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Giving flight to his dreams

Mittu Chandilya, one of the youngest CEOs from the aviation industry, is a rebel at heart. The entrepreneur-turned-CEO tells Anu Prabhakar why he loves it when people underestimate him, how he believes in breaking norms and what makes him a committed family man

Mittu Chandilya, CEO, AirAsia India

Mittu Chandilya is, by his own admission, an unsatisfied man. "I think in the core of my DNA, I am an unsatisfied person as there has never been a goal that I have hit and been content with it," says the CEO of AirAsia India, when we meet for a chat at the ITC Maratha in Andheri.

AirAsia India CEO, Mittu Chandilya, at ITC Maratha in Andheri. Pic/Satyajit Desai
AirAsia India CEO, Mittu Chandilya, at ITC Maratha in Andheri. Pic/Satyajit Desai 

But going by Chandilya's fairytale success, we decide that being perpetually unsatisfied must be a pretty great state of mind to be in. He set up and sold his first business at 19 years of age to Coca-Cola in the US and became a company's general manager at 23. And now, at 34, he is one of the youngest CEOs to head an airline in the country. "It all comes back to something my father always told me. That, nothing is impossible," he smiles.

Dressed in a well-cut blazer, with an amiable disposition to match, Chandilya looks every bit the handsome former model that his detractors speak of, often in rather accusatory tones. "Yeah, I know (that people tend to think good-looking men and women are "bimbos")," he says. And is that irksome? "No, in fact I love it. Let them underestimate me," he grins.

Rishi Valley School and the US
Born in Chennai in 1980, Chandilya grew up listening to his grandfather's stories, who was also a freedom fighter. As a child, he spent time in West Africa, after his engineer-entrepreneur father set up a business. "My first job was as a car mechanic in a garage there when I was 15. I am a huge fan of American muscle cars like the Mustang. I was paid little money but I loved being around these cars," he says.

The importance of hard work and a good education was clear to him from an early age. "My father comes from a humble background," says the double masters degree holder. "He and his siblings didn't have enough money to go through school and had to share uniforms — so my father's brother went to school in the morning and my father wore the uniform in the evening. But education is a big part of who they are.

They were also very smart — my father got a presidential scholarship to go to university." Chandilya studied at the prestigious boarding school, Rishi Valley School, in Andhra Pradesh, where he excelled in sports. "I love soccer and tennis is a big part of my life," adds the owner of Bangalore Raptors — Champions Tennis League franchise. He has also trained with the likes of Boris Becker. Such interactions with legends numbed him to celebrityhood early in life. "I am never in awe of anyone and so, I am able to speak my mind," he explains.

The top executive explains that while he gets his IQ from his father, he gets his EQ from his mother — a former model who went on to work with ITC Maratha and Oberoi hotels. "She could instantly connect with people," he remembers. She also constantly pushed him to experiment with new hobbies. "She would save money on auto fares by taking the bus, just so we could have the opportunity to go to class. She was keen that I try out different things and so, I have gone for ballet classes, vocal lessons, and veena classes," he explains.

He, then, won a part-sports scholarship to study in New York, US. "Studying there toughened me up. In many ways, I was naïve. I remember my first essay in an English Literature class, which was on Seinfeld and its impact on American culture. And I had no idea what Seinfeld was! In boarding school, we didn't have access to TV," he chuckles.
But it didn't take him long to find his feet.

At 19, as a student of Lehigh University, Pennsylvania, Chandilya and a group of his friends invented a gadget for cola dispensers which would alert the store manager every time the syrup in the machine ran low, with a beep. Chandilya, who was in-charge of marketing, pitched it to Pepsi and Coca-Cola and the latter bought it off from them. "We also won a grant of $50,000 for which we competed with Stanford and Harvard," he adds.

He also had a brief brush with modelling, after getting "discovered on the street". "I was never serious about it, although it was great fun and I got to hangout with celebrities in New York at parties," says the entrepreneur, who was also offered the chance to play a lead role in the hit TV show, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. "To me, Hollywood was a gamble. I wanted to use my brains as opposed to something that can easily go away, like looks," he adds.

