In next three years another 250 movie theaters will bear PVR name, says Ajay Bijli

PVR's Ajay Bijli changed the movie viewing habits of millions of Indians by bringing the multiplex revolution to India. ET wires you into the mind of the pioneer.

PVR's Ajay Bijli
Restlessness is innate to Ajay Bijli. The energy with which he attacks his omelette at the Four Seasons Mumbai belies the '4 am airport run' routine that's become his life for several days now. As he digs in, Bijli shows off designs of the new upcoming PVR multiplexes on his iPad. At the same time, he acknowledges that PVR hadn't reached the kind of scale that it should have.

Considering that PVR is one of the leaders in movie exhibition space and he is adding new cinemas at a brisk pace, what could be bothering him now? Thinking aloud, Bijli says, "There are bigger companies in entertainment business with much bigger market cap. If the consumers and the developers like PVR, then why aren't we bigger? We are stuck; we are one of the pack. How do we move away?"

One of the triggers for this inner turmoil has also been Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs. "It made me pause and think every 100 pages," says Bijli. Meanwhile, the restlessness keeps the man flitting from airport to airport these days. He's set himself a new target: to transform PVR to a billion-dollar company in the next five years. Ask him, has he always been so restless? "Yes ," he laughs. "And people around me say it's getting worse."

But this restless is not new to Bijli, who used his edginess to turn PVR into a leading exhibition company from a single cinema theater that it was in 1992. Even in his salad days, when he was courting Village Roadshow of Australia to invest in his company, the passion spilled over. He sometimes wrote 15-20 letters a week to the company to speed up its India plans, till a well-wisher asked him to give them some time to think.

Today PVR has 173 screens, in 23 states across 24 cities and last year 2.7 crore people watched a movie in a PVR multiplex. In next three years another 250 movie theaters will bear the PVR name. Here are some of the tenets that the entrepreneur follows:


On a recent trip abroad, he noticed a movie theater with bean bags instead of chairs. And that's been on his mind, so don't be surprised if you see a nearby PVR sporting bean bags sometime soon. Being an outsider, the lack of legacy thinking has been a Bijli trademark. In 1988, a young Bijli entered the exhibition business as a means to get out of the tedious trucking business that his father ran. Going to Chandni Chowk everyday, dealing with trucking issues drained out the 21 year old's enthusiasm very fast.

(Sanjeev and Ajay Bijli)

The Bijli family, owners of Amritsar Transport Company had bought a cinema hall Priya for Rs 60 lakhs in 1978, and that's where a young Ajay found his calling eventually. "The Indian cinemas were all grey, dark, dingy and depressing, and the movies were so colourful. So I decided to put some colour on the walls, air-condition the foyers and the toilets and focus on hygiene and cleanliness," says Bijli, who caught on to the concept on his honeymoon in Orlando.

And contrary to conventional wisdom, it wasn't the blockbuster Bollywood movies which gave wings to Bijli's dreams. His bets on English movies like Three Men and a Baby, The Fugitive , and Warner Brothers' Tango and Cash helped established the theatre.

When Gopal Ansal, having had enough of the cinema business, offered a dilapidated Saket cinema hall to Bijli, it was like a god-sent opportunity. With the four-screen PVR Anupam Saket, Ajay and younger brother Sanjeev created a whole new enterprise.


Meanwhile, Bijli senior kept reminding Ajay that the cinema venture was a one-off initiative, but it was trucking that was the family's bread and butter. After his father's death in 1992, Bijli was working 16 hours a day, juggling the trucking business and cinema.

In 1994, a fire struck a big blow to the family trucking business, forcing Bijli to finally quit the well established family business and hand it over to his cousins. With just one cinema hall, Priya, in his kitty, he bet his future on the movie exhibition business.

"I felt that one cinema was not doing justice to the number of movies being launched. We needed to have more than one cinema under the roof. Then I went mad trying to get my act together," he says. With no precedent of a multiplex in the country, he met Warner Brothers and Universal International Pictures (UIP), but no one was interested.

It was then that Mike Macclesfield of UIP put him on to Roc Kirby, an Australian who was looking to expand in Malaysia and Hong Kong, and could possibly be interested in India.

"On a piece of napkin in a restaurant in Singapore, he did some back-of-envelope calculations.

The occupancies and the volume of the country were what attracted him, not the ticket price or the cheap real estate. He signed the deal without even visiting India," says Bijli.


In 2001, when the multiplex concept was finding acceptance and PVR had gone full steam ahead to try to capitalise on its firstmover advantage, tragedy struck.

Bijli had signed deals worth more than Rs 100 crore with new ventures in Bangalore, Noida and Hyderabad when the Australian partner wanted out due to post-9 /11 difficulties.

This is where lady luck stepped in. His friend Sunil Mittal advised Bijli to meet some investment bankers.

Shripal Morakhia of SSKI arranged a meeting with Renuka Ramnath of ICICI Ventures who bought into the PVR story and put in Rs 38 crore. The game changed again.

From a company facing severe liquidity crunch in 2002 to a successful IPO in 2005, the crisis turned to be a boon in disguise.

"The PE investment really disciplined me. I became very conscious how to spend every rupee and pay back became important. Every multiplex that we opened gave us pay back in 3-4 years," adds Bijli.


