Mr. Vijay Gopalan joined Air Asia India as the CFO in August 2013 and was a part of the team that set up India operations for nearly two years. Prior to AirAsia India, Mr. Gopalan worked as finance controller of Indian operations of Compass Group, as well as manager with consultancy and audit firm Ernst and Young in the United States and the United Kingdom in various industries including oil and gas and hospitality. He is also a chartered accountant with over a decade’s experience and holds an advanced diploma in marketing and sales from the National Institute of Sales.
Hailing from a family of musicians, he is a trained singer and has bagged gold medal at the South Asian Universities music festival in the year 2000. He started off as an emcee in the initial stages of his career and still nurtures his passion for live performances.
We had the chance to explore the lighter side of his personality, and also seek some sound advice while he was on campus for IIC’s flagship event Horizons 2016. Find out what he had to say during his interview :
1. You have been at E&Y, have been an academician who’s worked with the ICAI and with IIM Ahmedabad; a freelance consultant and the ex-CFO for Air Asia. Please take us through the journey.
As long as you are confident of your capabilities you don’t need to worry about anything. I started with E&Y and eight years down the line I knew I could take a break. I needed a break, because it’s very easy for a professional to get into a comfort zone after a point of time; you get comfortable with your surroundings, everything is working for you, and you don’t want to push yourself or challenge yourself any more. That’s the first step towards rotting as a professional.
I took up radio jockeying, acting and tried a whole bunch of things. For doing that you do not need to be aware of your skill sets. Each of us have our own instincts, there always are certain things that we want to do. The problem comes when we sit and rationalize things with our mind wondering whether we are suited for something, what can be the possible outcomes of our decision etc. The moment we cut out all the rationalizing and start to believe that there is an inner calling, you will be able to look at the larger perspective. I never knew I could act. I loved watching movies so I thought let me see how I look onscreen, and I was horrible. Similarly for radio jockeying I just went for the audition and it happened, I never knew I could be a finalist there. For academia likewise I decided to give it a try and it worked, that’s all. It’s all a chance.
2. What role has been the most likeable/challenging out of the vast canvas of opportunities you’ve had so far?
Honestly, academia. I am always available to share whatever lessons I have gathered all this while. It’s a passion. We are a small group of people who actually go wherever we can to disseminate our learnings.
3. It’s a famous anecdote that your first paid assignment was that of an Emcee. I also read once that you wanted to be a professional singer and used to practice at the MRF Pace Foundation. How do you feel things have helped in shaping up such an excellent career?
All this never let me settle down with status quo. That has been the biggest learning. I as an individual am restless, I cannot handle status quo. If I am settled somewhere for too long then I know that it’s time for me to leave. I have figured out that a personality is much wider than just your office or your confinement. So the focus was on developing a large persona, hobbies, interests, conversational abilities etc. That was much larger than talking about debits, credits, balance sheets, profit and loss accounts. The Emcee thing was also helpful in shooting me up, in the sense that I figured that there were alternates available. However I wouldn’t say it boosted my confidence, because that would mean that I am seeking validation of my potential from outside. But at a much deeper level, it set the importance of having a well-rounded personality to be able to do anything. You will become a very boring person if you don’t have alternate interests and your interest is only academics. Honestly I think these extra-curricular activities taught team spirit, challenge of taking a big group of people along with you, small anecdotes and how each of those improves you as a leader.
4. You joined Air Asia in 2013 and were a part of the start-up team back then. Please share a few insights regarding the challenges and peculiarities of that environment and also in the context of setting up prudent financial practices.
The biggest challenge in Air Asia was that it had a small core team comprising all the heads of departments working together with completely different domains of expertise. We had a pilot who was a DFO, we had a hardcore engineer, we had a ground operations personnel who used to roll up his sleeves to get his hands dirty and we had Mittu who came from a different background. So to align all our individual capabilities and interests and channelize them towards catering to the common goal was a fun and challenging experience and I think this would hold true for any project team. The biggest learning was that the larger interest is always bigger than the sum of all our individual interests put together. There’s a bigger picture and you always need to make certain sacrifices. Financial practices were rather the easiest to set up. Since there was no precedent you do not have to undo any practice, it is your way and you work on it as you have envisioned it. The challenge will be in keeping it absolutely simple, in a startup mode, otherwise you would become very bureaucratic and hierarchical. Cut the red tape and keep it to the barest minimum as required by the business.
5. Talking of Air Asia, we’d like to understand this from a strategy point of view. When Air Asia started its operations in India, for a long time it shied away from operating out of Delhi – cost probably being a factor there. Now it is operating though, and it operates out of T3, instead of may be T1, which would probably create a bigger dent in its pockets. Similarly, in Malaysia, they’ve shifted from LCCT to KLIA2. What has been the thought process behind this move?
Well with Malaysia, it was more of a regulatory requirement – the government there asked the airline to move to KLIA2.
You’re absolutely right about Air Asia entering the Delhi sector quite late, but I’d say the decision to move there has been more of a change in the thought process. The idea was to penetrate tier 2 cities, but with Delhi, the connectivity gets better. While operating out of T3 instead of T1 may be a little expensive, there are definite plusses that outweigh whatever little cost disadvantage there is. For e.g., if you’ve been to T3, you know the kind of flight experience there, which is something the airline wants its flyers to experience. Besides, congestion at T3 is less compared to T1, so that helps Air Asia be on time. Most importantly, the idea has always been to position Air Asia as a low-fare airline, but never a cheap airline. In the near future, Air Asia may even be operating out of Mumbai, you never know.
6. How has your perspective towards life changed from the time you started your career to now?
There have been a few added attributes which have come along the way. One of them being an immense sense of gratitude to everybody with whom I have interacted in life. Along the course of your journey you would also actually like to give back to people, be it your family, and be it your friends or unknown people. Another important realization was that all that happened to me was by a freak chance because I am pretty sure if I have made it then there are tens or hundreds of other cases when people haven’t made it. So that feeling made me absolutely responsible and sensible towards this opportunity and towards the stature that I have reached to. The third lesson was taught by my father. Right after I got the offer with Air Asia he told me, “Fantastic, I am proud of u, learn to be humble.” It has taught me humility. Honestly, there’s something beyond our own capabilities that justifies why we get these kind of opportunities. I would be lying if I say that hard work alone made me reach here, there was something beyond hard work, which I possibly can never explain which has played a role in making me reach where I am.
7. Any message for the students here?
Just chill. That’s it.
Interviewed By: Noel Roychoudhury and Vishaal Pathak
Behind the scenes / Research: Tushar Johri
Picture Credits : Himalay Reddy & IIC