In his first comments after deciding to exit IndiGo, Aditya Ghosh, president and whole-time director, said it is better to walk when people ask why rather than when people say why not, adding that he is overwhelmed by the hundreds of messages he has received since the move was announced late on Saturday.
Ghosh was responding to a query by CNBCTV18.com on the reasons for his sudden exit. “I am overwhelmed with the messages. I will be forever grateful for that love,” he told CNBCTV18.com.
On Saturday, IndiGo announced that it has accepted the resignation of Ghosh as president and whole-time director effective July 31, 2018 and April 26, 2018 respectively.
India’s largest airline by the number of planes and passengers carried has named founder Rahul Bhatia as interim chief executive officer. Bhatia will continue as a director, IndiGo said.
In a letter to employees, Bhatia said Ghosh “wishes to explore starting a new business venture.” Ghosh told CNBCTV18.com that he is not ready to talk about the venture yet.
Ghosh has always come across as an IndiGo lifer and his exit has caught the industry by surprise.
Industry chatter attributes the reason for Ghosh’s exit to the string of appointments of expats IndiGo has made in recent months.
Bhatia declared that Ghosh will be replaced by Greg Taylor “in the coming months, subject to receiving necessary regulatory approvals and paperwork”. In January, IndiGo named Wolfgang Prock-Schauer as chief operating officer as it began to prepare for launching long-haul international operations. The airline has also recruited Willy Boulter, a 30-year veteran who previously worked in Gulf Air, Virgin Atlantic Airways and South African Airways, as chief strategy officer and Michael Swiatek as chief planning officer.
A senior executive of a rival airline said Ghosh’s departure was not a surprise given the number of expats IndiGo has hired and how fragmented the senior leadership roles were becoming. “It seemed there was not much left for him (Ghosh) to do,” he said, asking not to be named.
“They (IndiGo) have had a parallel team in place for a long time,” said a senior executive of another airline. He too did not want to be named.
Ghosh said there is no truth to this chatter. “Well, they (the expats) all report into me. We have been saying for one and a half years now that we will have to build the team,” he said, adding that his relationship with the founders is more than just the CEO.
IndiGo did not comment for this article.
Ghosh was indeed close to IndiGo founders, Rakesh Gangwal and Bhatia, veterans of the airline and travel industries. Ghosh, who is a lawyer by profession, was handpicked by the founders to lead the airline three years after launch despite his non-aviation background. Until then, IndiGo was helmed by Bruce Ashby, another veteran of the aviation business.
Ghosh, who holds a post graduate degree in Law from Delhi University, joined IndiGo as an advisor after its inception in 2006. He joined the board on May 30, 2007 and was named president in August 2008 at 32.
Ghosh, who is called ‘Vakil’ within IndiGo, was selected for his ability to connect with employees and leadership qualities, but these would suffice when IndiGo was a fledgling airline. Today, it is truly a big airline.
New Airline, New Leadership
In Ghosh’s own words, IndiGo has grown from 18 airplanes ten years ago to over a 160 today. It flies more than a thousand daily flights and its top line has increased eight-fold over the past decade. The airline now boasts a market capitalisation of more than Rs 55,000 crore with the stock price nearly double the IPO price two and a half years back, according to him.
No doubt, Ghosh, who is married to a former headhunter and has two children, has had a starring role in several of these feats. But within the company and outside, he is known for his managerial skills than aviation chops. Ghosh was the face of the airline thanks in part to the wont of the founders to stay out of the limelight but the airline is actually run by Gangwal, who is a hands-on airline promoter.
Due to the scale and complexity of its operations – IndiGo began its regional operations in December 2017 with a new type of aircraft, the ATRs, and it is preparing to launch long-haul overseas flights – the airline may require more than a face. Stacked against that reality, the hiring of expats, all veterans of aviation, should not surprise.
Aviation industry watchers said Bhatia and especially Gangwal believe that IndiGo needs a new steward for the next phase of growth and they don’t think Ghosh is the man for the job. Ghosh was good for the company from its infancy – his legal background came in handy when the airline negotiated record aircraft orders from Airbus – but not beyond, according to them.
Mark D Martin, founder of Martin Consulting and an aviation analyst, said running an airline is not about just being a good negotiator. “Aditya has served his purpose but now that IndiGo has recast operations, the play is vastly different,” he said, adding that what the airline now requires is genuine aviation expertise.
Martin said IndiGo’s first attempt at international operations was a disaster because it faced aggressive price competition by competitors. “All the more reason IndiGo needs aviation experts as it is preparing to launch long-haul foreign flights,” he said.
IndiGo has also been confronted with one PR crisis after another in recent months. The airline was forced to ground 11 aircraft in February and March after discovering engine glitches. In November 2017, it had to take responsibility for an incident in which its security staff manhandled a passenger at the New Delhi airport and pushed the government to launch an investigation.
The airline was roundly criticised for its poor handling of the incident and lack of leadership. Social media during those days was aflutter with several instances of passengers complaining about the “rudeness of IndiGo cabin crew”.
IndiGo also resisted a move by the Delhi International Airport Ltd (DIAL) to shift partially some of its flights to another terminal to facilitate expansion work. The matter was resolved only after a court battle and IndiGo earned the ire of DIAL, its hub, and the government for its pains.
The first airline executive quoted above said IndiGo lost its way in the last year or two. “It seems to have lost focus on customers and became too aggressive in ways that hurt the brand significantly.”
Staff aggression has now become a recurring theme, he said, adding that the airline lost face after it lost the lawsuit it filed to stop transfer of operations to another terminal. “That macho culture seems to have come from the top.”
A day after the passenger incident in November, Ghosh posted a photo on Instagram after a workout session, dripped in sweat and flexing his muscles.
A Changed Man
Indeed, the demeanour of Ghosh has changed as IndiGo grew in size and clout.
“I find it odd talking about myself,” Aditya Ghosh told this reporter in an interview six years ago, adding that he would prefer talking about IndiGo. Ghosh had agreed to the interview after repeated requests and much persuasion and there was a good chance that “he might develop second thoughts and dash out of the room midway”.
IndiGo then was just six years old, yet to go public, but was constant fodder for gossip about its profitability, when competitors were bleeding, and accolades for its famed punctuality.
If Ghosh then was not thrilled with the spotlight, he has since come to revel in the attention. He is often seen in office parties, dancing even, talks to the press often and active on social media. At least one of the founders is said to have told him to cut short his frequent public appearances and interviews with publications.
Ghosh did not comment on one of the founders frowning on his alleged penchant for the spotlight (a person familiar with the matter said the press has always been unhappy for his lack of appearances and interviews). Instead, he chose to recollect his 12-year tenure at the airline.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” he said. Ghosh said he is also proud that IndiGo is now the fourth largest low-cost carrier in the world. It is the largest and most profitable airline in the fastest growing aviation market in the world, he said.
But his most satisfying accolade, he said, was that IndiGo was one of the best companies to work for 10 years in a row. “Now it is time for a pause before the next adventure.”
This article will be updated if and when IndiGo comments.
First Published: IST