Secret Diary of an Entrepreneur / CEO-2018

"How conscientious my dad was about service had a lasting impression on me"

Secret Diary of Ajay Bijli — Part 1

Vishal koul

I may not be the epitome of a perfect human being, but my parents always kept me grounded, and instilled in me that you need to be a good human being before you can become anything else.

I was born into a business family. Since 1939, my grandfather had been running a road freight business — Amritsar Transport Co. I grew up listening to stories about his passion for the business and how he kept customers happy. My dad, Krishan Mohan Bijli, worked hard, day in and day out, keeping the legacy alive. I knew early on that I was, eventually, going to follow in his footsteps.

Even as a student, seeing the effort my parents put in, I wanted to make sure that I never let them down. While they are the wisest and most knowledgeable people I know, they hadn’t been to the best schools or colleges. So, when we shifted from Amritsar to Delhi, they enrolled me in Modern School.

Coming from my modest background in Amritsar, I had to prove myself in this upmarket school. So, I was a conscientious student. There were opportunities to excel in a lot of extracurricular activities, be it in sports, debates, plays, drama and music, and I was getting distracted. I wanted to do everything. My grades suffered and Mrs. Sahai finally called me out. “You are always in the middle of the class and never in the top 10-15,” she said. I made an effort to do better. 

Even as a kid, I had started visiting my dad’s office at Connaught Place, which was very close to my school. He used to call me over at least two or three times a week. I used to sit there and watch how he interacted with customers, how well he would treat people and how conscientious he was about service. All of this had a lasting impression on me.

In our business, goods had to reach on time and without any damage. If there was any fault at our end, my dad would immediately compensate customers. No questions asked. Little wonder that he gained a reputation as an arbitrator. Incredibly wise and well-respected, everyone looked up to him. So, some very well-known business families in Delhi mentioned him in family agreements stating that in the event of any dispute, the families would approach my dad to resolve it. It was one such arbitration in 1977, when I was 10, that saw Priya cinema’s ownership wresting with dad. There were seven to eight different owners with a whole lot of differences on how the theatre should be run. In the absence of any consensus among the partners, dad, finally, offered to buy them out. I guess that’s when my subliminal affinity for movies had begun. After school, along with my cousins, I used to watch a lot of movies — Enter the Dragon, Parvarish, Hera Pheri, Mr. Natwarlal... 

Twelfth standard was crucial. I needed good marks to get into Shri Ram College of Commerce. I was actually very keen on going overseas since all my friends were going abroad. But my dad wanted me to be around him. My mom seconded him. So, admission into Shri Ram was crucial. I was doing well but, during my final examination, I got nervous while writing the accounts paper. I messed up a question, though I knew the answer backwards. In fact, I had taught many of my friends how to solve it. I lost five marks and ended up scoring 73, just above the cut-off for Hindu College but fell short of Shri Ram’s. I was disappointed. 

At Hindu, I spent most of my time playing sports. There was cricket during my first year, and then I switched to basketball. I became the captain of the basketball team and then played for the University. I was doing okay in studies but it was increasingly becoming clear that I will be joining my dad in his business. After finishing college, for two years, I was like my dad’s understudy but didn’t really find the freight business exciting to run. 

When I got married to Selena in 1990, I asked dad to let me run the theatre for six months. We had a brilliant manager, Mr. Sharma, who kept telling me that Priya should be an English-movie cinema house. Given its prime location in South Delhi, English movies did really well whenever we screened them, but along the way we had lost our positioning. I told my dad about the proposal and, to my delight, he agreed.

Those days, Hollywood studios had taken a very big bet on India. So everybody had an India MD or an India CEO running their offices. I went to Bombay to meet them. They could see that I was very keen and determined to revive Priya and make it even better than Archana and Chanakya, the other two theatres playing English cinema those days. They told me there were a lot of things that I needed to do to revive Priya and the best example to follow would be that of Sterling Cinema in Bombay. I went to Sterling and was amazed — just like a kid in Disneyland. The air-conditioning and sound was fantastic, the staff wore uniforms and the entire ambience was brilliant. It was my benchmark to beat. 

I refurbished the entire theatre. Even the artworks were Hollywood-inspired! We had Monroe’s artwork on one door and James Dean and Brando’s artwork on the others. Importantly, we invested over Rs.25 lakh in Dolby Sound. Finally, I invited Warner Brothers’ India team to see what we had done. I was a nervous wreck. But they loved what they saw and said it was even better than Sterling. They gave me the movies and since then, there has been no looking back.

