I first met Dinesh Dhamija in the autumn of 1999. His online travel agency ebookers was about to list in London and a friend who was his banker assured me Dhamija would make for a great story. Sure enough, my friend wasn't wrong. Dhamija timed his market debut perfectly when the dotcom frenzy was at its peak and quickly hoovered up $60 million.
That gave him the resources to strike deals with online giants like Yahoo and AOL and establish a pan-European presence by snapping up small travel agencies across the continent. At its 2000 peak, ebookers had a $770-million market cap. In 2003, four years after it was listed, ebookers broke into the FTSE 250 made up of the UK’s 250 most valuable companies.
But it had been a long, arduous journey from the time Dhamija decided to open a travel agency from a tiny 80-sq-ft kiosk in Earl’s Court Underground station in 1979. Dhamija was determined to forge a path in the world of business but he hadn't initially decided whether to focus on theatre or airline tickets. Selling tickets for a Bob Dylan show brought a round-the-block queue.
But finally, Dhamija decided airline tickets were a better game due to the large number of Australians who lived in the Earl's Court area and who were always on the lookout for cheap tickets to go down under. He did toy with the idea of selling tickets to Indians but then figured they made up only two per cent of Britain’s population and he would be better catering to the other 98 per cent.
His travel agency, Flightbookers, grew to be a steady mid-sized player in the British market. The travel agency business was one of the first to be ripped apart by the Internet. The difference between Dhamija and most other travel agents was he spotted the looming shake-out and seized the new opportunities before they overwhelmed him. In the travel industry, he was one of the rare players who made the leap from offline to online and thrived.
Dhamija’s determination to be a businessman was unusual in more ways than one. He was the son of an Indian diplomat and in Kabul shared a tennis coach with the Afghan king. He also spent a few years at Doon School. He was packed off to the Church of England’s King’s School in Canterbury at 17, where he faced huge racism, but overcame it because of his sporting prowess.
“I wish I could say my fellow pupils had a Christian attitude to new boys fresh out of India, but sadly some of them were more like the bullies in Tom Brown’s School Days,” he comments.
Nevertheless, he liked Britain and decided to stay after university. That, despite the fact he was extremely well-connected in India. Jagatjit Singh, the former Maharaja of Kapurthala, was his mother’s second cousin. His wife Tani, who he married in 1977, was the daughter of an Indian Army chief. His father’s reaction when he bought the kiosk was disapproving: “I didn’t send you to Cambridge to become a shopkeeper.”
The travel industry is one that faces constant ups and downs. The first for ebookers came with the dotcom bust in early 2000. Ebookers’ share fell from its peak but Dhamija was better placed than most because he still had the steady profits from Flightbookers, which ensured he wasn’t squeezed for cash but even so there were tight times. Then, with 9/11 the following year, the travel industry suffered another body blow. Airline fleets were grounded for weeks. That was followed by the SARS crisis and the Iraq war in 2003.
Just before 9/11, though, Dhamija was still doing well and decided to open an office in Gurgaon to handle the ebookers’ back-office work. As it happened, he struck lucky and bought a 50-seat call centre from MakeMyTrip, whose boss Deep Kalra had been a schoolmate. Despite the timing, he decided to launch Tecnovate.
It ended up being a money-spinner and by the end-2003, Tecnovate was saving ebookers £5 million and by itself was valued at $160 million. Along the way, Dhamija and his India team had the innovative idea of offering young Europeans gap-year jobs at Tecnovate. To their surprise, they were inundated by adventure-seeking youngsters and had 70 non-Indians on their staff of 700.
Inevitably, from the time ebookers went public, there’d been larger companies sniffing around and offers kept coming in. By 2004, Dhamija had decided to sell. Finally, it was US travel giant Cendant that won the day and a deal was struck for £209 million. The money reached Dhamija’s bank account three months after the deal closed.
He says: “Waking up in March 2005 with £100 million in my bank account was a surreal experience. I’d spent all my life trying to make money. Then, when you’ve made it you don’t know what to do next.” He played a bit more golf and his wife made occasional shopping forays to Milan. He concludes: “It’s nice to spend money when you have it. After all, you’re only nouveau riche once.” Afterward, Dhamija invested in property. He also joined the UK Liberal Party and even became a European Parliament MEP.
This is a tale well told though Dhamija sometimes strays from the main story and lists his ten favourite golf courses, businessmen and even politicians. He says Covid-19 has knocked the stuffing out of the global economy. But he quotes his own example as a pointer to the way forward.
“As a virtually penniless immigrant in a foreign country, in the middle of a deep recession, I built a business and made £100 million, employing more than 5,000 people along the way.” He hopes the book will be a guide for others who want to step out in the same direction.
Check out the book on Amazon