VIJAY Mallya is in a rush. His helicopter is waiting for him at Battersea heliport for the short hop to Stansted where his private jet is primed for a business trip to New York.
It will be a brief visit in a non-stop schedule, but before he heads off he has agreed to make time to talk about something close to his heart: Scotch whisky.
On Tuesday, Mallya will fly in to Glasgow where he is due to give the keynote speech at the World Whiskies Conference and is expected to be a big draw. He doesn't know exactly what he will say yet – "I don't write speeches" – but the conference will be a chance to talk about the "Indian opportunity".
The flamboyant 53-year-old is unlikely to disappoint. Since getting a foothold in Scotch whisky through his acquisition of Whyte & Mackay, he has emerged as a key player in helping to open up a major market for Scottish distillers, not least because he is a member of the Indian parliament's upper house. But his refusal to be forced to play by the lobbyists' rules has brought him into conflict with the sector. It promises to be an interesting relationship, but more immediately he wants the world to learn about the prize awaiting in his homeland.
"I want to tell the world that we welcome the Scotch whisky industry into India," he says. "There is a lot of misunderstanding about India, probably misunderstanding about how the Indian spirits business reacts to potential growth of Scotch whisky in India. But there is also an opportunity."
It's been nearly a year since the Bangalore billionaire seized that opportunity, paying Vivian Imerman and Robert Tchenguiz 595m for Whyte & Mackay, the fourth largest producer of premium Scotch, and in his words, "the last whisky company big enough to be worth bothering to acquire".
The deal catapulted his United Breweries Group into the world's second biggest behind Diageo, displacing Pernod Ricard and buying him a place at the top table of the Scotch whisky industry with membership of the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), a seat he has not yet taken up.
"We have reapplied to become members of the SWA," he says. "But the SWA has told us that they would require confirmation that United Spirits Limited in India, as the owner of Whyte & Mackay, has to subject itself to the rules of the SWA which I have completely refused. It is improper and way over the top to try and drag United Spirits into the realm of the SWA and I am not prepared to comply with that request. If that means that Whyte & Mackay does not get membership of the SWA then that is fine by me."
If this sounds unduly harsh, it is probably meant to be. There has been no love lost between himself and the industry's main lobbying organisation. Two years ago, while attending the Grand National as a guest of business partner Scottish & Newcastle, he famously rounded on the SWA's chief executive Gavin Hewitt.
Likening the organisation to British colonialists, he argued that the SWA's refusal to recognise India's range of molasses-based whiskies while aggressively lobbying the World Trade Organisation to put pressure on India to relax its import tax regime, was nothing short of double standards. Although he has since publicly made up with Hewitt, the SWA's strategy towards India still frustrates him.
"Why should the SWA be so paranoid about India? I have absolutely no intention whatsoever of making Indian consumers believe that Indian whisky is Scotch whisky or indulging in any passing off or creating confusion in the mind of consumers.
"Indian whisky has its own market, which is an attractive market segment that is growing. Scotch whisky has its own market which is also growing and leads me to believe that India could eventually become the world's largest market for Scotch whisky."
Mallya is well placed to capitalise on this potential. As owner of the UB Group he controls around 60% of India's whisky market. Ironically, he shares the SWA's frustration over the tariff issue, but believes the way to resolve it is through "constructive dialogue" rather than the hardball approach favoured by Hewitt.
"Any suggestion that the state governments are imposing punitive taxes only on imported spirits and Scotch whisky in particular is wrong," he says. "They have a habit of over-taxing the spirits industry in general.
"But the SWA has adopted an aggressive approach and has crossed swords with the Indian spirits manufacturers. What people don't understand is the fact that they share a common interest. In their (the SWA's] fierce enthusiasm to protect Scotch whisky they should not lose sight of the overall industry's interests.
"I believe that the SWA and the Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies could achieve a lot together by dialogue rather than confrontation. Now, having bought Whyte & Mackay, I also want to participate in that opportunity for our brands."
Like Paul Walsh, his counterpart at Diageo, Mallya believes the future lies in premiumisation. In the past 11 months he has stripped out Whyte & Mackay's low margin business, improved efficiency at the firm's Grangemouth bottling plant and introduced a new rare and prestige line.
"When I took over, Whyte & Mackay was more of a commodity company," he says. "We were selling in too many markets in tiny volumes. We have cut it all out. The mission now is to transform it into a premium branded products company and we are in the process of moving our brands into that sector. The aim now is to concentrate on five or six major markets and put all our resources into it."
Mallya points to his time in the US working for Hoechst, a pharmaceutical firm now known as Aventis, as giving him the edge, enabling him to look at things in an "American way, and not in an Indian way".
An only child, Mallya was 27 when he inherited the business created by his father, Vittal, who died of a heart attack in 1983. Vittal formed UB Group in 1947 at the outset of Indian prohibition. Correctly assuming that it was unworkable (it was repealed after just five years), he set about buying up lots of Indian breweries including a controlling stake in Kingfisher beer. When Vijay took over, UB had sales of $100m which he has grown to $1.6bn today. By the time he had assumed control he had graduated in Calcutta, and obtained a doctorate in California.
The first thing he did with UB was shrink the spectrum of the business, exiting a raft of lines to just six areas of core competence. But he admits his first real business achievement came when he persuaded HSBC to fund a 100% buyout of British paint company Berger, selling it eight years later for 66m profit.
His flair has led to extraordinary growth of the business into a number of sectors. When we speak, he is on "UB Group business", which is taken to mean he is dealing with any one of his interests, ranging from agriculture and alcohol, to engineering, technology, life sciences and media.
He is now mentioned alongside the likes of Sir Richard Branson and Donald Trump as one of the world's most flamboyant businessmen and one of a number of increasingly well-known Indian tycoons that includes Ratan Tata (whose company has just acquired Jaguar and Land Rover).
Mallya's personal wealth is estimated at $1.6bn (811m) and includes a glittering art collection and more than 27 houses, including numerous stud farms, South African game lodges and a castle near Crieff. He has a 260-strong classic car collection, one of the largest privately owned yachts in the world, and an Airbus 390 corporation jet that he calls "my apartment in the sky".
Until a few weeks ago he was a partner in India with the Edinburgh-based brewer Scottish & Newcastle, a relationship that will end with the takeover of S&N by Carlsberg and Heineken. The relationship with Heineken – which takes on the Indian holding – is yet to be tested, but it is clear that Mallya is not going to be pushed around by his new Dutch partner.
"I chose Scottish & Newcastle because I had a very good chemistry with them. Sir Brian (Stewart] and Tony Froggatt were people I was very close to and got along well with. I think that is very important in any business relationship."
One thing is certain, if Heineken do want to access the Indian market they are going to have to go through Mallya. As he says: "The foreign partner has a huge opportunity in India but at the end of the day they have to ride on the back of United Breweries which is the 50% market leader and there is a lot that we bring to the table. For instance the fact that we are the market leader in both spirits and beer gives us a very dominant position in the distribution system which is very, very essential.
"Any foreign shareholder in United Breweries that is a brewer – in this case Heineken – needs to appreciate that the Indian market is set to explode. But of course it is only possible by agreeing with me."
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