Mumbai: They are as different as chalk and cheese. Their family backgrounds and their personalities. But love and understanding have blurred the dissimilarities. Their mutual admiration after 20 years of marriage and 10 years of working together is both endearing and inspiring. It is certainly a boon when your spouse and business partner is also your best friend.
I caught up with the Nagpals at Rendez-vous Canada (RVC) 2019 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Since Pankaj was still finishing a meeting, I started with Sucheta. She comes from a conservative Punjabi family based in Delhi where girls were not expected to get employed. Her father was the national business head of Only Vimal, part of Reliance Industries, India’s largest private enterprise. “I wanted to be an air hostess but dad was not in agreement. So I opted to study interior designing,” confided Sucheta. She did a course from South Delhi Polytechnic and started interning with an architect. But having to deal with the labor force – plumbers, carpenters, masons – was not something she enjoyed. So she quit.
Sucheta and Pankaj have built Travstarz brick by brick, tag teaming and complementing each other, playing by their strengths and covering up for weaknesses
Pankaj and Sucheta met in college. Born and brought up in Delhi and hailing from a Punjabi family of entrepreneurs, he did his schooling from Mount Carmel followed by degree from Delhi University and post graduation from London. Pankaj is also a Certified Management Accountant from CIMA London. “I never wanted to work as a salaried employee,” said Pankaj as he joined the conversation. “I started my first business in 1997 when I was barely 20. We began as a franchisee of DTDC (one of India’s largest logistics companies and part of Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group) and today are a master franchisee with 35 branches in Delhi.” He sold the business to his brother-in-law in 2005.
Sucheta’s in-laws and in particular Pankaj’s mother was extremely encouraging when it came to her getting back to work. So she joined Radisson Hotels as part of their loyalty program’s call center operations managed by Kayak Systems. “I did just four hours daily and got paid weekly. But soon Kayak which was managing other brands as well, pulled me into their rolls and I joined them as manager leading a team of six,” reminisced Sucheta. She was able to have her first child and continue to work thanks to a very supportive mother-in-law. After four years, she left Kayak to be part of a travel company wherein her role was more demanding in terms of time and energy, and which offered a lucrative pay package.
After giving that company three years, Sucheta left them as Vice President to join another leading organisation, which was handling Destination Weddings and MICE at that time. In 2007, two years after her daughter was born, she lost her mother-in-law and decided to take a sabbatical. Pankaj’s family is into the food business in which he is also involved along with his cousins. “In 1948 when the family migrated to India from Pakistan, my grand dad started a small restaurant in Delhi,” informed Pankaj. His dad runs an engineering products enterprise since 1989 making specialised diamond wheels for precision cutting materials. Pankaj takes care of all financial matters for family enterprises.
“The best thing a woman can have is a man whose stress buster is cooking. When I need a break, I just have to stress him out!”
He is also a singer and composer, trained in classical music following the traditions of the Gwalior gharana. In 2006, Pankaj released his first album with Venus Records. “The following year, I lost my mom and then I quit music.” In a year, Sucheta got restless. Pankaj’s office was right across home, so she started a travel shop offering tour packages and her spouse would help out with financial matters on a need basis. In 2009, they incorporated Travstarz as a private limited company.
“We started with the DMC business and opened up Mauritius first followed by Hong Kong,” said Pankaj. “When we opened Thailand in 2011, we got deeper into the South East Asia market and our numbers started growing. As one of the earliest Indian players in Thailand, this was a major tipping point for us.” Since all the businesses operate from the same office, Pankaj had visibility into Sucheta’s activities from day one. As the travel business gained traction, Pankaj gradually started getting more and more involved.
“In 2011, we commenced the hotel consolidation business,” added Sucheta. “We first signed up Marriott International. Today all major hotel brands are with us.” In 2016, Travstarz secured the IATA licence and entered the air consolidation business. The same year it launched its online B2B platform but it did not do well. “IT was outsourced and it did not work,” conceded Pankaj. “End of 2016 my cousin brother joined us and took over as CTO and rejigged the entire IT framework.”
2018 was a watershed year for Travstarz Global Group. Chinese online travel major Ctrip picked up a strategic stake in the company through their subsidiary Tours4fun. Ctrip has also invested in Make My Trip, one of the largest B2C travel portals in India. “The Ctrip investment came as a tremendous validation for our business model and the opportunities we offered,” admitted Pankaj.
