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'To dream big has always been my motto': CEO at 27
Prasanna D Zore

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November 21, 2007

Very few people can boast of achievements that M Thiagarajan, the 29-year-old promoter, chief executive officer and managing director of Chennai-based Paramount Airways notched so early in his life.

At 27, on October 19, 2005 to be precise, he launched India's first and only 'business class' airline Paramount Airways. Before that he had set up Paramount Mills in Madurai when he was dabbling in business management.

Apart from that he is an avid stargazer and a hobby pilot. In fact, an interesting incident inside a flight simulator in Frankfurt sparked Thiagarajan's passion for aviation.

"A pilot friend of mine had invited me to view his 747 Jumbo Jet flight simulator in Frankfurt. I was seated in the simulator and my friend was called away. I began to idly press the buttons and fidget with the controls. I created enough chaos to bring the flight instructor running!" said he in an e-mailed interview with's Prasanna D Zore. That incident played a crucial role in Thiagarajan turning into an aviator.

Despite coming from an illustrious family -- his grandfather Sri Karumuttu Thiagaraja Chettiar, a reputed name in the field of textiles and education founded Bank of Madura which has now merged with ICICI Bank [Get Quote] -- this gutsy aviator says that he believes in functioning independently of the family connections. "I believe that one needs to blaze one's own path in life."

And that he has done time and again to prove his point. When most entrepreneurs thought of starting low-cost airlines like Air Deccan and Spice Jet, Thiagarajan purchased the next-generation aircraft from Embraer to give travellers an 'Elite flying experience'.

The other feather in the cap of this 29-year-old is that Paramount succeeded in making operational profits within two years of its existence and boasts of an attrition rate of employees of zero per cent.

Very soon Paramount will spread its wingspan across India � currently it services only the southern sector � for the company is in the process of buying 40 more Embraer jets.

How did it all begin? Who and what inspired you to start an airline business? You had also started Paramount Mills before starting the airlines business. What made you venture into the airline business?

I've always been fascinated by aviation and astronomy. Stargazing is a hobby and the wide expanse of the skies has always captivated me. My first encounter with aviation began when I was holidaying in Germany [Images], many years ago.

A pilot friend of mine had invited me to view his 747 Jumbo Jet flight simulator in Frankfurt. I was seated in the simulator and my friend was called away. I began to idly press the buttons and fidget with the controls. I created enough chaos to bring the flight instructor running!

But the incident, humourous though it was, sparked a very real passion for aviation. After that I started taking the pilot in me seriously and joined the flying school near London [Images]. When the instructor there asked me to fly a Cessna, I told him I only flew 747s. It was an amazing feeling to become a full-fledged pilot with a license to fly!

At 26, I wanted to nurture my passion further taking advantage of the Open Skies policy in India, I decided to set up Paramount Airways. To dream big has always been my motto and it was my desire to create an organisation that would reflect excellence and give me an opportunity to set up a global brand.

By then, I had already established my own textile mills -- Paramount Mills in Madurai, which won a national award for the highest export of cotton products from the Textile Export Promotion Council Of India. My journey while establishing Paramount Mills began even as I was graduating in management.

Having decided to venture into the civil aviation sector I started to assiduously research the various existing business models of international airline companies. This was to primarily understand the trend that was ingrained in commercial aviation. I soon realised that I didn't want to imitate any model.

I knew Paramount had to be unique; a model created to bring out the true joy of flying, to cherish and celebrate the experience of air travel. Paramount Airways is a 'High Value Carrier' -- one that gives you the best comfort in the skies at the best possible price, affording you true value for money and a flying experience that has no parallel.

You come from a very illustrious family. Did that help you when you launched Paramount Airways?

We're a very traditional family with three generations of involvement in the textile industry. My grandfather, Sri Karumuttu Thiagaraja Chettiar was a doyen in the field of textiles who founded several educational institutes and the former Bank of Madura which has now merged with ICICI Bank.

The family is rooted in ethical and traditional values, which include teetotalism and vegetarianism. I have a great passion for literature. As for my educational qualifications, I'm a business management graduate and a qualified hobby pilot.

My grandfather was an industrialist and philanthropist who had made great strides in business and education. He has always been my inspiration. However, I have always functioned independently of the family business; I believe that one needs to blaze one's own path in life.

Are there any advantages/disadvantages of starting an airline business at such an early age?

It is my firm belief that age is never a stumbling block as long as your vision is clear and your commitment to your goals is always your top priority.

Did you start this business on your own? What was the reaction of your family when you started this business?

Yes, Paramount Airways is my brainchild. My family has always been very supportive of the venture. Perhaps my family was a tad surprised that I was seriously considering another venture apart from textiles, over which the family has had a strong hold for generations.

What distinguishes your style of operations from the rest in the space? Who are your competitors?

Paramount Airways, translated literally means the pinnacle or the highest summit -- the peak of excellence.

