Mumbai: “Being accessible is a big thing for me,” Ankush Nijhawan, Co-founder, TBO Group says during the hour long chat we have at his well-appointed office in Gurgaon, a 55,000 sq. ft. multi-storeyed edifice he owns. I already know this because I connected with him initially on LinkedIn sending him a short message and was surprised to receive a response within no time.
I had heard a lot about his remarkable success story and many sobriquets on the lines of travel czar, game changer, young business turk, visionary and many more. Success rests very lightly on Ankush’s shoulders. He comes across as genuinely warm, extremely articulate, completely hands-on and full of energy even after 18 years of an epic entrepreneurial journey nothing short of a rollercoaster ride.
“Integrity, humility, empowerment and value for people, these are my guiding principles in business and life,” he says.
Born into an illustrious business family with over four decades of standing in the travel trade, Ankush’s tryst with destiny began in 2000 when as a fresh graduate from Bryant College, USA he found himself a misfit within days of joining ESPN.
The Nijhawans then ran Nijhawan Travels, a GSA of British Airways in North, West and South India and Travel Boutique, a small bricks-and-mortar offline business having a presence in Delhi, Lucknow and Jalandhar, with an annual turnover of Rs. 30 crore. He joined as a frontline executive, issuing physical tickets and waiting in queues for visas at the embassies and consulates just like any junior employee in the organization his father Sham Nijhawan and grandfather B L Nijhawan ran. “The next three years laid the foundation of my career,” reminisces Ankush. “When you learn from the bottom of the ladder, you cannot be fooled easily.”
By 2004, thanks to Ankush’s leadership and hard work, Travel Boutique had expanded significantly in the North Indian market, and many trade partners were doing business with them. The reward for good work is more work, it is said. So his father vehemently opposed his plan to pursue MBA saying, “I cannot manage alone what you have built Travel Boutique into, in the last three years.” The best compliment any son could have hoped for.
In hindsight, this was the second major turning point in his professional journey. E-commerce had just started to disrupt bricks-and-mortar business sectors. Ankush was already getting restless with his traditional business because results were not comparable to efforts. Scaling up was appearing to be a Herculean task.
“I was sold on building an e-commerce platform for offering travel services and checking out TCS and Wipro when someone connected me to Gaurav Bhatnagar (Co-founder, TBO Group),” says Ankush. Gaurav who was with Microsoft had returned to India and was evaluating the travel tech space. Both joined hands to build a B2C OTA christened Travel Boutique Online (TBO), leveraging the goodwill of the existing brand. “The swing from B2C to B2B was overnight,” remembers Ankush. “Someone questioned us why B2C when there are already three players there and they have even raised capital. You guys are established B2B players and the trade respects you. At that time, nobody was thinking of going online in the B2B segment and it offered a white space and blue ocean, so to speak.” Today, TBO is the only player that is fully B2B and that strategy has paid off well; others are either dabbling in B2C and B2B, corporate and B2B or MICE and B2B. Some B2C leaders have attempted the B2B space and wound up too.
“Gaurav and I met in 2005, he started writing code in 2006 and in January 2007 the first ticket was printed from the TBO platform,” shares Ankush. Initially the travel partner ecosystem was very skeptical, even assuming it was online fraud. But Ankush’s tenacity and trade relationships curated over the years paid off in the end.
With OTAs bursting on to the travel scene in 2005, TBO was at the right place at the right time offering global airline inventory on real-time basis to brick and mortar agents. Incorporated in 2006, TBO has revolutionized the B2B online travel space and grossed $1.2 billion last fiscal, of which, India pulled in 65 per cent. TBO offers airline tickets, hotel rooms, foreign exchange, rail, car rentals and insurance. The cruise piece will be included before the end of 2018 as it is one of the fastest growing segments not only in India but the Middle East and other markets too.
TBO is a formidable player in the airline business and the undisputed market leader in India when it comes to hotel inventory. In the Middle East, it is growing from being a challenger to a leader in the hotel category. While the airline business is a low margin volume play, the hotel side, which is 35-40 per cent of current topline, delivers a handsome return.
The decision in 2013 to focus on hotels has been a major game changer for TBO. Around the same time, the overseas expansion plan started to roll out with the first outpost being set up in Dubai, a travel market completely untapped then for the B2B space.
The tipping point in the Dubai foray came when TBO signed up with Amadeus exclusively to power their hotel content in the MENA region. Then there was no looking back – TBO piggybacked on Amadeus to every market where the latter was present.
Today, TBO has offices in 26 locations, a presence in 95 countries, regional hubs in Dubai, Netherlands, Brazil, Hong Kong and Australia, and is opening in a new country every month. “The ambition is to touch 150 countries in the next two years from a current base of 95-plus countries,” informs Ankush.
By 2012, the growth trajectory and potential of TBO caught the attention of Naspers, one of the largest technology investors in the world. “Naspers coming onboard then as an investor was a major breakthrough for us,” says Ankush. “It not only gave us the confidence that we are on the right track, but also made me realize that we needed to grow TBO into a truly global brand.”
Fast forward to 2018, and Standard Chartered Private Equity (SCPE) has picked up the stake from Naspers returning the promoters as majority stakeholders. “SCPE can turbocharge TBO in a very big way. They want to throttle faster. What we did with Naspers in six years, we should be able to do with our new investors in 3-4 years,” beams a confident Ankush.
TBO will now be aggressive with acquisitions both in India and abroad. It is always going to be a question of build versus buy and there will be a little bit of both. The focus will be to identify products that complement TBO’s existing bouquet of offerings and pieces that drive further synergies. With a healthy balance sheet and SCPE onboard, growth capital is not a problem anymore. The company is evaluating M&A opportunities in India, China, Indonesia and Europe. “The Middle East and China are top priorities for us to grow,” adds Ankush. “TBO China alone can be as big as TBO Group today. That is the opportunity we are seeing.”
The business is on a strong footing now and there is a highly professional team in place to run global strategy and operations. So Ankush is able to spend quality time with his kids 13 year-old Aadya and 10 year-old Shiv. He sees them off to school and walks or swims four times a week to stay fit. Travelling has reduced from 20 days a month to about 10. Catching up with parents daily is compulsory for him.
Nijhawan Group’s representation business managing a growing portfolio of international destinations like Dubai and hotel brands like Kempinski in India, is led by spouse Priyanka. “I am very proud of what Priyanka has achieved in a short span of time. She has been a pillar of support,” confides Ankush.
He is very passionate about automobiles and has a classy collection of the finest wheels. An avid traveller, Gold Coast, Dubai, London and New York are all-time favourites with Spain being a recent crush!
“I am passionate about anything I engage myself in. If I play cricket, I indulge twice a week. That’s why I don’t start golf. I don’t play poker too because I will be gambling every third day,” he chuckles.
I ask him who his role model in business is and pat comes the reply. “Mr. Rahul Bhatia of Indigo Airlines. He created an enterprise dabbling in aviation, hospitality and travel commerce from scratch. I have been following him closely for 18 years. He is older to me by 20 years. If I am half as big as him in 20 years, I will be most happy.”
Today, nothing keeps Ankush awake at night. “I am rather relaxed. What used to stress me 10 years ago doesn’t even waver me today. With age, the threshold for stress improves I think.”
Somebody is building something better than TBO somewhere and in all probability, it will be a youngster with innovative, disruptive thinking. That keeps Ankush thinking how to be always ahead of the curve, building tomorrow’s travel technology today.