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SPARK OF THE CORPORATE

Born in a business family, business was the obvious choice of this Punjabi boy. However, he chose to move away from the 65 year old family business to chase his entrepreneurship dreams and made it big there. The journey of Ajay Bijli from a single screen cinema to being the undisputed king of the multiplexes is another example which squares up to “passion never fails”. His passion for movies led him to set up PVR Cinemas, the largest multiplex chain of the country.

Ajay Bijli is the man who transformed the movie going experience of the nation by making the theatres a cool place to hang out. One bite at a time, Ajay Bijli, the founder, Chairman and Managing Director of PVR Group has made world class cinema formats accessible to the Indian audience. There was no second thoughts for him when it comes to bringing in the state of the art facilities to India - whether it's the on-screen experience at the high-end PVR Director's Cut, installing ticketing ATMs, introducing pre-ticketing F&B at Pune, getting a DJ to play live film music or introducing technical advancements like IMAX or Enhanced Cinema Experience (ECX) at his multiplexes. Ajay's vision is to make PVR the number one in film entertainment and remain leaders in the exhibition space.

The spark...

Post college in 1988, he started out as a 22 year old youngster running his family's trucking business called Amritsar Transport Co for two years. He soon realised that he wanted to do something on his own. With a well-established personnel and set processes, he had nothing much to add at ATC.

Being an ardent movie lover, he wanted to do something related to movies. It was around this time that he was introduced to the concept of multiplexes on his honeymoon to Florida, US and he was instantly captivated by the new age amenities that multiplexes offered. He was sure that the movie lovers of India would appreciate it and wanted to introduce the concept in India. Ajay's research seconded his gut feeling about investing in theatre business. In 1990, he renovated and transformed Priya Cinema in Delhi which his father acquired some time back, into a modern, youth-centric and plush cinema. Dolby surround sound system, better seating, colourful lobby areas among other facilities attracted the movie lovers and Priya Cinema successfully took off. This was his first step towards building the film entertainment company which has become the country's largest multiplex operator. He feels extremely privileged to have given that opportunity by his dad to test the waters himself and feels strongly that every parent must be ready to give that space to their offsprings.

The hiccups...

The sudden death of his father in 1992 hit the family hard. Before he could cope up with the loss, he had to take care of both the businesses simultaneously. Just when he was learning the art of balancing, another disaster hit him on the face in 1994. A devastating fire pulled down the well-established transport business to ashes overnight. The underinsured warehouses brought huge financial losses. This put him at a jinx not knowing what to do next.

The beginning of the show...

Ajay's mother suggested him to follow his heart and to do what he feels is right. He handed over the trucking business to his uncle and ventured full time into cinema business. Being certain that the Indian market is ready for multiplexes, he took Priya Cinema to next level by 1995. The growth of retail outlets around Priya backed his thoughts. He then got in touch with Village Roadshow, a global film production and exhibition company of Australia and got into a 60:40 joint venture under the name Priya Village Roadshow or PVR. Not wanting to disturb Priya, he leased out another theatre in Delhi. India got its first ever multiplex at PVR Anupam with four screens in 1997 and it was welcomed with open arms. By 2001, it had 12 screens. Within a few years, the company pioneered the multiplex format in India.

The big picture...

By 2001, his brother Sanjeev completed his studies and joined him in the business. Sanjeev then got trained at the cinema complex of Village Show at Hobart in Tasmania, Australia. It gave him a huge exposure from programming to selling popcorns. Year by year, the company expanded and the numbers went up.

Everything was fine until the global business environment changed post 9/11 attacks and Village Roadshow wanted to withdraw from Asian market. No efforts to convince them bore fruits. It was a difficult period as projects worth INR 100 crores have been signed under JV and most of them where in construction or pre-construction stage. Funding the growth as well as the exit was a major challenge. But Village Roadshow gave him the time to find another partner to buy the shares or to find private equity firms. He could finally meet the exit by bringing in investment from Renuka Ramnath of ICICI Venture and by selling his personal properties. In 2006, PVR did its first IPO and ICICI part exited at a great multiple. IPO was followed by aggressive expansion moving up to be the pioneer of the industry. Ajay kept adding innovative features which he found abroad during his travels with a desi touch.

More failures and the comeback...

As new players pitched in and the competition became fierce, studio bug bit Ajay. During 2005-06, he started a film distribution business under the name, PVR Pictures. In 2007, with the investment from J P Morgan and Renuka, PVR Pictures expanded to produce super hit movies like Taare Zameen Par, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, Ghajini, Don, etc. After the initial success in this field, they incurred heavy losses and wound up the business in 2011.

They could easily attract fresh investments by then and decided to concentrate on the business they knew the best - theatre business. With the lessons learnt, they focussed deeper to grow organically and inorganically. They acquired Cinemax for INR 543 crores in 2012 making PVR the largest independent distributor for Hollywood in India. PVR took over DT Cinemas in 2016. It ventured into new territories by adding multiple subsidiaries like PVR Director’s Cut, Director’s Rare, BluO, PVR Nest, Mistral, PVR IMAX and ECX technology. Two and a half decades, two acquisitions and an IPO later, PVR today entertains approximately 75 million moviegoers through 579 screens at 126 properties in 50 cities across India.

Personal life...

Ajay has done his Bachelors in Arts Honours from the Hindu College of Delhi with a first division honours degree. After graduation, he joined his dad's business and got married to his college crush the next year. He has also pursued the Owner/President Management Program from Harvard Business School.

The fitness freak that he is, Ajay loves hitting the gym almost everyday. He enjoys cricket and spending time with his wife and their three children. He switches off his mobile and avoids traveling on weekends to spend time with family. He finds time to dine out with friends too who don't talk business or movies. An ex-college band singer, singing is therapeutic for Ajay.

Awards and accolades...

Awarded the “Exhibitor of the Year” Award at the CineAsia Awards Ceremony in 2017
Received the “Asia Innovator of the Year” award by CNBC TV 18 at India Business Leader Awards, 2016
Received the “Most Admired Retailer of the year 2016” award from Images Retail
Received the E&Y Entrepreneurial Award for Business Transformation
Received the CNBC’s Emerging India Award
Received the Most Admired Multiplex Professional

Memberships and associations...

Member of Board of Trustees of the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image (MAMI)
One of the founding members of FICCI Multiplex Association (India)
Member of The Film and TV Producers Guild (India)
Member of Young Presidents’ Organization

Quotes

...no road is paved smoothly. There will be highs and lows in any journey, but whether you can maintain equanimity in all situations is a true test of character.
To begin with, your feet has to be on the ground. Once you are on the ground, it is better if they are moving. Keep walking then.
You cannot rest on your laurels; what matters is what you are today, not what you were in 1997.
Setbacks always motivate us to do better. We learn from our mistakes quickly.
Entrepreneurs have to analyse and introspect where their passion lies. Else, your business might not click.
It's not only important to build a healthy company but to be healthy yourself too.
Scale matters, but I would rather be the best than the biggest.

Hope readers caught up the spark …

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