Ashish Sawhney
Outlook Money
17 Oct 2005
Wayfarer at Heart

Life has been a long, interesting journey and Sawhney has been there, done that.

Chumki Bharadwaj
Ashish Sawhney
If life throws you lemons, open a lemonade stand. That's the Ashish Sawhney story in brief. He's had more than his share of lemons and has fallen more than once. But this irrepressible entrepreneur never flagged. "Failure never discouraged me," he says, adding that he learnt from each of his mistakes. Today, Sawhney heads what's widely considered to be the country's largest travel portal.
Precocious entrepreneur. The son of an insurance agent, Sawhney could have followed in his father's footsteps or taken up a steady job after graduating. But he was always fascinated by the thought of making his own way and being his own master. When most boys his age were just beginning to read Hardy Boys, Sawhney had set up a little lending library, Leo Library. He collected old books from family and friends, and lent them to the neighbourhood kids for 20-50 paise. He was soon making up to Rs 30 a month.The library didn't last very long, but Sawhney's entrepreneurial spirit did. He worked right through college and part-financed his education. "I tried my hand at everything that would bring in some cash - selling cigarettes, running a manual printing outfit, and selling washing powder door to door," he says. The printing venture alone made around Rs 1,500 a month.
business agency
company ...............ashex tourism
launched ............................. 2000
secret of success ..... never give up
In 1988, when he graduated, he bought a sick poly-bags manufacturing unit, Polypack Industries, from his father's friend for Rs 2.5 lakh. Because he knew the young man would not be able to put together the entire amount, the friend offered it to Sawhney on easy instalments. "I thought this would give me a good foothold in an established business. Even though the unit was sick, I felt that hard work could turn it around," he says.
Hard times. Turnaround, however, was tougher than he thought it would be. The unit was in a ramshackle condition with no running water or bathrooms, the single machine had broken down, and everything was under two feet of acid water.
Since the first month was spent bailing out the water and not the business, Polypack started with a loss; with no money coming in, Sawhney had to shell out Rs 20,000 for incidentals, rent and electricity. "Once the water was drained out and the machine repaired, I started scouting around for orders to bring in some business," he says. But it was hard to fulfil even the few orders he got without working capital. He needed funds desperately, but banks wouldn't give him a loan without collateral. "I had to borrow Rs 20,000 from my father for materials," he says. He scoured the market for the cheapest raw materials, and finally began setting the business on its feet.
By 1992, Sawhney had managed to pay off all debts, and by 1994, Polypack was reporting a turnover of Rs 2 lakh. That year, he turned the company over to his recently retired father and began looking for new ventures for himself.
Between 1994 and 2000, he tried his hand at almost everything from repairing imported cars to exporting garments. He even became the India agent for Face to Face, a Hollywood-based make-up company. "I started selling PVC make-up bags to them, which they exported to the US ," he says. But that was a short-lived venture, when one of the early consignments was rejected for having dust in the packing.
Settling down. He also tried his luck with a dotcom, setting up what was eventually to become a successful travel portal– It was an unqua-lified success and Sawhney was finally confident enough of his financial prospects to get married. All went well till the dotcom bust, when he almost lost everything. Not prepared to see his portal join the thousands of failures in cyberspace, he expanded on it to create an online travel agency. Thanks to his numerous ventures, he had a huge database of potential customers, and business took off immediately.
But just as he was beginning to enjoy the fruits of his labour, his father had a heart attack, and Sawhney had to take up the reins of Polypack once again. He found the company in bad shape, having run up losses of Rs 15-20 lakh.
The next two years were tough–he had to turn Polypack around, care for his father, and attend to his increasingly busy portal. The portal was the one bright spot, as it starting generating a turnover of Rs 20 lakh by 2002. By 2004, Polypack had also started to show a profit and reported a turnover of Rs 20 lakh.
Ashex Tourism continues to be his mainstay, though staffing is a constant problem. Good staff find the call centre business more lucrative, he says ruefully. In fact, for over five months, Sawhney had to run the site alone. But he persevered, and today employs six people.
The company has an impressive list of corporate clients, and the portal represents over 7500 hotels in the country. It also runs some 65 other linked sites. Ashex Tourism has reported a turnover of Rs 60 lakh for 2005, and he hopes it will touch the Rs 1-crore mark next year. For Sawhney, it's been a long and winding route to success–but he knows it's something he'd do all over again if he could.