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Verve Man
January 27, 2014

The Sky’s The Limit!

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographs by Sukil Tarnas and Khushboo Agarwal

Former model…proud father…one of the youngest CEOs in – and the current poster boy of – the aviation industry. Recently anointed to the hot seat, 32-year-old Mittu Chandilya returned to his homeland to pilot AirAsia India.

  • Mittu Chadilya
  • Mittu Chadilya

He made waves in aviation circles, grabbing instant eyeballs when, at 32, he became one of the youngest CEOs in the aviation industry. So, I schedule an appointment with Mittu Chandilya in his hometown, Chennai. The model-turned CEO, AirAsia India, promises to meet at the end of a long working day. At sundown, I am in a five-star, waiting for the Chennai-born head honcho, who is poised to test his wings in his new domain. He strides in and, attired in a formal suit, the now 33-year-old Chandilya is good-looking enough to give any top model or star a run for their money. Taking the compliment, and my reaction to his age, in his stride, Chandilya plunges into a freewheeling chat about his journey to the hot seat.

On being offered the job when he was still 32, Chandilya remarks, “I didn’t jump at it. They had to renew the offer a couple of times before I accepted it. Then, I didn’t have a passion to be a CEO, for in the second company where I had worked I was the youngest general manager and was on the fast track to get the top spot. I gave that up because the job posed a huge stress to the family. At that time, my number one dream was to be a good father; everything else in my life was a means to that end. When the AirAsia offer was made, I was living in Singapore and my wife, Inga, was expecting our third child. It didn’t make any sense to take a role I found very risky, especially since my family and I were settled. But, the second time they had a discussion with me about the job, the business was coming together, and by then I knew who the partners were. Ratan Tata was personally investing in it and it all started to make a lot more sense.”

Chandilya decided to take the plunge that would help him follow a long-nurtured dream. He points out, leaning back in the swivel chair, “I had a vision that I would come back to India, not in a run-of-the-mill role, but in a position where I could really impact society. As the head of an airline company in a regulated environment, I believe that I have the ability to open it up. I also feel that the impact has to be not just financial. I need to have the ability to go beyond that and impact our airspace, our entire eco-system. So from the outset, I made it clear that I would not take directions from someone else.”

The newly-minted CEO headed homeward, unperturbed by the new domain he had wandered into. “I’m not a stranger to challenges. Hailing from a consulting background, I know what makes a business leader successful.

And even though I am not from aviation, I’ve actually been working with the industry for the last 10 years. What I bring to the table though is a fresh perspective that is always going to push our team strategically – and I have a ‘Can do’ attitude.

Today, he has resettled in Chennai – where incidentally his story began. Chandilya has not forgotten his roots or his background and remembers with particular fondness his great grandfather who was a freedom fighter. “I would spend hours sitting with him,” he recalls, “listening to his stories about the Independence struggle and how people could work for the government but not earn enough money to take care of their kids. He wanted his children to study. I grew up hearing real-life tales about my father and his older brother sharing a school uniform – one would attend school in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Then they would wash the uniform at night. Food was mostly potatoes and my grandparents said that if they wanted anything else they would have to work for it. On my mum’s side, my great grandfather worked for the British in a bank. So, my values are a mix of both backgrounds – and there is a real pragmatism as we have been brought up to be humble. I have a younger sister – she calls me her second father as I have always taken care of her. When I had my business and I sold it, I paid for her university, her ticket to the US and I bought my parents a house in Canada. That meant a lot to me as I was just around 20 years old then.”

He has been influenced by the several places he lived in to become the man he is – simple and grounded. “You appreciate the simplicities of life – even if it is just taking a walk or hopping into an auto. I believe in hard work and that sculpts you. But, over the years, I developed an interest in modelling and things that were aspirational. My stint in the US also added to my mindspace, but I was always very Indian.”

As I chat with him in between moments where he effortlessly poses for the camera, I realise that one of the earliest turning points for the young Chandilya was his stint at boarding school and the sacrifices his parents had made. He states, “I was born when my mother was 20 and still at university. I have a special bond with her and when I was sent to boarding school at nine, I saw how much it hurt her. Her emotional struggle remained in my mind. I was always a good student. I have never smoked a cigarette in my life, I was always very careful with money and I worked hard to put myself through school and university. I wouldn’t say I was a model kid; I had motorbikes and girlfriends, but I was always respectful and did not cross limits in what I did. Today, as a parent, it will kill me – for I don’t think I could ever send them away – but I’d love to put my sons in boarding school. That really benefitted me as I matured early. My best friends were a lot older than me, and even today some of my closest friends are in their 50s.”

