I first met Dinesh Dhamija in the fall of 1999. His online travel agency ebookers was about to sign up in London and a friend who was his banker assured me that Dhamija would make a great story . Indeed, my friend was not mistaken. Dhamija perfectly timed its market debut when the dotcom frenzy was at its peak and quickly racked up $60 million.
This gave it the resources to strike deals with online giants like Yahoo and AOL and establish a pan-European presence by acquiring small travel companies across the continent. At its peak in 2000, ebookers had a market capitalization of $770 million. In 2003, four years after its IPO, ebookers broke into the FTSE 250 of the UK’s 250 largest companies.
But it’s been a long and arduous journey since the moment Dhamija decided to open a travel agency out of a tiny 80-square-foot kiosk in Earl’s Court tube station in 1979. Dhamija was determined to carve out a path in the business world, but he hadn’t initially decided to focus on acting or airline tickets. Ticket sales for a Bob Dylan show resulted in a circular queue.
But eventually Dhamija decided airfare was a better game due to the large number of Australians living in the Earl’s Court area who were always looking for cheap tickets to get off. He toyed with the idea of selling tickets to Indians, but then figured they were only 2% of the UK population and he’d better take care of the other 98%.
His travel agency, Flightbookers, has become a stable medium-sized player in the UK market. The travel agency industry was one of the first to be torn apart by the internet. The difference between Dhamija and most other travel agents was that he spotted the impending upheaval and seized new opportunities before they overwhelmed him. In the travel industry, he was one of the few players to move from offline to online and thrive.
Dhamija’s determination to be a businessman was unusual in more ways than one. He was the son of an Indian diplomat and shared a tennis coach in Kabul with the Afghan king. He also spent a few years at the Doon School. He was sent to the Church of England King’s School in Canterbury at 17, where he faced enormous racism, but overcame it through his sporting prowess.
“I wish I could say my classmates had a Christian attitude towards the new boys fresh out of India, but unfortunately some of them were more like the bullies of Tom Brown’s School Days,” he comments. .
Nevertheless, he loved Britain and decided to stay after college. This, despite the fact that he was extremely well connected in India. Jagatjit Singh, the former Maharaja of Kapurthala, was his mother’s second cousin. His wife Tani, whom 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 trader.
The travel industry 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 off than most because he still had Flightbookers’ steady profits which helped him assured that he was not short of money but still there were difficult times. Then, with 9/11 the following year, the travel industry suffered another blow. Airline fleets have been grounded for weeks. This was followed by the SARS crisis and the Iraq War in 2003.
Just before 9/11, however, Dhamija was still doing well and decided to open an office in Gurgaon to handle ebookers back office work. As it happened, he got lucky and bought a 50-seat call center from MakeMyTrip, whose boss Deep Kalra had been a classmate. Despite the timing, he decided to launch Tecnovate.
This ended up being a source of revenue and by the end of 2003 Tecnovate was saving ebookers £5m and was alone valued at $160m. Along the way, Dhamija and his Indian team came up with the innovative idea of offering young Europeans gap year jobs at Tecnovate. To their surprise, they were inundated with young people looking for adventure and had 70 non-Indians among their 700 employees.
Inevitably, from the moment ebookers went public, there had been bigger companies sniffing around and the offers kept pouring in. In 2004, Dhamija decided to sell. Finally, the American travel giant Cendant prevailed and a deal was struck for £209million. The money reached Dhamija’s bank account three months after the deal was struck.
He says: “Waking up in March 2005 with £100million in my bank account was a surreal experience. I had spent my whole life trying to make money. Then, once you’ve succeeded, you don’t know what to do next. He played a little more golf and his wife did the occasional shopping in Milan. He concludes: “It’s good to spend money when you have it. After all, you only got rich once. Subsequently, Dhamija invested in real estate. He also joined the British Liberal Party and even became a Member of the European Parliament.
It’s a well-told story although Dhamija sometimes deviates from the main story and lists his ten favorite golf courses, businessmen and even politicians. He says Covid-19 has knocked out the global economy. But he cites his own example as an indicator of the way forward.
“As a virtually penniless immigrant in a foreign country, in the middle of a deep recession, I started a business and made £100m, employing over 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.
Discover the book on Amazon
To book! How Dinesh Dhamija built and sold online travel agency ebookers for £247m
Author: Dinesh Dhamiya
Publisher: Austin Macauley Publishers
May 21, 2022