How a Former Indian Basketball Player Built a Rs 300 Crore Travels Company
What started as a small transport company with four taxis in 1964 is today a giant in the transport sector, with a turnover of Rs 300 crore.
Prasanna Purple Mobility Solutions Pvt. Ltd., popularly known by its brand name Prasanna Purple, today has a fleet of over 1200 buses and cars in 85 cities across India, of which the company owns over 700 buses.
Prasanna Patwardhan, Chairman & Managing Director of Prasanna Purple, was once a sportsman – he was captain of the Maharashtra basketball team and represented the country as well - and this reflects in his stately persona even today.
The company was named after him by his father and today Prasanna runs three companies: The parent company Prasanna Purple Mobility Solutions Pvt. Ltd. (Intercity & City Bus Passenger Transport, Corporate & School Mobility, Domestic & International Holiday Packages), and two sister concerns, Prasanna Transport Network Pvt. Ltd. (Goods Transport) and Smilestone Motels Pvt. Ltd.
Prasanna Purple’s partner in all this is Ambit Pragma, a private equity firm that invested in it in 2009 and owns 64% of the parent company.
In 2010, Prasanna Travels, which was the name of the small company that started back in 1964, changed its name to Prasanna Purple for a more modern makeover.
Prasanna Patwardhan’s story will be inspiring for those who are looking to not only take their family business forward but also make it expand and multiply successfully.
Born in 1962 in Pune into a joint family, Prasanna grew up with 24 people under one roof. His upbringing was like any typical middle-class Maharashtrian family and, after studying in Nutan Marathi School and graduating in science from Fergusson, he did his post-graduation in management from Symbiosis.
“My uncles had a restaurant and dairy business,” says Prasanna. “Their restaurant Wadeshwar has many branches now but when I was young there was only one.”
His father used to run a taxi service and his only client was the Pune University that would use the taxis for its professors and visiting faculty. “We made a decent earning out of that,” says Prasanna.
Keshav Waman Patwardhan, his father, was in turn the sole contractor of Pune University so all the business went to him.
"In 1985, the University’s Vice Chancellor told the professors to carpool instead of using taxis,” recalls Prasanna, “and said they would call for our taxis only when they really needed it. This really affected our business. We had no other client.”
This was a bad time for Prasanna Travels and they were on the verge of shutting down. The sudden drop in business meant a sharp decline in the family income.
“This is when I realized I needed to step in to help,” says Prasanna, who completed his management degree that year. From December 1985, he started working at Prasanna Travels to help his father plan the way ahead.
This was not what Prasanna had planned for in life. He had wanted to become a sportsman – he had represented India in basketball and was the captain, and later coach, of the Maharashtra team. A knee injury, however, kept him away from a future in sports.
“If I would have continued as a sportsperson then all this wouldn’t have happened and I would’ve probably have become a TC (ticket collector) in the railways at the end of my career,” laughs Prasanna, calling the injury a blessing in disguise.
As Prasanna entered his father’s business, the first thing he did was renovate the office and spruce up the Fiat and Ambassador cars they had.
"It took six months to rebuild everything and I spent around Rs 5,000 per car to include things like air conditioner, curtains, music system, uniform for the drivers plus water and newspaper in every car,” remembers Prasanna about his first year. “Earlier only university professors used our cars but now we were looking for corporate clients.”
With the revamped cars and a new client-base that Prasanna built one by one, the turnover for Prasanna Travels doubled and tripled – it went from Rs 3 lakh per annum in 1985 to Rs 10 crore in the next 10 years, by 1995.
“I was a management student so I had knowledge about the business aspect but to build clients was the difficult part,” says Prasanna about the struggles of the early days. “I used to walk into any office and ask them if they wanted our taxi service, or I would give my card to the watchman of a company hoping that he would give it to the right person.”
His first client was Philips, and then Telco, and then the business started snowballing and many respectable names joined the client list. Every year the turnover would double and he would buy new cars and tempos.
In 1988, Prasanna started his first bus service, investing Rs 10 lakh in an air-conditioned bus. He sold four cars and two tempos out of the 25 taxis and six tempos Prasanna Travels had acquired by this time.
"We started a Mahabaleshwar to Pune bus service but it failed,” recalls Prasanna. “Then I entered into a partnership with Jalgaon's Sangitam Travels and we started a Pune-Jalgaon service – we had one bus from our side (Pune) and one from Sangitam (Jalgaon) – and this arrangement worked. We earned a good profit.”
In the next four years, Prasanna started other routes like Kolhapur-Pune, Akola-Pune, and Bangalore-Pune. Soon the bus service became the main business for Prasanna Travels, and in 2009 they got investment from Ambit Pragma.
That year Prasanna also entered into a public-private partnership (PPP) with civic authorities in Jalgaon (Maharashtra) and Indore (Madhya Pradesh) to run intercity bus services.
Soon, Prasanna Travels spread their business to 10 cities including Pune, Ludhiana, Delhi and Ahmednagar under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission that allows private-public sector partnerships.
These days, the majority of his revenue comes from shorter, intercity bus services, as for longer routes people prefer to fly.
“With intercity, we provide the driver and the conductor is provided by the state government and the business is profitable,” says Prasanna. “But now with toll taxes and rising petrol/diesel prices, the profit is taking a hit.”
What shines through his story is Prasanna’s spirit. He never treated any work as too low for himself and always took initiative and ownership of the task at hand.
"In 1988 I once drove my bus to Jalgaon for three days as no driver was available,” he recalls. “The bus had to reach Jalgaon as we had confirmed passengers so I took charge as the driver. With my life their lives were on stake too, but these are all part of challenges you face when you run your own company.”
He wasn’t a bus driver but had learnt to drive a bus in his spare time from his drivers. “Today I have 3,000 drivers but that day I had none,” smiles Prasanna.
Prasanna Purple trains its drivers and has opened driving school, too. They have also started the ‘Hop On Hop Off’ tourist bus services in Goa and in Delhi. Soon they are hoping to get one started in Mumbai with BEST (Bombay Electric Supply and Transport Corporation), but as of now the decision is on hold.
Prasanna has visited several countries and thinks public transport in India has the potential to reach international standards.
"Our government doesn't give that much attention to public transport, which should be a priority,” he says. “People should use it more often instead of cars.”
Prasanna wants to use more technology in their business, and provide customers with advanced services like GPS tracking.
He got married in 1986 to Monica and they have two sons. Their elder son Saurabh takes care of the company’s cargo business while his other son, Harshavardhan, has a footwear manufacturing business of his own.
Today Prasanna travels the world whenever he gets the time to survey the public transport systems of other countries, so that he can update the services in India too.
He has learnt most of business tactics from sports where nobody is a permanent enemy or friend.
“Though I don't play basketball anymore, it taught me a lot in life,” he says. “When I was playing for Maharashtra other state player were my enemies but then at the national level they were my teammates so they became friends.”
Whether you are the boss, or not, depends on where you are, he says with a smile.
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