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Jet Airways saga: Aviation is in Naresh Goyal's blood; he will return to the sector, says former senior vice-president

Jet Airways, the 25-year-old airline, shut down operations on 17 April, 2018 after failing to get much-needed funds to keep it airborne. The Naresh Goyal-founded airline owes more than Rs 8,000 crore to banks. Narayan Hariharan, who worked over three terms as a senior vice-president in Goyal's office, shares anecdotes of his former boss with Firstpost.

It is a sad state of affairs to learn that the airline I worked for over 15 years has pulled down it's shutters. Naresh Goyal, founder and Chairman of Jet Airways, with whom I worked with closely for over 15 years must be deeply introspective at the turn of events that has grounded his once-soaring airline in the Indian and foreign skies.

When I look back, a few things stand out. For instance, Goyal has a hypnotic quality.  He knows what the candidate he is interviewing for a job is capable of and is able to offer just that.

I joined as head of the human resources department at Jet Airways in 1993. I was interviewed and hired by Goyal himself. I got a lot of freedom, autonomy and responsibilities commensurate with my talent. To that extent, I would say the expectations of my job at Jet Airways was met.

After I joined, Goyal expanded my role to include corporate relations and legal work, too. He would also take me along when he went to meet government officials. I was like an understudy. If there were follow-ups, he would ask me to attend those meetings. He reposed much faith in me. I was also a permanent invitee on board meetings. That is how I was able to closely observe how the company was functioning.

The composition of directors on the Jet Airways Board was fantastic. There were former executives from Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Middle Eastern airlines like Royal Jordanian Airways, among others. There were four or five co-directors from these airlines on the company’s board.

Goyal was keen on making Jet Airways a premier airline. He wanted American technology, German engineering, Swiss precision, Asian service and Indian hospitality. He kept repeating these five characteristics when he referred to the airline. This was Goyal’s mental construct. Thus we had Boeing, an American airplane that was maintained by German engineers and all the rest as he envisioned.

 Jet Airways saga: Aviation is in Naresh Goyals blood; he will return to the sector, says former senior vice-president

File image of Naresh Goyal. Reuters

Indian aviation was largely limited to domestic skies until Naresh Goyal entered the sector. India then had East-West Airlines and Damania Airways. Goyal was quite enamoured by Damania Airways’ service which had a personalised Parsi touch to it. However, it is a different case that Damania felt the same about our service too!

Goyal would encourage us to fly on other carriers so that we could give him feedback on our experience which could be utilised for comparison with our service and also to improve it.

Until Jet Airways entered Indian aviation space, personalised boarding cards were handwritten and the sole prerogative of business class passengers flying Indian Airlines. All other airlines gave passengers a boarding pass that only had a number and no name of the passenger on it.

Goyal thought ahead of the times. He wanted to provide personalised service to passengers and so went in search of a technology that would enable the service for Jet Airways’ passengers. He got the technology from a US-based firm Sabre. Goyal was the first person in India to introduce boarding cards with passengers' name printed on it. However, it had an issue. It could only print eight alphabets.

Once Vijaypat Singhania, chairman emeritus of the Raymond Group of Clothing, was handed his boarding pass with his surname written on it as Singhani. He was furious and told the airline, ‘This name is not reflective of my identity’. The complaint reached Goyal when Singhania wrote a mail to him. Goyal soon found a technology that could print more than eight alphabets.

On another occasion, a minister of State for Home, Balasubramanian was upset as he was not identified by the Jet Airways crew. He called up Goyal’s office and made a complaint. I was sent to Delhi along with Suresh Nair, general manager, north to explain and apologise. No complaint was treated lightly, be it from anyone. That was how Goyal took care of his customers.

Air Sahara deal

I was part of the three-member team that was with Goyal during the Air Sahara deal. I think Goyal’s decision to actively pursue the Air Sahara deal came out of a sense of insecurity. In my opinion, he was overwhelmed by the possibility of Air Sahara being taken over by Kingfisher Airlines.

As Air Sahara was already operating international flights, a takeover meant Jet would enter the international market immediately. The competition during those days was between Jet Airways and Kingfisher Airlines.

I think besides the fear element that pushed Goyal to rush into buying Air Sahara, there was also an expectation of the advantage he would have over Kingfisher Airlines with regard to international routes.

There were many discussions and it became a legally fraught battle to acquire Air Sahara. The deal was struck at Rs 1,450 crore. However, Air Sahara was like a black hole as we did not know much about what we had purchased as due diligence was kind of a rushed affair.

Goyal soon realised it was a disastrous decision and regretted buying Air Sahara three to four months later. However, he appointed a family member Rajiv Gupta who used to work with him in the London office to turn around Air Sahara. I think, Gupta managed to do a decent job but soon there were other issues. That is the time Goyal realised the decision was catastrophic.

I remember asking Goyal in the London office, "Why don’t we sort out the matter?" He told me, "it is a business decision that you guys will not understand."

Some of the other issues that plagued the airline were a result of Goyal’s managerial style:

a) He would hire people in the belief that they would add value to the firm, if not in the present then in the future. This created a lot of flab and when we would tell him to cut it, he would not agree. He saw value in everyone he personally hired.

b) After Goyal shifted his base to London and subsequently to Dubai, his management became a remote controlled affair. For meetings, people would be initially called to London and then when he shifted office to Dubai, employees would be called there. The costs of flying in all these people would not be factored in. This was the age of video conferencing but Goyal preferred one-on-one meetings.

c) From 2015, Goyal started frequently using the term ‘disaster’ in almost every meeting. The company was then losing Rs 2 crore a day and it later went up to Rs 8 crore daily by 2018. I think Goyal had an inclination that this loss would haunt him.

A poised and confident boss

When the daily losses started mounting, Goyal would continue to maintain his poise in meetings. However, he would be furious at employees. ‘Your performance is a disaster’ was what departmental heads often heard.

Jet Airways' employees got salaries on par with the best in the industry globally. There was never an issue with money. Increments were good or the best in the aviation industry. There were premium payments for pilots and engineers. Goyal wanted his employees to be paid well as he himself had come up the hard way. He was a generous boss.

To know that the company Naresh Goyal nurtured and grew with much personal attention has been shut down makes me very sad. Goyal employed the best in the industry. However, I am confident that being a premium brand, it will fetch good value.

Goyal will be very reticent for the time being and I think it will take a long time for him to come out of this ordeal. To reach the pinnacle of success and then be thrown off it is very disheartening.

I have attended pujas at Goyal’s home. But he is not a religious person. He has tremendous self-belief and confidence. His strength is in the emotional connect he forges with everyone. Aviation is in his blood. I don't see him doing anything besides being active in this sector.

(As told to Sulekha Nair)

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Updated Date: Apr 18, 2019 19:26:06 IST