Life & Style | People

Adopting a revolutionary approach

Captain GR Gopinath's pioneering efforts in low-cost air travel in India have met with success

  • By Nilima Pathak, Freelance Writer, Friday
  • Published: 00:00 April 8, 2011
  • Friday

  • Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Captain GR Gopinath.
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From riding a bullock cart to becoming owner of the country's first low-cost commercial airline, Captain Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar Gopinath's rise has been remarkable. He is several things rolled into one: innovative farmer, army officer, hotel owner, motorcycle dealer, airline owner, writer and even politician.

As founder of founder and managing director of Deccan 360, a cargo airline in India, his methods and philosophy could be used as a model for management students and professionals alike.

He explains his approach to me over lunch at New Delhi's Taj Palace hotel. "You see things and you say, ‘why?' - I dream things that never were and I say, ‘why not?'"

It is this way of thinking that pushes him to take the road less travelled. Many years ago, working as a farmer in his ancestral village in the state of Karnataka in southern India, he decided to use donkeys to help ferry water into his village to ease the water transportation crisis. Despite becoming the butt of many jokes, his unconventional methods brought much-needed relief to the villagers.

As a farmer, he also revolutionised methods in silkworm farming for which he received one of the most prestigious awards in the world - the Rolex Laureate Award.

Then in 2003, with the launch of Air Deccan, a low-cost, no-frills carrier, he ushered ina new way of air travel for the average Indian. "My idea was that a passenger should be able to buy a ticket as easily as he bought a bottle of shampoo across the counter," he explains.

In less than four years Air Deccan became the largest airline network in India, connecting 69 cities daily. "I think the simple law ‘If something is not economically sound, it is not economically viable' applies to every aspect of life," he remarks.

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Although initially there were doubts from some quarters regarding the viability of the venture, Captain Gopinath was determinedto succeed. "When people say somethingcannot be done, don't accept it easily. Instead, get into the habit of checking the rule book yourself. Because persistence and perennial enthusiasm are more important than capitalor talent," he says.

Meeting him gave me a chance to gain insight into the mind of man who, in 2006, was awarded the title ‘Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur' (Knight of the Legion of Honour) - the highest civilian award conferred by the French government and, in 2007, received the Laureate Award in the Outstanding Global CEO category by Aviation Week, New York.

Born on November 13, 1951, Captain Gopinath grew up in the village of Gorur (a remote village in Karnataka's Hassan district). He attended the Sainik School in Bijapur after which he joined the National Defence Academy in Khadakvasla, Pune.

He was commissioned into the army as a second lieutenant and while in the Artillery Officer's Training School in Deolali, near Nasik in Maharashtra, the 1971 Indo-Pak war broke out - a war in which he fought. His desireto explore new things led him to resign fromthe Indian Army at the age of 27 when he wasa captain. He returned to his village and took to farming.

In 1979, he married Bhargavi and moved to the town of Hassan so he could send his daughter to a good school. However, he continued to visit his village to carry on his farming activities.

The money he earned from farming was funnelled into many small enterprises, including a motorcycle dealership, a hotel and an agricultural consultancy. In 1992, he moved to Bengaluru.

The huge metropolis reacquainted him with his old army friends and one of them was Captain KJ Samuel - affectionately called Sam - who, having left the army in his early forties, was working as a freelance pilot.
 
Sam was toying with the idea of setting up a commercial helicopter service. Gopinath decided to gointo a partnership with him and in 1995Deccan Aviation was born.

It quickly became the preferred means of travel for most politicians and its helicopters were seen everywhere during election campaigns. In the years that followed, Deccan Aviation was involved in many rescue missions in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Kabul and south India.

Having tasted success with Deccan Aviation, his next ambition was to set up an airline. India's growing middle class, he realised, had enormous economic power.

"I wanted every Indian to fly at least once in his/her lifetime." A chance meeting with a South African entrepreneur gave concrete shape to his dream and in 2003 the low-cost airline Air Deccan was launched. Then, in 2009, he launched Deccan 360, a cargo and express logistics airline. "My vision is to make Deccan 360 ubiquitous across the length and breadth of the country," he says.

I l Me l Myself

Life in the army was wonderful … but it was too regimented for my liking.

I had a miraculous escape from death once. Incidentally, it was not during a war but during peace! On a posting to Kashmir in 1974 I went on a climbing expedition. Half way up the mountain, I lost balance and hurtled 12 metres down to a glacier. My arm was crushed. I was airlifted and eventually moved to the base hospital in Srinagar. Though I regained the use of my arm after a lot of medical attention and many sessions of physiotherapy, my injury strengthened my decision to leave the army and go back to my village.

For about a year after I left the army, I remained medically unfit, but after recuperating I headed out to nowhere on my motorbike. I travelled the length and breadth of India on my bike, armed with a tent and sleeping bag. It was at this time, as I traversed the country that the idea of taking up farming back in my village came to me.

