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How a gospel DJ-turned-event manager-turned civil contractor became India's newest airline owner

Little-known Nagpur-based Samuel Timothy is buying Hyderabad-based TruJet, whose former chairman Ram Charan is among the biggest superstars down South. But can the newcomer with an adventurous track record pull it off in a sector that's fraught with peril?

Manu Balachandran
Infographics By Kapil Kashyap
Published: May 24, 2022 01:53:26 PM IST
Updated: May 25, 2022 01:51:35 PM IST

How a gospel DJ-turned-event manager-turned civil contractor became India's newest airline ownerAt the heart of Samuel Timothy’s plan to foray into aviation is a firm belief in the Indian regional airline story, with a focus on Tier II and III cities.

Samuel Timothy seems like the jack of all trades. Or at least that’s what a search of the man shows up on the internet.

His Facebook profile describes him as the “first gospel DJ of India”. On Instagram, he calls himself as the producer of the PIMP web series. For the uninitiated, the series, as the name suggests, seems to be a thriller of sorts with abundant nudity and was released in 2019. Timothy shuttles between Mumbai, Hyderabad, Pune, Goa, Shirdi, and Nagpur, according to his Instagram profile, and is also a dirt bike racer.

Timothy was once a partner at Pinnacle Celebrity Management, a Mumbai-based company engaged in guest listing, events and appearances. The company claims to have a few Bollywood actors on its rolls and is promoted by Mumbai-based Santhosh Gupta. On the professional networking platform LinkedIn, Timothy calls himself a civil contractor, senior celebrity manager, drummer, racer, producer, and CEO apart from, of course, the first gospel DJ of India. A few of his songs are available on Sound Cloud.

Then there is the 33-year-old’s tryst with the travel and tourism industry. Timothy is the founder of Wintrip.in, a website that claims to offer cheap ticketing and travel options. The company offers everything from visa assistance to car rentals and air tickets, among others, and claims to be operational for 10 years.

But all that seems to pale in comparison to his latest adventure. Timothy is the chairman and managing director of WinAir, a Nagpur-based airline company that has agreed to acquire a 79 percent equity stake in Hyderabad-headquartered regional airline TruJet. TruJet is owned by Turbo Megha Airways Pvt Ltd, and WinAir is planning to spend some Rs200 crore to acquire the 79 percent stake in the parent company. The companies signed a term sheet on April 26 and are currently in the midst of technical due diligence before taking over operational control of the airline.

“By December, TruJet will fly 20 aircraft a day,” Timothy tells Forbes India over a telephone interview from Pune. After the acquisition, Timothy will be chairman and managing director of WinAir. “In the next 10-15 days, we will finish all the agreements, and we aim to make it easy for the public to experience air travel in the country. We don’t want to be an IndiGo or Air India,” he says.

WinAir Aviation Private Limited, headquartered in Nagpur, currently has six directors. That includes Timothy, his father Ranjan, sister Priscilla, COO Ram Sharma, and BR Shegokar, director for human resources. The company started by attempting to become what it called India’s first parallel airline, a concept where it would use the equipment and operating permits of an airline. By acquiring TruJet, however, that plan seems to have gone out of the window.  

WinAir, the company that Timothy owns, is backed by Pune-based Aaryans Group of companies to fund the acquisition. “Aaryans Group of companies is my partner and investor,” Timothy says. “We are investing together in the company (TruJet).”

The Aaryans Group of companies, owned by the husband-wife duo of Manohar and Smita Jagtap, claims to be spread across verticals such as media and entertainment, infrastructure and real estate, food and beverage, hospitality, green energy, heavy industries, finance, education, business ancillary services, healthcare, gold refinery, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, electric vehicles, agriculture and organic farming, among others. “Aaryans Group was incorporated in 2013 and has managed to get investments into India through foreign direct investment (FDI) and the said fund has been cleared for utilisation by the concerned departments in November 2021,” the company says on its website.

