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King of acquisitions

Venkatesha Babu     July 18, 2007

The French Riviera is a favourite holiday destination for Vijay Mallya, who anchors his yacht, Indian Empress, and throws extravagant parties which inevitably become the talk of the town; his guest lists include the likes of steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal. So, from the Riviera, it was just a hop, skip and jump for Mallya to the Paris Air Show where he landed this year to ink an MoU with EADS to buy 50 Airbus aircraft for $7.3 billion (Rs 29,930 crore) over the next seven years.

Over the last 12 months, he has remained in the news with a string of aggressive acquisitions in the liquor and aviation sectors. The biggest and most high profile of them all, of course, was his $1.17-billion (Rs 4,797-crore) takeover of Scotch whisky maker Whyte & Mackay in May this year. This acquisition, at one go, gave him a 10 per cent share of the global Scotch market and also filled in a critical gap in the UB Group's product portfolio. It's also ironic because Mallya has fought a running battle with the Scotch Whisky Association for years over its demand for lower import duties on imported liquor in India. Now that he's an insider in the Scotch market, it will be interesting to watch Mallya's stand on the issue. Then, in July last year, he picked up the wine unit of French champagne maker Taittinger for m15 million (Rs 88.5 crore), even as his overtures towards the parent company itself were rebuffed. And, last month, he picked up a 26 per cent stake in low-cost airline Air Deccan for Rs 550 crore, making him, at one go, the #1 player in the Indian aviation sector.

Known to be a big picture man, Mallya leaves the minutiae to be worked out by key lieutanants. When he took up the reins of the UB Group 25 years ago following the sudden death of his father Vittal Mallya, there were many who doubted his ability to run a large and diverse group. His flamboyant lifestyle-epitomised by his collection of racing horses, luxury, sports and vintage cars and his penchant for throwing lavish parties around the globe-were what seeded these doubts. But he has proved all of them wrong as he steadily took his group from strength to strength. His challenge now will be to integrate all his recent acquisitions into one cohesive conglomerate. But only a fool will bet against him succeeding.

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