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Vijay Mallya: Mr High Spirits
Bhupesh Bhandari in New Delhi
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April 08, 2005

UB Chairman Vijay Mallya. Photograph: AFP/Getty ImagesThe last few weeks have been eventful for Vijay Mallya, to say the least. He has snapped up Shaw Wallace [Get Quote] a full two decades after he started sparring with Manu Chhabria for control of the company.

At the same time, he has settled the row with friend-turned-foe Kishore Chhabria over Herbertsons. With Shaw Wallace and Herbertsons under his belt, Mallya has become the largest player in the liquor business worldwide after Diageo.

Clearly, the heavenly powers are on his side. Not surprising for a man who prays every day, does the entire 42-day Sabarimala fast every year (during which he only wears black), and is a keen follower of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the Art of Living.

Divine intervention apart, Mallya has earned the reputation of a street fighter, a go-getter. His opponents have invariably found themselves on the receiving end of his business acumen. Some time ago, for instance, the Maharashtra government unexpectedly raised the excise duty on strong beer.

More than others, it hurt Shaw Wallace Breweries, Mallya's arch-rival and the maker of such strong beer brands as Haywards 1000 and Haywards 5000, as Maharashtra is the leading market for beer in the country. Grudgingly, the competition had to admit that nobody knows the art of environment management better than Mallya.

Mallya started early in business. He was inducted on the board of Hoechst when he was only 18.

The health of his father, Vittal Mallya, a Brahmin from the Konkan who had picked up United Breweries [Get Quote] in 1947 and McDowell's five years later, had started deteriorating from 1980 onwards and it was left to Mallya to run the business. Mallya formally took up the reins of the business when his father died in 1983.

In the last 22 years, Mallya has grown the business steadily, routinely beating rivals in acquiring brands as well as breweries. The high watermark, of course, was the acquisition of Shaw Wallace. Mallya, to be sure, had shared an intensely ugly relationship with Manu Chhabria.

Matters were made worse when Kishore Chhabria, Manu Chhabria's younger brother, walked over to the Mallya camp with BDA Distilleries (it owned the hugely popular Officer' Choice brand).

Manu Chhabria was livid and never forgave his brother and Mallya for it till his death a few years ago. And every incident indicated that his family would continue the battle with Mallya.

Then a few months ago, Mallya initiated peace moves and both the parties agreed to drop the plethora of cases against each other. And when Shaw Wallace put its liquor business on the block, Mallya was the highest bidder.

Before that deal could be sealed, Mallya made a bid for Shaw Wallace itself. The offer was irresistible and Vidya Chhabria and her three daughters agreed to the offer. It took Mallya 20 years to complete the acquisition of Shaw Wallace.

Several observers make the mistake of dismissing Mallya as just a party animal. (At one time, he was called the playboy of the East.)

Indeed, at various times, he has been photographed playing the drums, smiling from the driving seat of a sports car on a racing track, getting friendly with his horses, partying with the most beautiful people in the country and walking the ramp. But one element is common in all the frames: unbridled glamour.

"That's the way I live. I work hard, up to 18 hours on some days, but I also enjoy life. This doesn't mean that I am irresponsible towards my family. I have adequately provided for their financial security and I continue to do so," Mallya had told Business Standard a while back.

The same fanfare is on view as Mallya prepares to launch another ambitious venture, Kingfisher Airlines, in May.

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