Post the stake sale, the plan was to merge Tours4fun’s online B2B platform RezB2B with Travstarz’s Travelrezonline. It did not work as planned due to technical issues around integration. “Now we are going back and rebranding it as clickontravstarz.com and launching soon,” confirmed Pankaj. clickontravstarz.com offers real time global inventory covering flights, hotels, tours, transfers, and visa and insurance services. It comes integrated with Galileo and will soon be in sync with Amadeus as well.
Travstarz started a dedicated division for cruises in 2018. “We began with Star Cruises and Dream Cruises, followed by MSC Cruises. Then Jalesh Cruises was launched. We have just been announced as India PSA for Celestyal Cruises. We are soon getting into river cruises as well,” added Sucheta.
The travel business has grown and taken a big share compared to other businesses the family is involved in. To be precise, Travstarz has grown more than 150 per cent YoY in the last three years.
Today, they are 45-people-strong with offices in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Pune representing Thailand, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Nepal, China, Egypt, Maldives, Seychelles, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Laos, Indonesia, Bhutan, UAE, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Jordan, Egypt, Canada, USA, UK, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Poland, Bulgaria, Fiji and Reunion Island. Sucheta has hired and groomed the team almost single-handedly. “I am fine with fresh talent too or those from outside the travel industry, as long as I can train them and they have the aggression,” she confided.
Organised as three verticals – Travstarz DMC, Travstarz Cruises and clickontravstarz.com – the business currently clocks $20 million engaging with over 3000 agents both online and offline. “We know all of them by face and interact on a personal level. We would like to keep it that way,” Sucheta and Pankaj stated in unison.
Pankaj looks after the product, IT and finance while Sucheta’s is the final word in operations. “We don’t interfere in each other’s work though we discuss and share opinions. Our meeting schedules are different. My meetings are with people we are working with currently and explore how to grow business with existing clients. Pankaj meets prospects and new partners to expand our footprint.”
College sweethearts who married early (she was 20 and he 23) and now parents to two, and business partners, Sucheta and Pankaj have come a long way, tag teaming and complementing each other, playing by their strengths and covering up for weaknesses.
“We don’t disagree much. In fact, we have a good debate. Once we agree on the way forward, we are in it wholeheartedly,” shared Pankaj.“I am very aggressive and a quick thinker. Pankaj is calm and takes time with decisions,” Sucheta added. They can complete each other’s sentences!
Work gets discussed at home but the dinner table is now free from that, thanks to the children growing up and insisting on the same. Raghav will be 18 soon and Riddhima is running on 13. Raghav is into cricket and plays for Delhi Under-19. Riddhima is into theatre and dance for now.
Pankaj loves cooking. “The best thing a woman can have is a man whose stress buster is cooking. When I need a break, I just have to stress him out!” joked Sucheta.
Their day starts at six with morning walk or some exercise routine and they are in the office by 10. By six, Sucheta is usually back home whereas Pankaj’s routine keeps changing as per the demands at work. On weekdays, evenings mostly are spent with the children at home. During weekends, Pankaj likes to de-stress by whipping up some cool recipes for the family.
“I still do my riyaaz. Hopefully, soon I will get back to music,” informed Pankaj. “Riddhima wants me to. All the songs for the second album have been composed.”
I asked both of them if anything on the business front keeps them awake at night? “Nothing,” said Pankaj. “I sleep 5-6 hours. I am a Reiki healer. I am also into spirituality. I am content with what we have.” Added Sucheta, “We are in a very comfortable space. I think it’s all about the attitude.”
Sucheta and Pankaj love Maldives for vacation though Pankaj’s all-time favourite is Bangkok. For Sucheta, the destination is not very important when the family is together. Even a resort few hours from Delhi would do.
Travstarz continues to expand at a feverish pace. The target is to reach $286 million in the next 5 years. “To scale the business, we need cutting edge technology. In the next one year we will build the tech and get even more aggressive,” concluded Sucheta and Pankaj.
They may be different personalities altogether, but when it comes to knowing ‘who moved my cheese’, they are in perfect sync.