Haryana: Their main office in Udyog Vihar Gurugram is buzzing with people and activities. It has been so for more than a decade. The boss has been hard pressed for time, travelling two weeks every month and dashing from one meeting to the other. So it took us a lot of tenacity and patience to pin him down for this journey down memory lane which he took with gusto.
The entrepreneurial journey of Amit Kishore, Co-founder of Eastbound Group, is an inspiring case study for B-School students.
Amit Kishore, Co-founder, Eastbound Group is on a high and in a hurry. In the last one year, the business he leads has grown more than 100 per cent and added over 150 people. Nine standalone companies form the Group, each a significant player in the travel segment they operate – DMC, representations, B2B distribution network, MICE, value-based travel, experiential travel and more.
Coming from an illustrious and well-heeled family background – grand father Rai Bahadur Ram Kishore was a leading lawyer and one of the longest serving Vice Chancellors of University of Delhi. His bust is located very prominently at the entrance of Tiz Hazari Courts, Delhi and the State government named a prominent road after him in the Civil Lines area of Delhi, from where Amit’s family hails!
“The numerous religious and charitable institutions he was instrumental in setting up, were later run by my dad and today I look after them. Both my grand father and father were committed philanthropists actively contributing towards the upliftment of the poor and underprivileged, providing scholarships to many deserving children.” His mother was a respected journalist with the Times Group and devoted a lot of her time and energy to social causes.
Amit could have easily opted for an overseas MBA and settled in a cushy MNC career but he had other plans. He wanted to be an entrepreneur much against his parents’ wishes. After graduating from University of Delhi, Amit shelved his GMAT plans abruptly, thanks to an opportunity to work with a boutique, travel start-up, focused on offering niche experiential travel. “The stint, though it lasted only six months, gave me a wonderful kaleidoscopic view of the tremendous opportunity and growth potential, the travel industry offered,” reminisces Amit. “I quickly realized that this sector was a great strategic fit for my long-term career ambitions.”
With two partners, Amit set up Far Pavilions Limited (FP) in 1998 specialising in charter flight operations from the Scandinavian market. “The venture was so successful that in a very short time one of the largest travel companies expressed their interest to acquire us,” says Amit. As new kids on the block, the trio was super excited and gave the nod to be part of a large global set up. Amit stayed on till 2006 leading the line of business, navigating it through tough times post 9/11 and expanding to new markets like US and Australia.
“It’s not easy being a first generation entrepreneur. I’ve worked my way up, one difficult step at a time. What that allowed me was to develop a holistic view of things. One of the big observations I made was the opportunity that existed for mid-sized professionally managed destination management companies in India.”
At that time, there were few large MNCs which dominated the market but lacked the personal touch. And at the other end of the spectrum were hundreds of smaller enterprises lacking professionalism and ability to scale. This burning conviction coupled with Amit’s ambition to be an entrepreneur, gave birth to Eastbound in March 2006. He was 33.
Eastbound grew organically and inorganically over the years and Amit’s research-led decision making and strategic thinking have played a key role. Eastbound was focussed solely on leisure and inbound. But in 2008, global recession and 26/11 (Mumbai terror attack) affected the prospects of the travel industry adversely. While the leisure business struggled to survive, Amit changed tracks and decided to focus on the education segment. “In the US and other developed countries, recession made the job market weak and people were not finding jobs or losing one. We knew that response time was little and quick action was needed. Globally opportunities were dwindling and so were jobs but one domain that remained largely unaffected was Education. We charted a new trajectory and began focusing on developing business from leading educational institutions of the world. The new business boomed and even today Eastbound is the market leader in this segment.”
Having weathered the storm, it was time for explosive growth. In 2009, India-based BTS (Business Travel Services), focusing on French travel market was acquired. In 2011, Amit founded a representations business focussing on tourism boards and products. In 2012, CHIME kicked off to address the growing MICE market and in 2018, with 2Hub, they entered the B2B distribution business as aggregators of hotel inventory and tourism products for tier II and III markets in India. Eastbound continued to grow its leisure business all the while focusing on inbound from US, UK, Europe and Australia. “We opened India first, followed by UAE, then Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal and Bhutan in that order. Singapore and Japan were opened in 2018. We have our eyes set on China now. Eastbound will be announcing its expansion there soon.”
