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The days running up to February 10, 2012—the day Kingfisher joins the oneworld alliance—will be hectic for Vijay Mallya. Getting his bruised Kingfisher Airlines ready for that auspicious occasion is the least of his worries, as Mallya is scrambling to find an equity partner to keep his Kingfisher aloft.
There are a whole lot of issues at stake. Kingfisher occupies as much as 15 per cent of Indian skies and going belly-up is not only an expensive, but also an embarrassing option. Mallya, along with his trusted lieutenant and UB Group president Ravi Nedungadi, are burning up global miles to rope in that equity partner. While it has never been easy for Mallya to work with an outside party, Mallya may just have to bite the bullet and accept one. It is not that Mallya has never worked with strategic partners before. His beer business had some, but they played more or less passive roles. If, in the current tough climate, someone decides to invest in Kingfisher Airlines, it will certainly not be passive.
Mallya may not have the luxury of choice. His lenders aren’t giving away much and his annual interest outflow on the debt of Rs 7,000 crore is more than the market capitalisation of his debt-laden airline. His earlier gambles in his alcohol-beverages business, where he punched much above his weight worked, whether it was refinancing the $600 million debt for a highly-leveraged $1.2 billion acquisition of Whyte & Mackay or the earlier, much-essayed takeover of Shaw-Wallace. When you control 52 per cent of the spirits market and have more than enough operating profit to meet the interest outflow, bankers are willing to sit down and talk. With a money-bleeding airline it is completely a different story.
Much of Mallya’s free-hold assets have been pledged towards the lenders . His associates discuss Mallya’s passion to keep Kingfisher in the air, but rue some of the expansive decisions he has made. For the king to return to the good times, he may have to pull off a great, financial re-engineering and operational overhaul effort, something that may just be out of the ambit of both his abilities and his ego.