In a supply-constrained market like India, when consumers take to a value proposition, managing growth can be a problem. Many entrepreneurs dilute their services or products in a bid to maximise market share, but Bijli is obsessive about quality. In his recent trip to Mumbai and Pune, he wanted to personally check how the cinema would look from a customer's point of view. Since he would have been out of the country when it opened, he decided on a full dry run, with all facilities including the soda and popcorn machines running as if the theatre had opened. The run was so 'like normal' that he had 200 customers queuing up outside for tickets.

"I am finicky about details. In the first five years, I was extremely choosy of my locations and who I dealt with. Sometimes I feel that my quality consciousness has cost us some growth," confesses Bijli a little sheepishly. On that trip, the staff even told him to stop worrying because he felt that there was a gap between a seat and a step. But what if someone falls, it's my reputation that's on line, he told them. "Ajay's attention to detail in each of his projects amazes me. I have met him many times and still see the same amount of dedication to minutiae, sometimes bordering on the maniacal," says Shravan Shroff, who founded the Fame chain, now sold to Inox. That's why Bijli prefers to grow organically rather than go for acquisitions that might dilute the quality of service.


Entrepreneurs trying out new concepts often have to deal with advice from all sorts of people, and the quality of advice is very important. Bijli was lucky that he belonged to the old Delhi set, so people like Sunil Mittal, Analjit Singh, and Bharti's Akhil Gupta were always around to help him think through issues. Mittal advised him to enroll in a Harvard Business School programme to help him deal with scalability issues. Seeing him disturbed over a strategic ownership issue recently, brother Sanjeev asked him to seek Analjit Singh's counsel once again. "He told me to imagine the headline an action like that would elicit in The Economic Times. Was I comfortable with that?" to which Bijli's answer was 'no'. And that settled the matter.


When PVR wanted a project in Ambience mall (Vasant Kunj, Delhi), it hit a regulation hitch. The land owned by Delhi Development Authority (DDA) was auctioned and a DDA regulation says that if there is a multiplex built within the mall, the seating would have to be restricted to only 300, which made the project unviable. So while keeping within the law, the brothers came up with a top of the pyramid luxury concept of Director's Cut: all Gold Class, four screens and a total of 272 seats, which is within the law with fully recliner seats, with a full luxury service and food and beverages. "The GM at the theater is from the hospitality industry. We are just not showing movies, we are selling an experience here," says Bijli.


Like any successful entrepreneur, initial success can be heady and chances of going off-track high. In a move to integrate vertically, PVR got into movie production. With two hits, Taare Zameen Par and Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Naa - co-productions with Aamir Khan - Bijli thought he had hit the right note. But the script went awry soon with films like Khelenge Hum Jee Jaan Se and Teen Thay Bhai, it even affected the stock price and profits took a hit with reported losses of the Ashutosh Gowariker film being as much as Rs 23 crore.

"Movies are a risky business and this is one area PVR did not do well at all. They made some bad choices. The decision must of course have been based on the fact that they were into exhibition and distribution and so production was a natural step," says Timmy Kandhari, National Leader, Entertainment & Media, PwC. Bijli eventually scaled down the business, repaying money to investors and returning full time to the exhibition business. "We were dejected after the movies flopped. I ate humble pie and decided to come back as CEO of a company, not the head of a multi-vertical business house."


Entrepreneurs tend to go by gut feel and Bijli is no different. Over the years as PVR has grown into an institution where Bijli has learnt to segregate decisions based on gut feel and analysis. Going to friend Apollo Tyre scion Raaja Kanwar's (Director, UFO Moviez) place with the Delhi old money set to watch movies 'first day first show', gave him an idea of there being a market for the elite discerning consumer. The germ of an idea led to birth of India's first luxurious movie theater, Director's Cut. But for decisions like buying out a rival chain, he will get into minutiae.

During a recent due diligence exercise of a company, he sent his team to every location along with a video camera. "I need to know what the seats look like, what the carpets look like." says Bijli. Yet, time and again, there are decisions which Bijli still takes based on his gut feel. "Take the example of Bangalore's Forum mall where we opened a 11-screen plex in 2004. The popular vote, which was also the norm then, was for a 6 to 7-screen plex but it was Ajay who insisted that we go with 11, a decision which worked win-win for all," says Pramod Arora, Group President & CEO, PVR.


When a successful business wants to expand, the first areas are within the category and then the adjacencies. For Bijli, the revenue streams are not only movies but pre-ticketing (popcorn, soda, coffee) and post-ticketing (restaurants) as well. Within movies he is planning a PVR Talkies chain in tier II and tier III cities, a super deluxe Director's Cut, and an international foray into Hong Kong, Singapore and London. That's not all. PVR will be coming out with a new enhanced theater experience that is currently under wraps. "I just feel we are sitting on our laurels.

Companies like Samsung and Apple come out with something new every quarter. Why can't we?" asks the entrepreneur. And since it doesn't take much to get Bijli restless, he is dreaming of making PVR a lifestyle entertainment company. So he is also betting on bowling, at a time when the rest of the world is giving up on it. Which is where his vertical PVR BluO comes in. It currently brings 5% for the parent company , but with scale Bijli expects revenues to go to 10% - 15% as it expands to bigger markets. "I want to grow 4-5 businesses that generate Rs 200-300 crore. In five years we should be in the vicinity of a billion dollars." says Bijli. Which is a dream big enough to keep him restless for another five years.
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