The just-drinks interview – Vijay Mallya, Part II
Vijay Mallya, owner of the UB Group, sits astride an enormous business empire which includes some of the largest drinks operations in one of the world's most exciting emerging markets. In the second part of this month's just-drinks interview, Mallya spoke with Olly Wehring about his companies' activities in the Indian beer and spirits sectors, and the exciting opportunities ahead for the country's fledgling wine market.
In Vijay Mallya's home market of India, The UB Group has an impressive standing. Through its United Spirits unit, the group accounts for 60% of the country's spirits market through a stable almost completely consisting of Indian brands. In a portfolio of 140 spirits brands, the unit boasts 17 so-called 'millionaire brands' - those that have sales of over 1m cases per year.
Some of the numbers are dazzling. Flagship brand Bagpiper whisky is running at annual sales approaching 14m cases, while McDowell's No. 1 brandy, claimed by United Spirits to be the world's largest-selling brandy, boasts a 51% market share in India with annual sales of 8.8m cases. McDowell's No. 1 Celebration rum, the fourth top-selling rum globally, is market leader in the country with sales of 6.6m cases.
Then, in the beer category, UB's United Breweries unit is also a dominant force. Led by the Kingfisher beer brand, United Breweries has 50% share of the beer market in India, with the Kingfisher range backed up by UB Export, London Pilsner, Premium Ice and Kalyani Black Label.
Prior to its sale to Carlsberg and Heineken in April of this year, Scottish & Newcastle owned a 37.5% stake in United Breweries. With the sale, that stake has passed to Heineken, something Mallya is not particularly happy about, given that Heineken already operates in India through its Asia Pacific Breweries joint venture.
Mallya was reported earlier in the year as saying: "They (Heineken) have beer business in India, which has a conflict of interest as Kingfisher is the largest beer brand in the country. I am ready to buy back their shares." Talks between the two are continuing, with Mallya keen to either renegotiate a charter of rights for Heineken, or force the European brewer to offload some - maybe even all - of its existing holdings in the country.
In both spirits and beer, UB also has external offerings. Whyte & Mackay, which the group bought last year for US$1.18bn, has not only added several Scotch brands to its portfolio, but has also handed UB Group access to Scotch whisky for blending purposes. The McDowell's No. 1 Reserve whisky brand - also a 'millionaire brand' - is a whisky blended from both Scotch and Indian whiskies, for example.
UB Group's strong presence in spirits and beer gives it a particularly healthy distribution footprint in the country - something that Mallya believes is key to success in India. "At the end of the day, we have the largest share of mind in the distribution trade," he says. "So, obviously, we use our strengths where required, to put it mildly.
"For companies who just come and try to sell bottled-in-origin products, or products that are shipped to India and bottled locally, it's very difficult to get distribution. That's one of the strengths of UB."
When asked which foreign entries into India have got it right, Mallya has special praise for Pernod Ricard. "They launched their company with some Indian-developed brands as well [as international brands]," he says. "They got themselves into a nice position, where they could straddle both segments of the market. They also gained respectable distribution."
Reports last week confirming that United Spirits has begun discussions with Diageo about a possible tie-up in India prompt the question, who needs who more? Does the multinational need the Indian company, or vice versa? Mallya, for once, is rather predictable with his answer. "Last year, United Spirits' growth in sales year-on-year was more than the cumulative sales of all the multinationals operating in India," he boasts. "That says something. At the end of the day, it's all about distribution. We have a defined universe, of 55,000 outlets, which is minuscule for a country the size of India, but it's heavily licensed and regulated. Because it has big political connotations, you don't expect liberal licensing in India to ever become reality. In that scenario, a strong presence in the distribution chain is very, very relevant. So, it's pretty obvious who needs who."
Looking more broadly at India, I ask Mallya what he sees as the most attractive feature of a market that has caught every drinks company's eye in recent years. "We have a young population," he says. "We produce more than 2m university graduates every year, who are getting good jobs and earning more disposable income. Youngsters are impressionable - they are influenced by television and what they see. They travel outside of India because they can afford it. They come to the west, they see how their contemporaries are living and they obviously want to emulate it.
"The 21-year-old today in India lives a very different life than I did when I was 21 years old, if you know what I mean. Clearly, it's Western tastes."
One example Mallya cites of this switch to the global mainstream is the wine category. Until now, wine has not been anything to get over-excited about in India, where per capita consumption stands at only 10ml per year. But Mallya believes this is about to change, which is presumably why UB Group is set to commission India's largest winery next month.
"The Indian woman has started to drink," he notes. "The conservative nature of Indian society in the past was that an Indian lady would not drink alcohol in public. Now, society has changed. Indian ladies are drinking, and have taken to wine. That's a huge market potential opening up, and that's where we want to be.
|Vijay Mallya, chairman of The UB Group|
"So, the conservativeness of Indian society that existed for several decades has now started to wane. The young, upwardly mobile Indian consumer - of which there are around 300m - is now as western as anybody else."
General consensus is that Mallya is one of the more colourful, flamboyant characters within the global drinks world. That would be a fair description, with Mallya coming across as the king of bling in his earrings and rings. But behind the front is a man who heads up one of the biggest drinks companies in the world, working in one of the toughest drinks markets in the world.
Mallya may have a reputation for being something an operator with all the right connections. The degree to which this may have helped his company on its way is, of course, much discussed in the Indian media, but the fact remains that Mallya's UB Group has arrived on the drinks scene. And the next few years will be all the more colourful and entertaining for it.
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