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Taking off on a philosophical note

LUNCH WITH BS: Ronojoy Dutta

Surajeet Das Gupta  |  New Delhi 

Ronojoy Dutta
Sahara Airlines' Ronojoy Dutta explains to Business Standard how his understanding of Eastern philosophies has shaped his professional career

He stopped reading Harvard Business Review when he was in his early 40s because there was nothing new to learn. But he swears by the teachings of Patanjali, the Indian philosopher who codified yoga and offered a guide to "living the right life".

There is, in addition, another side to 55-year-old Ronojoy (Rono) Dutta, former United Airlines president who is currently CEO of Sahara Airlines "" his passion for Thai food at his favourite Spice Route restaurant (a popular haunt for most Business Standard lunch guests) at The Imperial. So we did not have to quibble about the venue when I asked Dutta out for lunch.

Dressed in a dapper suit, he was there on the dot at 1 pm. I ask him whether his search for a home in Delhi is over. I realised that it is a sore point in his life: he complains bitterly that landlords have been rejecting him because he works for a desi company and they only want diplomats or people from MNCs. So he has no choice but to live with his wife and daughter at the Maurya.

We settle down in the cosy environs of the restaurant (on another table we have celebrity company in Australian super paceman Brett Lee) and order a sweet lime. I am keen to know why Dutta left his quiet life in Chicago as a consultant where he was making pots of money, to the uncertainty of running an airline in India.

It all began during the BJP government's tenure when he got a call from Ashok Saikia in the Prime Minister's Office. The request was simple: could he fly down for a fortnight into India, interact with Indian Airlines and Air India executives, and give a solution on what could be done to make things better?

Before Dutta can answer that, however, it is time to order food. For starters we order dry prawns and vegetarian Som Tum Chae (a tangy Thai raw papaya and peanut salad), which Dutta assures me would appeal to all fish-eating Bengalis.

So what happened to the Saikia offer? Dutta flew down to India, had detailed meetings with the top brass of the two airlines and gave his recommendation in a fortnight: merge the two. But weren't there rumours that he would be offered a top job in either of the two airlines or the merged entity, I ask Dutta. He ducks the question but admits that something might have worked out if it had not been for the government taking too much time.

By then the news that Dutta might return to India spread like wildfire. Naresh Goyal of Jet Airways called him from London and invited him to make a trip to the city. And while on a visit to Kolkata for his nephew's marriage, Sahara boss Subroto Roy called him up and flew down to the city to have a chat with Dutta.

Dutta is right about the papaya salad and the spicy prawns vanish in no time. Dutta narrates his first meeting with Roy in Sahara House in Kolkata. He was shocked because Roy did not ask him anything on what he thought about the Indian aviation industry.

Instead, they discussed Hindu philosophy, the relevance of the teachings of Vivekananda and the Bhagvat Gita. He was hired. Says Dutta: "He vision knows no limits. He sees what can go right, while I am always looking at what can go wrong. It was a perfect match".

For the main course, we decide to try out the culinary delights of Vietnam "" the Tom Cang Kao (jumbo prawns with garlic sauce). Dutta prefers noodles and suggests we try out the Massaman Kae, a lamb curry in roasted peanut sauce. I ask him if the Sahara group is over-stretching itself financially by going international without consolidating the domestic market. And does Roy interfere too much?

The answer is no. Roy flies down to Lucknow once or twice a month with business plans and targets and gives Dutta a free hand. Of course, on some issue like a new brand for the airline, Roy's involvement is more "" he is the final authority.

Dutta also says that unlike Jet Airways they are not going overboard on the international market but are financially prudent. So when South African Airways offered them A-340s like they did to Jet, Sahara refused to buy them because the price was too high.

Jet bought the aircraft.

Dutta reveals that Jet also bought slots at a high price in Heathrow and again Sahara decided that the price was too high to run a viable operation.

I ask Dutta about his not so successful stint in United Airlines. His most traumatic experience was during September 11, 2001. At 8 am that morning, Dutta walked into the CEO's room with the news that a United Airlines flight had suddenly lost contact with the ground.

And then when they knew what was happening, there was panic all over: an air hostess on the UA's San Francisco-Paris flight picked up the phone to talk to ground control but kept quiet. Dutta and his team assumed it had been hijacked. Another flight landed in Kansas and then took off again.

"We thought the terrorists had control over it. All flights were first ordered to land to the nearest airports. Transporting so many people to their destinations was a logistical nightmare," Dutta remembers. He virtually stayed in the office for over four to five days. When flights resumed, there were just a handful of passengers. The result: the company went down under.

The food is at our table and we attack the prawns and dig for a few pieces of lamb in the curry. I ask him what forced him to quit the hot seat in UA and why did he fail to turn it around? Dutta blames it on labour. He says he put together a scheme to reduce costs by $2 billion, which meant everyone had to take an average salary cut of 30 per cent.

"The board was filled with representatives of unions as they owned equity in the company and they thought it was crazy. I had no option but to call it quits" says Dutta. He also started a low-cost airline for UA. It ran well until the pilots said they needed to be paid more and that was the end.

Dutta says he is looking forward to enjoy the Durga Puja in Delhi this time, though he has been an active organiser of the festivity in Chicago. But is he religious? After all he visited Tirupathi with his wife recently. He recounts how at 33, he had a successful career and was rising in the US aviation corporate ladder.

But there was something missing and made him feel dissatisfied. Dutta took to reading philosophy and slowly life took a new turn as he understood the subtle nuances of western and eastern philosophy.

It's his favourite subject. Western philosophers like Plato and Aristotle sat near the Aegean Sea and looked at finding answers of how we should lead our lives externally, how we should govern, what kind of society we should live in, amongst others.

But the Hindu philosophers told us to look inwards and discover peace within. That is what Patanjali taught "" how to lead a good life. Dutta hopes to combine both in his life.

And does he? Dutta says that he has had to make compromises on his philosophical undertones after he came to India. In the US, following the satvik philosophy (do good and good will come to you) was not a problem. In India, he realised that that would not do ""you had to follow rajasik philosophy (diplomatic with a will to fight back) if you wanted to succeed in business.

The lunch over, Dutta has to rush for a meeting with the Honeywell chief executive. I add in the last question "" how does he spend his spare time? He does not think much about golf.

At the moment he reading D H Lawrence's classic Sons and Lovers which his daughter bought him recently. He enjoys long walks with his wife in the morning. As I bid him goodbye I get a feeling I've just met a man who is looking desperately to be remembered in the country where he was born.

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First Published: Tue, May 10 2005. 00:00 IST