“It is unfortunate that people who do not have a real understanding of the aviation sector are now foraying into the business,” says an industry veteran, who did not want to be identified. “All this seems so strange considering his background.”

So, who is Timothy?

An unlikely entrepreneur, Timothy started as a musician in Nagpur.

After graduating from the Hislop College in Nagpur, Timothy played for a band in Nagpur before choosing to become a disc jockey. By his own admission, he was among the most sought-after DJs in the city and even shared the stage with the likes of popular DJs of that time—DJ Suketu, DJ Aqeel, DJ Rink, DJ NYK and DJ Chetas. By 2009, Timothy also produced music. “As a Christian, I wanted to promote gospel in the country,” Timothy says. “In Christian functions, we can’t play Bollywood music, so I started remixing gospel music and started playing at Christian concerts.” That’s how Timothy claims to have become the country’s first gospel DJ.

While he had a brief stint as head of entertainment at a water theme park in Sharjah, he soon returned to India to organise concerts in Nagpur. “You can say, I am the person who got some of the biggest guys to perform at Nagpur, including Mika Singh and Ankit Tiwari. In 2012, Timothy joined 94.3 My FM, an FM channel owned by Dainik Bhaskar, as a marketing and communications manager, and spent the next two years organising events. A 2014 report, however, says the Mika Singh concert was not granted permission, and even quotes Timothy as saying that the decision by the authorities to deny permission for the event was “cruel”.

Meanwhile, working at the radio channel also brought him closer to his future business partner, Santhosh Gupta, a Bollywood celebrity manager.  “I was looking after celebrity interviews, brand marketing and events,” Timothy says. “While promoting a movie of Kaaranvir Bohra in 2014, his manager, Santosh Gupta, liked my work and asked me why I am wasting my time in Nagpur and asked me to go to Mumbai.”

In 2015, Timothy joined Gupta as a celebrity manager at Mumbai-based Pinnacle Celebrity Management of which Gupta was founder and managed among others, actors, including Mouni Roy, Rashmi Desai and Bohra. “In 2018, I was promoted as CEO and partner,” Timothy says. In the meantime, he also produced between 20 and 25 music videos, and the web series, PIMP.

Turning point

But as the pandemic struck two years later, Timothy’s business was also hit hard, forcing him to return to Nagpur. “Covid-19 changed my career,” Timothy says. After the first lockdown, he set up a construction company, Destination Builders, which was a subcontractor for ferrying fly ash between sites along the under-construction Mumbai-Nagpur Expressway. The Mumbai-Nagpur Hindu Hrudaysamrat Balasaheb Thackeray Maharashtra Samruddhi Mahamarg is an under-construction six-lane, 701 km access-controlled expressway being built at a staggering Rs55,000 crore.

“I did that work for three months,” Timothy says. “In between, I met a few contractors, and some were telling me about work at the Goa airport.”  

Timothy soon shifted base to Goa and managed to become a subcontractor for the upcoming Mopa International Airport there. The Mopa International airport is being built by infrastructure giant GMR, who also built the New Delhi and Hyderabad airports. “It was a contract worth Rs40 to Rs50 crore,” Timothy says. “After one year, I got an opportunity to directly work with GMR. Previously I was working as a subcontractor. And because of my performance, the company directly offered me work.”

It was during the stint at the Goa airport that Timothy met Winnie Kurup, an aviation veteran with whom he decided to foray into aviation and tied up to set up a parallel airline, WinAir. A parallel airline, Timothy says, uses the equipment and operating permits of an existing airline operator by optimally utilising the leased aircraft and idle hours of the existing airlines in viable routes. While the duo was setting up the parallel airline, they chanced upon an opportunity to acquire TruJet, the Hyderabad-based airline that had been financially struggling for years now. Since then, Timothy and Kurup have parted ways. 