In October 1979, I returned to my village, Gorur. My family and the entire village was bewildered by my decision to leave the army. When I told them what I had come back for - farming - their bewilderment turned to shock. However, I did find support from my father who, after having listed the difficulties a farmer faces, helped me become one.

One of the many interesting things I have realised about people is that they are reluctant to share space with others. It happens on trains, buses and public places. Even if it's for a short time, we subconsciously label the new claimant of the seat next to us as an intruder.

I had the same feeling when I noticedthe approach of the local farmers towards me.The farmers dug furrows in the earth with the help of cattle, uprooting saplings and young plants, which had just taken root in my fields. They thought I would soon encroach on their land, as there wasn't a marked boundary of the farm land. But soon, I got the surveyors to mark the boundaries.

My stint as a farmer made me aware of the hardships and problems of rural life, be it a loan that I was chasing or finding a guarantor to weed, plough, sow and protect the crop.
On the other hand, I was also inspired by the zest for life of the farmers who had mastered the art of living with limited resources. People often dropped by to give farming tips. One farmer gave a gem of advice - ‘Be careful not to erode even an ounce of precious topsoil which is holding the world together.'

Modern science encourages farmers to aggressively use chemicals at all stages of food crop production. But what science does not warn us against is the consequence of doing that - the soil is stripped of all its nutrients.

Me l Myself

Me and my trip to the United States: As luck would have it, my lessons and techniquesin farming led to my trip to the US in 1984. I was invited by Rotary International for a scholarship programme.

A doctor, banker, lawyer and farmer were chosen. I was the farmer selected for this group and the programme comprised visits to American farms. I stayed there for six weeks, visiting Vermont and New Hampshire and learning some immensely useful farming practices.

Me and the creative ways of farming that earned me the Rolex award: I revived and improvised a forgotten age-old practice. Farmers used bamboo stems and branches as the cocooning sites for silkworms. The general preference for bamboo translated into a demand for thousands of the plants.
 
Cocoons were harvested on bamboo montages and these required storage space and had to be kept free of infection. Farmers used disinfectants that harmed workers in the vicinity and, eventually, the soil into which the chemical drained.

I decided to harvest silkworm cocoons in paddy straw instead, which could be recycled back to the farm as mulch enriched by the droppings of the worm. Besides harvesting cocoons in paddy straw beds, I did away with bamboo montages. I realised that if this was adopted across the state it would save millions of bamboo plants from being felled and also eliminate the repeated use of disinfectanton the generally reused bamboo montages.

I used a large thatched hut to house the project rather than a concrete building. Thus, there was automatic and better temperature regulation. The interior was warm for the cocoons in winter and cool in summer.

This lowered costs while improving the climate for the silkworm. I introduced new measures at the cocoon-harvesting stage. Because of this, the financial return was lower but my input costs had become negligible. It became profitable andI made respectable earnings. For my sericulture experiment, I received the Rolex Laureate Award in 1996.

Me and my wife: In 1979 my father said that he wanted me to get married and that he already had a girl in mind for me. When I met Bhargavi I told her that I had neither a proper house to live in nor a steady income. All I had were plans to invest funds raised througha bank loan in plantation crops, a cattle dairy and sericulture. She heard me out and said yes to marriage!

Bhargavi and I have two daughters -Pallavi, 27, and Krithika, 22. Pallavi handles the ground operations of Deccan 360, while Krithika is studying.

Me and my brush with politics: One day I got a call from a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) senior member asking me to join the party. The BJP barely existed in Karnataka then. Although I abhorred the idea of becoming a politician, I gave in after much thought.

The State Assembly elections were announced and the party asked me to contest from a constituency in Karnataka. When the results were announced, the opposition candidate won and I suffered a terrible defeat!

Me l Myself

What does a great business involve? When you decide that you won't give up till it happens, then it happens. It's like the realisation that the river has only one purpose: to join the ocean. You need to have that kind of will.

Do I believe that advertising is the backbone of a successful business? Yes, I do believe it is. Thanks to advertising, we raised awareness about Deccan Aviation. First it made people ask if we offered helicopters for sightseeing and charters. Later, people started to enquire if we could fly them non-stop over great distances in the country.

For example, from a place like, say, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh to the mountainous region of Uttarakhand in the north. So, yes, you need to capture the imagination of the public when you'rea new entrant and create an indelible brand impression and advertising helps you do that.

In the recent years, many of my friends have been advising me to take it easy. But I intendto continue.

I believe that successful business people become successful because they take risks. The biggest risk is that once you are successful, you stop taking risks!

Speaking for myself, I become insecure if I cannot take risks. The exhilaration lies in building and creating. I love embarking all over again on a great new journey.

Air Captain GR Gopinath has written an autobiography, Simply Fly: A Deccan Odyssey, chronicling his journey from a remote village in Karnatakato establishingAir Deccan.

Fact

Captain Gopinath once set out on a 10,000 km hitch-hiking trip in the US. He started from Washington DC and travelled to Ohio, Illinois, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Las Vegas, Nevada, Los Angeles, San Francisco and back.

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