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At 31 he borrowed Rs 40,000 from his friend to start a company that would break all the rules of the game.
Fourteen years later K S Kohli is the proud proprietor of Frankfinn Aviation Private Limited, a Rs 450-crore business venture that spans fields as diverse as airline training, hospitality, travel industry and entertainment.
If he has his way -- and he is sure he will -- by 2009, Kohli will launch Air Frankfinn, a low-cost, no-frills, fun airline that will give, he is certain, other established airline companies a run for their money.
He is not afraid of competition and it was this boldness that led him to set up a seven-day course in aviation training at a time when the industry believed in training airline hopefuls for 365 days.
His competitors scoffed. They were almost certain that Frankfinn would fold up. Kohli had the last laugh when the others too started the seven-day training course thereby altering the entire path of aviation training.
Kohli's radical ideas have held this 45-year-old Sikh from Delhi in good stead. In a freewheeling interview with rediff.com's Prasanna D Zore, Kohli spoke about the challenges he faced, his unrealised dreams and his passion for studying, practicing law and how he made it in the world of aviation.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I belong to Punjab but my education, upbringing happened in Delhi. My father was a joint secretary in the Lok Sabha secretariat. My brother's a CA and I am a criminal lawyer practicing in the Supreme Court and various high courts in India.
When did you decide to become a criminal lawyer?
I joined the Bar Council of Delhi in 1995 when I enrolled as a lawyer. Law is my first passion and love. Like some people read books or comics for recreation, I enjoy reading various Supreme Court and high court judgements. I am very good at criminal law.
I have my own legal firm K S Kohli and Associates. In the library at my office I have more than three to four crore books and various packages of legal software. You name the country and we have it.
The first case that I contested and won successfully was against Zee's music programme Philips Top 10. This was hosted by Pankaj Kapur and Satish Kaushik. They portrayed two Sikh youths who each wore a turban but had no beard or moustache. Zee's case was handled by a battery of famous lawyers led by Mr Arun Jaitley.
They argued the case for six hours but I put in my case only for half an hour and won the case. A bench headed by justice M M Sethi in New Delhi's Tis Hazari brought an injunction against Zee's Philips Top 10. At that time I was only a new entrant but fought the case successfully against the best lawyers in India.
By the grace of God, K S Kohli and Associates has not lost a single case since 1995-1996.
How long did you practice law before Frankfinn happened?
Frankfinn was established in the year 1993 and I started practicing law only two years later. It was always my desire to start a business in education and training. Very specifically I wanted to start something in glamour education. Before 1993 the only two glamour training programmes were for modelling and acting.
I was never convinced that these two businesses can help me have an all-India footprint. I was waiting for an opportunity and in 1993 when the government allowed an open sky policy, I could see, with my vision, that in times to come India would witness a big boom in the aviation, hospitality and travel industry.
Frankfinn Aviation Private Limited company was formed in 1993. We started cabin crew training in 1997.
How difficult was it to start something new and unheard of like cabin crew training?
An air hostess training institute was considered very unconventional till 2001. People did not take this kind of an institute and career very seriously. In 1997 I studied the market. All the air hostess training institutes, back then, had only one-year or six-month training programmes. They taught only technical things like emergency evacuation systems of aircraft and safety measures.
I studied the aviation industry. Most of the applicants for these courses were only 12th 'pass' students. So I started a seven-day courses that would not go much into the technical aspects of (being a member of a) cabin crew. It was a 63-hour intensive training spread over a week. We called it the basic cabin crew training.
During this training we focused on personality development, grooming, leadership qualities, attitude building, communication skills, group discussions, extempore speech, a module on customer care, apart from the technical aviation basics that one needs to know.
We also taught our students how to write their resume, to get noticed during interviews and how to (have) positive body language when interacting with flyers. Most of the training institutes at that time were run by ex-pilots and air hostesses. I was an outsider in this industry.
I was scoffed at by these industry insiders when I came out with my seven-day, 63-hour training course. They thought that Frankfinn will close down soon. But my vision helped me to bring in a revolutionary curriculum. I knew my training programme was very short and I needed master trainers and so hired the best trainers (available) that time.
I hired my faculty from such prestigious places like the Boston University, Jamnalal Bajaj Insititute in Mumbai and from Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. We invited human resource managers from reputed companies to train our students in personality development. These efforts helped us turn around the personality of our students completely.
I took inspiration from the Coca Cola company CEO's statement that a three-day workshop by Shiv Khera (famous for his do it yourself workshops) helped him change the attitude and personality of Coca Cola's employees. If one can change the personality and thought process of a group of employees in just three days then seven days were more than enough for my institute to change the attitudes and personality of our students.
But I needed experts from the fields and I hired them and paid them six to seven times more than what others were paying. I knew quality never comes cheap and I was ready to pay the price. In a way, quality is a habit with Frankfinn.
Quality, honesty and consistent innovation were the three principles on which I built Frankfinn. Within a year, from 1997-1998 we became the number one training institute in the country. Of the students (selected to aviation careers) the maximum number were from our institute. After that I never looked back. From 1997 to 2003 we continued with our seven-day workshop very successfully.
As leaders we continued doing what we thought was right and after that our competitors started emulating our business model because they knew it will pay them rich dividends.