Much before the advent of technology and the disruption it caused, Eastbound had bagged big ticket client wins leading to a massive tipping point. Looking back, Amit’s reliance on market research and sound business strategy worked wonders. “We always did our homework well before making any decision. And luckily with each new door that opened for us, we forayed into newer lucrative territories,” says Amit with all humility.
With three strong pillars of growth – DMCs, representations and B2B distribution network, Eastbound Group is set to report a revenue of Rs. 500 crore in FY 2019-20 and the target is to achieve Rs. 1000 crore by 2023. “We are evaluating 2-3 marquee companies on the DMC side of the business for acquisition. This announcement is expected in 2-3 weeks,” confirms Amit. South Africa, Germany, China and Far East markets will get opened up with the new acquisitions.
One of the major trump cards of the business has been the process maturity it has achieved over the years. It has a robust shared services model in place for professionally managing cost functions like human resources, finance & accounting, marketing, sales operations and contracting. “We want to leverage our shared services to attract smaller DMCs into our fold– they can focus on their core business while we manage the costs and offer strategic inputs. It’s a win-win for all.”
But what makes Amit happy the most is the fact that the core values of the organisation have not changed over the years. Integrity, trust and inclusivity remain cherished. “With several companies and fresh faces on-board, I spend a lot of my time ensuring our culture is understood and imbibed by all. That is the glue which keeps it all together.”
Like most companies in the league, Eastbound is not a typical owner driven enterprise, it is owner-led but professionally managed. Amit has five COOs and Group CFO reporting to him. He believes in delegation and empowerment. This culture of ownership across all levels has ensured the organisation has an unbelievably low attrition. “We are a happy family. One of the most gratifying things for me is that the core team at Eastbound Group has been with us from the start till this day. Our office is a fitting testimony to our ecosystem – a fully stocked bar with a collection of fine wines and spirits and an amazing library,” adds Amit.
The business is cash positive and debt-free and Amit attributes it to the passion and commitment of the team. He is in the process of streamlining the holding structure. Currently each of the nine companies are individually held, some fully owned by Amit and some along with partners. “Eventually we want to structure this well so that we can unlock true value for the business as a whole. As an entrepreneur, I also have to now ensure that our people who have been with us for so long are also rewarded financially and career wise.”
Amit is an early riser and avid reader. He is in the office before 10 am and lunch always is with founding partners Prrithviraj Singh and Manish Pratik. He leaves office early and plays a game of tennis or swims at the Siri Fort complex next to home. Weekends, particularly Sundays are with wife Vishakha, 11-year-old daughter Sohaanii and son Arjun who is 18 months old. “Listening to my daughter play my favourite songs on the piano is among the bigger joys of my life,” says Amit.
We ask Amit about his favourite holiday destination and pat comes the reply: “After 21 years of exploring the world if I had to pick one favourite place it would be London. I travel to the city every summer with my family and love doing simple things – leisurely trips to the supermarket, cooking, taking my kids to the park, catching theatre at the West End etc.”
He is rumoured to have a stunning collection of fancy wheels; a rumour he fails miserably to play down. “My wife and I have self-driven along the most exotic routes in the world- Great Ocean Road in Australia, the Swiss Alps, Autobahn in Germany, Pacific Rim in California, Lake District and the Scottish Highlands in the UK. I absolutely love cars and I love driving them even more.”
In the corporate world, Amit closely follows Ratan Tata and Bill Gates. Management guru Ram Charan is another key influence. We decide to end the conversation by asking him about how he sees the next five years. “We are in a good space now. All our hard work has started paying back. It is gratifying. Digital transformation will be a major focus in the next few years to grow to the next level.”
Amit does not need an MBA. His stellar entrepreneurial journey can make a case study in business schools, for sure.