How a gospel DJ-turned-event manager-turned civil contractor became India's newest airline ownerTruJet

Buying troubled TruJet

Timothy and WinAir have signed a term sheet agreement with TruJet to acquire a 79 percent stake. The company will announce the final agreement in 10-14 days, and it is now looking at rebranding after years of struggle. “TruJet’s name is spoilt now,” Timothy says. “We don't want to start something negative at the moment. We are looking at renaming the company. It could be TruWin or WinAir. We will see.”

How a gospel DJ-turned-event manager-turned civil contractor became India's newest airline ownerThe Hyderabad-based airline, which ironically has its hub at the GMR-owned Hyderabad airport, had started operations in 2015, and was among the first few to be awarded routes in the first round of the Udan scheme. Back then, the airline, jointly promoted by Hyderabad-based entrepreneur Vankayalapati Umesh, Hyderabad-based infrastructure company Megha Engineering & Infrastructures Ltd, and Tollywood actor Ram Charan, was looking at investing some Rs500 crore to add three more aircraft to its then-existing fleet of two.

The airline received its AOP (air operators permit) for regional operations from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation on July 7, 2015, and commenced with a flight from Hyderabad to Tirupati. In May 2017, it changed its AOP to become a scheduled commuter operator, allowing the carrier to operate flights to other regions in India under the government's Udan Regional Connectivity Scheme.

Under the Udan scheme, airlines are offered viability gap funding for 50 percent of the seats on a flight, and fares for those seats are capped by the government. Udan had helped airlines such as TruJet to establish new routes and build up a strong presence on them, as bigger airlines focussed on largely commercial routes.

By 2018, the airline flew to 20 destinations with five ATR aircraft and had ferried some 1.2 million passengers. The airline deployed 73 percent of its capacity on UDAN routes, with over 300 flights a week. But by 2019, the airline began seeing cancellations, before the Covid-19 pandemic brought in further headwinds. The country’s aviation sector was shut down after the government announced lockdowns, and the airline struggled to stay afloat. It began defaulting on payments and couldn’t even pay salaries before it reduced the salaries of its employees by 50 percent.

Troubled times

The Covid-19 pandemic brought losses of between Rs25,000 crore and Rs26,000 crore in fiscal 2022 for the airlines, according to estimates by market research firm ICRA. The combined debt levels in the sector were expected to rise to Rs1.2 lakh crore in FY22, requiring additional funding of Rs45,000 crore in the next two years.

How a gospel DJ-turned-event manager-turned civil contractor became India's newest airline ownerIn April 2021, a year after the pandemic threw its business into turbulence, TruJet said it had signed an agreement with US-based fund Interups, where the latter had agreed to pick up a 49 percent stake in the airline for an undisclosed amount. Interups had bid for Air India, but withdrew its offer as the airline’s employees were unwilling to join hands for the bid. However, that deal with TruJet fell apart after Interups failed to make the payment on time. Interups had laid out plans for TruJet to begin talks with Airbus and Embraer for an order of 54 aircraft each.

By October 2021, Megha Engineering & Infrastructure reportedly handed the ownership of the airline to Vankayalapati, who then began discussions with Ireland-based turboprop aircraft lessor Elix Aviation Capital to join the company as an equity partner besides leasing 10 aircraft. In February 2022, after months of trying to raise capital, the company brought down operations entirely. "The operations are temporarily hampered because of various administrative and technical reasons, and rest be assured that TruJet will resume its operations at short notice," the airline said in a statement.

That’s when Timothy met Vankayalapati, and discussions went on for a few months. Now, over the next few weeks, Timothy says the airline is working out a plan to bring him on board. “They will induct me as director and we will start with a new bank account,” Timothy says. “When we signed the agreement with TruJet, they had four aircraft. By April 29, three more airlines got deregistered. It takes 45 days to re-register.” In April, reports said that aircraft lessors Elix had sought de-registration of the aircraft that it had leased to TruJet. Vankayalapati wasn’t available for a comment.