The complete family man
After successful tenures at Ingersoll-Rand Company (where he was made general manager at age 23) and Egon Zehnder International in Singapore, AirAsia India came knocking. Accepting the offer meant leaving his comfort zone in Singapore with his Estonian wife, Inga (who was, at that time, pregnant with their third child) and his two sons and venturing into the aviation industry for the first time.

"But coming back to India was always a part of our plan as I wanted my sons to see where I grew up," he explains. They shifted to the country when their newborn son was only 20 days old. "My wife was introduced to India in a way she will probably never forget. We reached Chennai, I dropped her at the hotel and two hours later, I was gone for two weeks for work," he grins.

Chandilya has been described as a committed family man in several interviews. "One thing I was sure about, ever since I was 12 years old, was that I wanted to be a good father," he explains. He met his wife at a university in Minneapolis, Minnesota, when he was in the middle of recruiting MBA students. "She was wearing this red dress and was hard to miss," he smiles. The couple later bonded over salsa ("My secret weapon," says Chandilya, who used to teach the dance form at a university) and six-hour long sushi dinners. "My wife is more Indian than me in many ways. For instance, one of her favourite curries is sambhar," he laughs.

Getting onboard AirAsia
Chandilya's appointment as AirAsia India CEO in 2013 took aviation pundits by surprise — he was, at that time, a relatively unknown name in the industry. Much has also been written about his unconventional decisions to hire staff from outside the industry (including cabin crew who were uncomfortable wearing formal shoes) and friendships with Bollywood celebrities such as John Abraham (who Chandilya describes as "very sharp").

"The worst criticism came when analysts diagnosed me on the basis of what they read on my LinkedIn profile," says Chandilya. "While hiring, I don't look for the smartest people with the perfect resume. I look for street fighters. I can coach you on tech and communication skills, but I can't teach you attitude or how to work hard," he explains. The CEO's tweets include pictures of him at work — they show him either sharing a meal with co-workers, or cleaning an aircraft.

"I hate hierarchy and want to break down conventions and norms. I hate it when people say CEOs don't do this or that. Not many people know this, but I sit down with my customer relations team and attend calls once a week as I want to hear from passengers directly," he says. He, however, declines to comment on the airline's plans to start operations in Mumbai. We ask him about the December 28, 2014 AirAsia Flight 8501 disaster. "I went to Indonesia and it was not easy seeing what I saw there. It put things in perspective — about the responsibility we carry and it re-emphasised that every little thing that we do is so critical. Safety is number one and the industry here has some of the strongest safety rules," he says.

A love for dal makhani
A painter, Chandilya is also passionate about technology and fitness regimes. "I travel with my shoes. I run every day on the treadmill for three kms and do my weight training and cardio exercises," he says. "After returning to India, all my food cravings have come back, especially for dal makhani!" His favourite destination is Estonia. "It has only about 1.2 million people and so you can walk for hours and miles without seeing a single person.

I also love New York and I want to explore Rishikesh," he says. However, his best trip didn't happen in a glitzy city or an exotic beach destination. To him, the best times were the road trips he used to take with Inga across the US, whenever he had to shift to a new place. "We would pack, drive down and get lost … it was so much fun! When you don't have resources and make do with whatever you have, those times are a lot more special," he smiles.

My Favourites
Film: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Pretty Woman and Top Gun
TV show: Boston Legal
Book: Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't by Simon Sinek
Destination: Estonia
Icon: My parents. And myself, 20 years from now

Inside Track
Born: September 22, 1980
Education: Rishi Valley, INSEAD, Tsinghua University, Lehigh University — College of Business and Economics and Fordham University
Mantra in life: Live life with no regrets and nothing is impossible best advice i ever got: My father and grandfather's advice, which was to be the best human. And my mother's advice that the best way to a woman's heart is through her stomach

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