Dad was happy that his son had found his calling. Within a year, we had recovered the capital of around Rs.40 lakh that we had invested. Of course, two other things helped me. One was that ticket pricing was de-controlled, which meant that for 80% of the seats, you could charge as per market demand and just 20% needed to be sold at Rs.5. Two, the entertainment tax dropped from 60% to 40%. If these two things hadn’t happened, there was no way on earth that we would have recovered the money.

Unfortunately, dad, who was only 60, suddenly passed away in 1992. I was only 25 at that time. I was shocked and also very confused. Should I run the cinema or should I go back to the trucking company? 

I didn’t know much about the trucking business or its financing aspect. My uncle, cousins and a couple of senior people, whom I looked up to, were helping me out. It was a very difficult period as I didn’t really know whom to trust or whom not to. I, eventually, understood the ropes, but in doing so, the cinema took a backseat, with the manager running the business. Complaints started to pour in — the air conditioning was not working, shows were not starting on time and tickets were being sold in black. I realised that I couldn’t run both the businesses even though Priya was a single-screen theatre.

In an adverse turn of events, a huge fire broke out at our warehouse in 1994. No lives were lost but a lot of goods were damaged. Though some of the clients had insurance, most of them did not. My dad’s trait of compensating customers for damages was so ingrained in me that I settled all claims with whatever liquidity we had. We had lost a lot of money. I was devastated. I broke down and told my mother that I couldn’t do this anymore. She said, “Fine, your uncle and cousins will run the trucking business, you can go once a month and see what’s happening.”

She asked me what I wanted to do. I said my dream was to build multiplexes in India after I had first seen the concept at Orlando during my honeymoon. I realised that to fill up a 1,100-seater cinema, day in and day out, was very tough. So, mom said if you want to try it, go ahead. By then Vasant Vihar had become very popular. Nirula’s had opened, McDonald’s was coming in and we had TGIF and Pizza Hut. It became the number one hangout spot. 

I told the community that I was closing the cinema for renovation. They all freaked out. Realising that the occupancy levels wereat 80%, I didn’t want to rock the boat and, hence, decided to find another location. It was around this time that one of the movie distributors, Mike of Universal Paramount Pictures in Bombay, said, “I heard you are going to set up multiplexes, so why don’t you talk to Village Roadshow? They are expanding fast in Southeast Asia.” 

In 1995, I went to Singapore to meet Village Roadshow’s Asia MD, John Crawford. We did some number crunching on the back of a paper. Based on the ticket prices and occupancy levels, Crawford, who was also an accountant by profession, was really excited about the potential of the multiplex business in India. “I have never seen numbers like these,” he exclaimed. We inked a 60:40 joint venture as I was determined that I wouldn’t be a minority partner. A lot of my mentors — Surinder Kapur, Gautam Thapar and Sunil Mittal — advised me to keep the majority stake since I would be doing all the heavy-lifting in India. 

The tough part was finding the right location. Though my partner loved Priya’s location, I convinced them that I couldn’t shut it down for a year since it was my only source of revenue. As luck would have it, I found a good location in Anupam. I wanted to be in South Delhi since I was only keen on playing English movies. Besides, Hindi movies, at the time, had this very strange arrangement of minimum guarantees and theatre hires, whereas English movies were very simple, you just paid a percentage.

The owner of Anupam said he was incurring losses but I was welcome to take a look. When I visited the theatre, I vividly remember, it was playing Razia Sultan and you couldn’t tell Dharmendra apart from Hema Malini on the screen! The sound and projection system were lousy and the place was in shambles, not to mention the stink. My team members felt it was a horrible location and we should not pursue it. But I was all excited. Since the place was in a mess, I knew I could get it for a bargain and refurbish it. Given its catchment area was good, I straight away went to Mr. Ansal and offered him a long-term lease. He agreed. 

We, however, had to change the building bylaws because you couldn’t have four cinemas under one roof. We got a lot of help from the state government and also from Village Roadshow in converting single-screen cinemas, like they were done in the west. We got an architect from England who used to work for UCI Cinemas to help us with the design — four projection systems, one box office and multiple exits while maintaining safety standards. We finally managed to open the first multiplex in India in 1997. Things were busy at home as well. Selena and I both had our hands full — my first daughter Niharika was born in 1992, second daughter Nayana was born in 1994 and son Aamer in 1998.

This is part 1 of a three-part series.


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