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After doing a series of odd jobs from the age of nine, Balakrishnan landed up as a driver at the Chennai trading office of the erstwhile German Democratic Republic, where he stayed for seven years. Saving money from his salary of about Rs 400 a month, he managed to buy a second-hand Fiat for Rs 6,000, which he let out as a taxi. When he was ready to quit his job, he sold the Fiat for about Rs 9,000. This, along with severance benefits of Rs 3,000 and his savings, was able to procure him a Rs 6,000 loan from Sundaram Finance. The interest was Rs 500 for a year.


Balakrishnan bought a new Fiat for Rs 19,000 and ran it as a meter taxi for just one year. He earned enough to repay the loan and keep some profit. But he was not prepared to stand around in the sun waiting for fares. He knew bigger things lay ahead: "I wanted to enter the tourist line," he says. He sold the Fiat and got himself a second-hand Ambassador for about Rs 15,000.


He ran the Ambassador as a private taxi. To get bookings he made the rounds of all the existing tourist cab services, so that they could get hold of him whenever they needed a car in an emergency. The strategy worked. Invariably, the cabs were overbooked and the overflow came to him. In about two years, Balakrishnan had sold the old car and bought a new Ambassador. It cost him Rs 20,000 and again, was financed in part by Sundaram Finance.


It was in July of 1971 that he founded Bala Tourist Service & also employed a cook cum bottle washer cum office assistant at a salary of Rs 200 a month. A telephone borrowed from a friend and a house for about Rs 75 a month completed his SOHO. He would call home every few hours and his office boy would inform him of the next port of call. He was earning about Rs 6,000 a month from his tourist taxi. By now though, he was married, and soon two children came along, and he had to rent a bigger house for Rs 250 a month.


Expansion was practically inevitable. A second, then third, car was acquired and drivers hired. By 1979, he had six cars and drivers, three office staff, and an office at Rs 750 a month. There was no looking back. In 1997, the company bought its first Mercedes Benz, which was immediately overbooked. Within three months a second Mercedes Benz was bought and today Bala Tourist Service runs a ultra-luxury fleet of around 10 comprising the Mercedes Benz & BMW in a fleet that also boasts of marques like Toyota, Honda, Ford, Hyundai, Ford, Maruti, Tata etc..


The significant point is that from the very beginning Balakrishnan charged a 10 per cent premium on the market rate only on the premise that he would offer "perfect service". Today, his premium on market rates is about 25 per cent. And his customers insist on returning. Obviously, the promise of service has been kept. The company only uses new cars, no souped up stuff or rebuilt tires. "I know most of my regular customers by name," says a proud Balakrishnan.


His drivers are always on time, if not early, and trained to be courteous and helpful. Balakrishnan absolutely insists that they know the city and its suburbs thoroughly. Accordingly, they are also paid about 10 per cent over the market rate, along with incentives like a school fee allowance, health care benefits etc..


Balakrishnan believes in sharing his good fortune. He also offers easy finance to his drivers to help them buy the cars his company discards every two years. The drivers then keep the earnings from their cabs, giving Balakrishnan a commission. Obviously then, the drivers are doubly keen on attracting customers and retaining them.


With 275 cars, an office staff of 30, a sprawling office in the heart of town (Bala House), and a 12,000 sq. ft. house next door, does Balakrishnan plan to call it a day? "My son, Pradeep Balakrishnan, an even better businessman, joined me in 1985, but I have no plans to retire. I enjoy work," he says. After dropping off his grandchild at school, he is in office by 8.30 am. He is still among the first to answer a call to the Bala Tourist Service office—where he shares a long room with all his staff—and takes pleasure in identifying himself as Driver Balakrishnan.