What was the cost of this seven-day programme?
When we started the seven-day programmes we charged Rs 25,000 per student. We were the first to introduce the '100 per cent job assistance' concept. Most of the airlines vacancies were not advertised in newspapers in those days. It was mostly done through the word of mouth. We tied up with Blue Dart, which would help us disseminate vacancy availability to all our students across India.
We not only provided this basic information but gave them ideas on how to dress. If they were going (for instance) for a Jet Airways [Get Quote] interview when they should wear a skirt. If it was Sahara Airlines then a sari. Apart from that, we also informed them about the possible pattern of interviews, how many rounds will they have to go through and all such important aspects of facing an interview.
After this effort, not only the students, but even the aviation industry CEOs started looking at Frankfinn seriously.
In 2003, looking at the overall requirements of airlines, we converted our seven-day training programme into a year-long course. We called it diploma in aviation, hospitality and travel management.
We teach our students (the usage) of the two most important software for e-ticketing and hotel reservations, Galileo and Fidelio respectively. This makes our students 100 per cent employable in the aviation, hospitality and travel industry.
We also offer our students real-time training aboard Airbus 380s, which we lease for training our students. Also, at the end of their course we hire a Jet Airways flight and take our students for an hour's training in flight. The cost of our intensive one-year diploma stands at Rs 1,16,000 per student. To train our students in English we have tied up with the BBC and at the end of their course they get a co-branded certificate from Frankfinn and BBC.
How many students do you train every year and how many centres do you have across India?
Once again we innovated by starting a one-year diploma. Our competitors followed (suit). Since we had to offer the best of everything we started our first centre in Andheri, Mumbai, at a cost of Rs 1 crore. In the very first year of launch we enrolled 25 students in this programme.
Today, Frankfinn runs 120 centres across 95 Indian cities. This makes Frankfinn the largest air hostess training institute in the world.
How much is Frankfinn worth today?
This year our turnover will reach Rs 450 crore. But because of the costs involved in providing the facilities (described) our profit margins are very limited.
In the year 2005 we diversified into the entertainment segment by starting our music label. In 2006 we launched a company called Frankfinn Entertainment Pvt Ltd. In January 2008 we will enter Bollywood and start production of Hindi movies. In the next two to three years, you will see Frankfinn emerge as one of the top three entertainment companies.
What about your plans of starting an airline?
We will be starting our own airline, Air Frankfinn, in the year 2009. Our consultants will be applying for a license and other formalities next month and by March next year our application will be with the relevant authorities. By 2009, Air Frankfinn will be airborne, 101 per cent!
It will be launched as a no-frills, low cost airline. We will provide innovative services to our flyers and give other airlines a run for their money. There are five values that define Frankfinn: quality, innovation, value for money, and fun which will be a very essential component of any Frankfinn venture. We ensure that all our employees and students enjoy what they do and have fun.
We will never enter an industry where we cannot have an element of fun. Frankfinn is, also, a very rebellious -- the fifth element -- company. In my entire career, even for the most formal airline meeting I make it a point to dress very casually and attend wearing sandals, jeans and a T-shirt.
In any industry we enter we like to change the rules of the game. When I started the seven-day course I broke many stereotypes in the industry. People may have scoffed at me but then I went against the industry norm and made them eat their own words.
Also, in the movie and music industry Frankfinn was the first to launch the DVD and VCD of the movie Risk at Rs 45, much before Mauser Bauer started the same business model. All of the industry bigwigs, like Mahesh Bhatt [Images], Yash Raj Films, called me to ask about my experiment. In a way, we also changed the way in which the music industry functions today.
If you look at Frankfinn's history I began my business by borrowing Rs 40,000 from my closest friend Arun Kumar. I could have easily borrowed Rs 2,00,000 from my father. I wanted to start something on my own without my father's help. Had I failed with my efforts I would have surely taken money from my father. But today I have created a business worth Rs 450 crore from that Rs 40,000 borrowed from my friend. Of course, I repaid the amount only four years later in 1997 when I start Frankfinn. Arun is a part of Frankfinn today.
How many students are enrolled for all the courses offered by Frankfinn?
Till the last year we had some 60 centres across India. Every centre has a capacity of 200 to 250 students. Last year we had 14,000 students enrolled with Frankfinn all over India. And more than 90 per cent of this number was meaningfully recruited in the aviation, hospitality and travel management business.
Last year we had an exclusive tie-up with Air Deccan, wherein they recruited cabin crew only from Frankfinn. No airline will tie-up with only one training institute exclusively unless they are confident about the quality and standard of its students. This is the best example of a third party testimonial that (indicates that) Frankfinn's training is of the highest quality.
Apart from that our students are also recruited by national and international airlines like Go Air, Paramount Airways, Spice Jet and Gulf Airways and Eitihaad Airways.
Any other dreams that you hope to translate into reality?
Frankfinn has gone international this year. We inaugurated our first centre in Dubai in October. We plan to set up 50 more centres abroad in the next two years. My unrealised dream as of today is to start my own airline, Air Frankfinn, which I shall start by 2009. Also, I would like Frankfinn to emerge in the top three names in the entertainment industry in the next two years.
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