Paramount Airways is a growing aspirational brand designed with the comfort of the traveller in mind. Our flight pattern is such that there is a convenient flight all through the day to all the sectors we fly. The day return flights have been well received by the business traveller as a great advantage. So we have been able to put together an innovative package of services and offer value based excellence to the discerning flyer.

This has fired the imagination of the customer who is value driven and appreciates a good brand when he sees one. We have differentiated ourselves as a value-based airline in terms of customer-orientation and have been categorised as a 'High Value Carrier' -- a model that is now being followed by other airlines across the world.

Can you share with us the secret behind Paramount Airways making operational profits with only two years into operations when other big airlines struggle to do it?

Dreaming big, a clear vision and sheer hard work makes the impossible, the often untried, happen!

How do you manage an attrition rate of zero per cent at Paramount Airways?

Quite simply -- we provide an excellent environment that nurtures and supports employees at all levels.

We have structured and well managed training programs, which, as a continuous improvement practice, is a great motivator and engages the employees while on the job. Apart from this, we involve each department in leisure pursuits outside of the office, in order for them to bond better and de-stress.

We also have established clear career paths bringing in technology and best international practices in our processes and systems. Our functional heads in key areas have international exposure, having run global airlines. All this, in addition to the right attitude in addressing employee related issues has minimised our attrition.   

We also have specific employee recognition programs and send letters of commendation to those who excel at their tasks.

If somebody has to join Paramount Airways, what are the skills/qualities that you look out for in your potential staff?

I essentially look for the qualities of a winner -- someone who deeply believes in the company's ideals, would be willing to go that extra mile and are completely committed. We basically look for dynamic, creatively inspired individuals. Experience takes a back seat to attitude.

Any important message for young entrepreneurs who'd also want to make it big in life like you did?

My message to young entrepreneurs and readers is this -- persevere endlessly while believing in yourself and your dreams. Nurture your strength of mind and your power of conviction, while exploring our rich heritage and traditional roots. Live life to the fullest and contentment will always be yours!

What are your plans to make Paramount Airways the best airline in India/World?

Right now, the focus is on nurturing and further enhancing our loyal client base, providing as much of value as we can to the entire experience of flying to our 'Elite Travellers'. 

I'm happy that Paramount has achieved global recognition for its unique model and has clearly established a leadership position in the Southern skies where we fly with a 26 per cent market share. What I am really proud of is the fact that Paramount through its unique offering and value-based service excellence has redefined airline travel in the country.

Concepts such as 'fine dining in the sky' with a four-course meal served in opulence and style on our aircraft and other fringe benefits such as valet service, 30 kgs baggage allowance (which is the highest when compared to the economy classes of other airlines), no cramped middle seats, the highest cabin crew per passenger ratio in the world on domestic sectors -- all translates into exceptional comfort and value.

Whether it is the gilded crockery or the linen serviette or the personal warm attention that our cabin crew gives to every passenger, our goal is to pamper our passengers. Every service we provide has been carefully tailor made for this. We take special care to ensure that our signature cuisine is created especially to suit our different clientele's tastes in various sectors that we fly.

A lot of care and effort has gone into seeing that a Paramount experience is a personal experience. We remain the first airline in the world to introduce an 'All Business Class' service bringing in quality differentiation in the basic offering itself. I have often heard people say that flying in a Paramount is akin to flying a corporate jet.

All this is a reflection of the business model that we arrived at after intensive research to understand the psyche of the typical passenger in the flying sector, his need for luxury, comfort and good service, the various business practices in the industry, even at the international level. Today we have largely succeeded in getting the discerning passenger to look at Paramount seriously primarily because of the fact that we are differentiated from the rest and appeal to his sense of belonging.

We have created a product that is aligned with the passengers' beliefs on moving up the ladder as per Maslow's theory of needs. With quality-edge and premium positioning we would like to establish our brand wherever we operate.

Winning the International Arch of Europe Award in the Gold Category in Frankfurt in February 2007 has helped reaffirm our goals. When I received the award from Mr Jose. E.Prieto, Executive President and CEO of the Business Initiatives Directions, he said and I quote "The awarded companies are symbols of commitment to leadership, technology and innovation which make them models for other companies in their sectors."

While the industry was focusing only on Airbus and Boeing we were the first to introduce the next-generation aircraft from Embraer which fly-by-wire. While giving the air-traveller a completely new experience we also made sure of our operational efficiency through this highly fuel efficient jets.

As for our future goals, we would like to saturate and consolidate our leadership position in the south and then get into the western India market which should happen shortly. We shall adopt the same strategy connecting Tier II and Tier III cities with the hub expanding and penetrating the market where possible.

We are in the process of acquiring 40 more Embraer jets over a period of time till 2011. Once we saturate and establish leadership in the western market we aim to have a National footprint by 2011.

Images: M Thiagarajan, CEO and MD of Paramount Airways. Photograph courtesy: Paramount Airways

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