the nation’s first private airlines.


In this, he was beaten by Thakiyudeen Wahid, who launched East-West Airlines in 1992. Jet Airways commenced operations in 1993.

A tumultuous relationship between the private rivals ensued, as both accused each of resorting to dubious practices and funding.

East-West collapsed after Wahid was shot dead in 1995, with the airline succumbing to its debt, and ceasing all operations in 1996. The theory then was that Wahid was eliminated by gangster Chhota Rajan as his airline was funded by the rival D-Company.

This cleared the path to dominate the budding airline industry. It became India's premier airlines, modelling itself after Singapore Airlines – with best-in-the-industry planes, food, livery etc.

About 5 years later, Goyal himself came under the scanner over alleged links to Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Shakeel.

In 2002, the IB said that the airline had received large, questionable investments from Gulf countries and laid out his connections with the two underworld dons. The airline dismissed these allegations as baseless.

The charges, however, weren’t a major setback for Goyal, who navigated the troubled waters thanks to his political connections, and despite a long-running feud with the then divestment minister Arun Shourie who called him the "so-called owner" of Jet Airways.

It was fairly smooth sailing after that as Jet soon gained a majority market share, with Goyal earning the sobriquet ‘The King of Air’. This was around 2005.

Around the same time, liquor baron Vijay Mallya's (now defunct) Kingfisher Airlines came into existence.

To protect its position in the market, Jet acquired minor rival Air Sahara in a deal valued at $500 million, which later became low-cost sub-brand JetLite. The deal backfired as the complications of operating two airlines of completely different models, combined with high oil prices took a toll.

The 2008 financial crisis proved particularly severe for Jet, with the company's market cap falling to a low of Rs 800 crore.

Goyal pulled through this, cutting costs sharply, and even attempted to lay off 1,900 employees in one go. (Following a public furore, he apologised to the sacked staff and asked them to report to work again.)

He inked a code-sharing agreement with Etihad – that start of a relationship that would deepen later. In September 2012, Etihad picked up 24 percent in the carrier after the government liberalized its FDI policy.

In between, news continued to emerge about Goyal's political connections and the way he used them. Such as when it emerged that Goyal may have scuppered the Tatas' plan to form a joint venture with Singapore Airlines in the early 90s – an allegation he denied. (Decades later, Tata and SIA would come together to form Vistara.)

The beginning of the end

Etihad's stake buy in Jet provided a breather to Jet but it did not realise that the market had now fully turned against it as low-cost carriers such as IndiGo, SpiceJet and GoAir continued to acquire market share.

Jet's debt burden continued to pile up between 2014 and 2017. The company went into a tailspin last year, as the impact of high oil prices and a depreciating rupee hit home.

With not enough money left to pay staff salaries, Naresh Goyal faced a stark challenge. It needed to raise money through stake sales even as if that would mean his hold on the airline weakens.

Reports said a round of discussions began with various parties, including Tatas, who made it clear they will be interested in buying a stake only if Naresh Goyal steps down.

The last straw was when Etihad, which had backed Goyal previously, offered the same deal.

Left with no choice, Goyal may have decided to step down, bloodied and weary from one battle too many fought over the course of 25 years.

But even as he goes, he will be remembered as, as Captain Gopinath put it -- the classic first-generation entrepreneur who epitomises Indian capitalism – in all its glory and rough edges.

Note: The copy was updated to reflect the latest developments on March 25.
Vaibhavi Khanwalkar
Nazim Khan
first published: Mar 1, 2019 03:09 pm
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