Enter mystery backer

At the heart of Timothy’s plan to foray into aviation is a firm belief in the Indian regional airline story, with a focus on Tier II and III cities. A little over 144 million people take to the skies every year in a country of 1.3 billion people, signalling a massive potential in the aviation sector that has witnessed a strong turnaround in the past few months. “By December, with 20 aircraft and over 25 routes in hand, we plan to connect Tier II and III cities in the country. We are only looking at ATR or Embraer aircraft to do that,” says Timothy.  

WinAir has agreed to spend Rs200 crore towards rebuilding the airline, and Timothy says his company is flush with funds to invest more. “This is just the starting investment to complete documentation, and get to 20 aircraft,” Timothy says. “By December, we will get 20 aircraft moving. We have the AOP. I am going as a director, and then I will be the chairman in TruJet.” Timothy is also banking on TruJet’s experienced ground force to hit the ground running.

“There are so many people with 16-17 years of experience,” Timothy says. “So, have a good team.”  At the moment, Timothy says he holds 97 percent stake in WinAir, with his father and sister holding one percent each. The remaining one percent is with the group CEO.

While he waits patiently to begin operations, Timothy also reckons that the path to profitability is clear. “We have the Udan markets, and so we gain subsidy in that,” he says. “We are not going on trunk routes. We are going to Tier II III. We don’t want to become an IndiGo or Air India. We are a small airline, and we don’t want to use any airbus. We will go with Embraer and ATR.”

The company will start by leasing aircraft and claims that it is perfectly positioned to purchase them outright to build up capacity. “We can purchase 20 aircraft in one day,” Timothy says. “We are working on that. We will purchase and lease some.” That confidence to spend money also comes largely due to Timothy’s partner, Aaryans Group of companies that he says is responsible for financing the venture.

“They (Aaryans) signed an agreement with me,” Timothy says. “They are funding WinAir. I am the owner, founder and CEO of Win Air and we (WinAir and Aaryans Group) are investing together in the company. But I will hold the maximum stake in TruJet.” It's widely expected that Vankayalapati will also continue to help in the day-to-day running of the airline.

“What TruJet really needs are people who understand how regional connectivity works,” says Mark D Martin, CEO of Martin Consulting, a dedicated aviation consulting firm. “For instance, travel in South India is far more practical than elsewhere. You need better network planning, understand industry catchment, and find a model that is sustainable.”

Already, India’s airline businesses are staring at tough times. Aviation turbine fuel prices (ATF), which account for over 40 percent of the cost of operations, touched record highs on May 16 after they rose by 5.29 percent to Rs123,039.71 per kilolitre in New Delhi. Prices were 89.2 percent higher compared to the year-ago period.

Meanwhile, it’s not just airlines that Timothy is planning to lay his hands on. His Win Group, which stands for We Indian Nationals, plans to launch as many as five verticals with companies under each of them. That means a foray into mining and entertainment apart from the already-existing businesses of airlines, construction and travel booking. “In the future, we will be in mining, travel and ticketing, airlines, construction, entertainment,” Timothy says. “As of now, 4-5 companies are getting registered.” Forbes India is unclear about Timothy’s net worth, although he says he has adequate financials to set up the new ventures.

While the Aaryans Group is backing Timothy in the airline venture, he says he will be funding the other verticals himself. “In the rest of the companies, I am managing my finances,” Timothy says. “But, as goodwill, I am going to keep them in the other companies too. First, we are concentrating on the airline business followed by mining and other businesses.”

So what happens now? “Everyone will start from somewhere,” Timothy says. “I started my career at the age of 18-19 and worked continuously. Maybe it is God’s blessing and my hard work that I have got this opportunity. Once the deal is complete, I will be the youngest airline owner in the company.”

Maybe it’s the daredevil in Timothy that TruJet truly needs for a shot at survival. 

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