Ajay Singh, MBA ’90, co-founder and chairman of the board, Argentum Motors
The Turnaround Man
Singh then had the responsibility of helping revive Doordarshan, India’s public broadcast television network. Throughout his career, he has also worked with the Indian Ministry of Telecommunications and the expansion of mobile telecommunications. That was before he transitioned to the private sector, became an entrepreneur, and founded SpiceJet Limited, an affordable, local airline.
“While I was working in the Ministry of Telecommunication, I had found that Indian consumers were very price sensitive but once the price was right, there was a very large untapped demand,” Singh says. “We had reduced the cost of making phone calls and that had led to a nearly 40-fold increase in the number of phones (from 2.8 million in 2002 to 100 million in 2005). I felt that there was a similar opportunity in aviation.”
In 2005, airfares were very high, so less than one percent of Indians flew on commercial planes; more people traveled by train in one day than flew in a whole year, notes Singh. “In other parts of the world, airlines like Southwest and Ryan Air had shown that it was possible to reduce the cost of aviation using innovative models,” he says. “So I was confident that if we could bring down cost, and, consequently, airfare, many Indians would move from trains to airplanes.”
SpiceJet’s low fares led to a dramatic increase in air traffic, primarily due to a shift in traffic from trains to planes, as Singh had envisioned. In less than two years of its launch in 2005, SpiceJet had a 10 percent market share. “In our first year, 54 percent of passengers were those who had never flown before,” says Singh. “The Indian market, which was at 17 million passengers in 2004, grew between 30 to 40 percent every year until 2009, [when] the oil shock forced an increase in fares and a reduction in the growth rate.”
Singh’s latest and current venture is yet another turnaround project: Argentum Motors. Before Singh bought the assets, Daewoo Motors owned the company. During the Asian economic crisis of the late ’90s, Singh explains, Daewoo went bankrupt and for many years, their assets had not been used. “I felt that there was an opportunity to buy these assets and put them to productive use. The thought was to build affordable automobiles and enable large numbers of Indians to own their own cars,” he says.
In his long career, Singh says, Argentum has probably been his most challenging project to date. “I think I underestimated the legacy and the problems left behind by Daewoo. Cleaning this up is taking longer than anticipated. This is the frustrating bit,” he says.
Changes in the automotive industry have also presented some difficulties, as the government and the private sector have struggled to find new ways to work together to build a sustainable model for transportation, Singh explains. “We really need to work on finding ways of making our automobiles and public transport environment-friendly and fuel-efficient,” he says.
But neither of these challenges has stopped Singh; instead, he says they’ve compelled him to think out-of-the-box and explore new options. “We are now setting up a new bus-building plant to tap the potential of public transport and a new facility to build electric vehicles, for example. I am very excited by the prospects of these projects,” he says.
For Singh, the most rewarding aspect of what he does is the opportunity to help people. The proudest moment in his professional life, he recalls, was during his time in the telecommunications industry.
“I remember going to a small village [in India] where, as part of a program designed by me, we had installed a computer and an Internet connection. The villagers, otherwise not very literate, had learned to use the computer for things that dramatically affected their daily lives. They were discovering the price of their products in markets far away, fixing medical appointments, researching crop disease and connecting with their relatives in distant parts of the country. It was really inspiring,” he says. And Singh felt this way about SpiceJet as well: “I wanted to give wings to Indians who had never imagined that they would ever be able to travel by air,” he says.
This passion for helping others has followed Singh throughout his career, and he hopes that it will make all the difference at Argentum as well. “I am passionate about what I do,” Singh says, “and I am very optimistic about my country and its future.”
Maria Minsker ’13 is an intern in Marketing and Communications at Johnson.