While at school, this multi-faceted achiever wrote poems – about life, scenery, and as he grew older, about the woman he was going to marry, a lady he had never met. His artistic streak perhaps stems from his mother who paints. On her influence, Chandilya laughingly says, “I love roses, so I used to always give a rose to a girl on a date. My mum said you have to treat every woman in the same way that you would your mother or sister. Never put a woman down. In fact, she told me to cook for a woman. She told me that in her time, women were not used to that. So, if I did that, any girl would appreciate it forever, even if the final dish was burnt. To date my father makes coffee for my mum, even though it’s the worst coffee ever!”

His role models, apart from his parents, are many. One is tennis ace Stefan Edberg. In business, he looks up to the Hungarian-American business magnate, investor, and philanthropist George Soros. Chandilya emphasises, “I idolise him because he maintained the balance between making a lot of money and giving it back. I also respect Mahatma Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose because they had a vision and they stood up for it. And when I was in the US I did some modelling – a few of the actors were also role models for me. I was offered a role in a TV serial there, but I felt it was not for me, especially not in the US where it is just a token presence.”

Chandilya does not feel his age works against him even though normally respect is measured in terms of years spent in the business. He says with an obvious vein of humour, “I play my age to my benefit. In India there is a hierarchical system and the more grey hair you have, the more respect you get. But, I have always done things early. I took on a business in the US when I was 21 and was managing people as old as my dad. It is important that you know yourself. If I walk into a room like a kid, I know things are not going to work out. So I read everything I need to know. I even tried to research you and the magazine. What I have always prided myself about is the fact that when I walk into a room people may think that I am a kid, but when I walk out, they see me as a peer, realising that I bring substance to the table.”

Chandilya is ready to take the battle to the skies. He says, “A lot of my qualities of being a fighter come from my father. I’m very aggressive. I take risks that are calculated and that’s a big part of who I am. I believe that life is too short – if I am stuck in one place, I get jittery. So, I am best in start-ups where you either don’t have a plan and I can build out of ambiguity or you put me in a situation where things are going really badly and I rip it apart and start again. I’m no good in a situation where you want me to maintain the status quo.”

By now he has changed into more casual gear and we are strolling down the corridor in the business centre. He leans against a wall, appearing every inch the model he once was. It is evident that fitness plays an important role in his life. He states, “The biggest thing for me is managing a good work-life balance. I take pride in being a great lover, a great husband and a great father because that’s a big part of who I am. Perhaps that is what increases the stress in my life as I am trying to do everything to perfection. For instance I always try to be there for Inga and my boys. Just before coming here, I rushed home, read them a good night story even though they may not sleep for another hour or so and then I rushed here. My oldest is four years old, the second is two and my youngest is just six months old.”

Change has always propelled him to greater highs. Fatherhood was one, but Chandilya, who turned father for the third time around the same time he took on his new job, states, “This time it was not so much of a change as an experience and I thrive on experiences. I’m lucky I have a wife who is very supportive. My new job is the most challenging as a lot of different things are going on at the same time. We are building a phenomenal team. It gives me an adrenalin rush. My day starts at 6 am when the boys usually get up. And this may be the most cliched thing to say but, honestly, I never really switch off. If I am not thinking about work, it is about family. It’s about how I can be a better dad. Often my body is genuinely tired, but the mind is still racing. This is the byproduct of being an ambitious guy from a young age. Everyone tells me life is a marathon, but for me it is not. For me it’s a sprint through these experiences. I create new experiences so that I can keep on sprinting.”

He believes in leading from the front, so I ask him about his leadership mantra. “For me, it’s about constantly doing better. I am never satisfied or complacent for that is when things really go wrong. I compete with myself. I am in a totally different league and am not playing in the same league as other players in the sky.”

As our conversation winds to a close, my thoughts turn again – much to his amusement – to his age. He tells me, “You cannot stop looking at me like a kid!” I smile and ask him the inevitable question – having achieved so much at a young age, can burnout be far behind? He replies in a completely serious mode, “It is often stressful and tiring. But I do not get tired because the mental stimulation is so high. I don’t do a good job of taking time off. I haven’t had a vacation in roughly four years. My experiences are about doing everything, but I want it all to be revolutionary. I want to create legacies. So, I tell my team, if you are good and you are truly passionate, I will make you a star – but you have to deliver to my expectations, which are very high. Eventually, there will be a burnout – and it will hit me sometime. But I have not hit it yet!”

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