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Atul and Viren Ahuja’s story may be one of the most remarkable in the history of the duty free industry. And yet the tale of how they created an unlikely business empire in India’s notoriously complex travel retail sector has never been fully told.
Until now that is. I met with Atul (above) at his majestic 100-acre ranch in the stunning wildlands outside Mumbai (pictured below) at the weekend. We talked at length about the rise and rise of Flemingo in India (100% owned by the two brothers) and abroad (where the family has a significant stake), especially in the company’s twin heartland of Africa.
Such has been its progress in India that it feels like Flemingo has been active in the industry for many years – but in fact the Ahuja’s have only been involved since 2003.
In the interim period the company has fought the most prolonged and tenacious battle imaginable for bureaucratic recognition and what they insist is their right to a legislative equal playing field. It has initiated some 28 litigations down the years, challenging state and federal laws that blocked private enterprise being able to operate effectively in the business.
The company has made particular headlines in recent months, thanks to its success in challenging its exclusion from the Mumbai International Airport tender – a ruling that is currently the subject of a stay of execution (a sensitive situation which we will explain fully in a forthcoming Blog).
Such an approach hasn’t endeared Flemingo to many people, he admits. “Today we are branded as habitual litigants,” says the modest, quietly spoken Atul with a wry smile. “But if we had not done it, there would be no duty free industry in this country.”
It’s pioneering stuff, for sure. From a single shop at Trivandrum airport in Kerala, Flemingo has quietly flourished as India’s most powerful duty free retailer – and almost certainly the only profitable one in the private sector. It’s a story that deserves to be told. And given the losses some of the big multi-nationals are currently experiencing in India, one that must be told.