Rathimeena Travels – Focus on regional connectivity, passenger comfort and safety to consolidate and surge ahead

 

Popular prescription to etch a success story, be it on the professional or personal front, has invariably been ‘to be in the right place at the right time’. While the basic truth in the message cannot be refuted, the same as some would argue is more a reflective assessment of the event’s outcome rather than the decision making algorithm at that crossroad moment.

Mr. P.S. Sekar, Founder, Rathimeena Travels

How does one decide the opportune place and time to venture into the success lane or guesstimate the future that invariably depends on a number of dynamic, known and unknown factors? Well, Peter Drucker a world-renowned management Guru shares his profound thought to address the dilemma: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

Entrepreneurs who have put in years of hard work to pursue their projects close to their heart and gone thro’ the testing times before tasting the success potion will readily agree with Peter Drucker – they have worked towards their goal with a single-minded purpose and created that future, a company of their dreams.  With the passage of time they tend to pass on the baton to the next-gen in their lineage to hold the fort and expand the operations; and invariably only a minority of them succeed in it. That minority carries on the legacy with passion to take the company to the next level; and one such company to have reached that exalted level is Rathimeena Travels, having its head office in Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu. The bus operations vertical of the company is based in Chennai and the same admirably managed by the second generation bus aficionado, Mr. S. Prakashprabhu, Managing Director of Rathimeena Travels.

Humble beginning

To understand their success story and the cultivated brand image amongst the travelling public, we met Mr. Prakash at his workshop office opposite to Chennai Mofussil Bus Stand (CMBT), Koyambedu, the largest bus terminus in Asia and buzzing with activities amidst a maze of buses streaming in and out.

Mr. S. Prakashprabhu, Managing Director, Rathimeena Travels

Rathimeena Travels was started by Mr. P.S. Sekar, father of Mr. Prakash, in 1984 in partnership with his friend and with Chennai to Coimbatore as the first service. Mr. Prakash says: “To recollect briefly the path traversed till Rathimeena was started, my father at a tender age of 13 years inherited 2 lorries during the early 1960s from my grandfather who passed away. My father sold off these and switched to bus line with route bus between Kumbakonam and the nearby places. It was a difficult phase, and typical of any entrepreneur, he worked hard to slowly add on more routes, tour buses and increased the fleet strength to meet the market needs. My father even used to go under the bus when needed for attending to repairs, including engine dismantling – he was passionate about his work and strong on the technical services front. To meet my studies requirements, we shifted base at that time to Chennai though Kumbakonam continues to be the head office for the company.”

The real break for Rathimeena came when they introduced the Chennai Chidambaram route Omni bus. The unprecedented success enabled them to introduce more buses to cover up to Nagercoil, Thiruvananthapuram and also many other places in and around Kumbakonam.

Mr. Prakash, after completing his MBA, joined Rathimeena around 2004.  His MBA project was concerning customer satisfaction and the same gave him an insight into the nitty-gritties of the operations. More importantly that exposure got him hooked on to the bus travels domain, and fully equipped he joined the firm on full time basis to ultimately take care of the bus vertical with Chennai as his base.

Fleet network operations

“Having a passion for the bus industry, I expanded the operations to add on more service routes. After the Chennai Chidambaram foray, we introduced many other direct services on the East Coast Road (ECR). Covering Thiruvarur, Thiruthuraipoondi, Karaikkal, Velankanni, Vedaranyam, Nagapattinam, etc., and going up to the east coast tip of India, Rathimeena became the preferred operator on the ECR line and we introduced various combinations of buses, viz., fully seats, seat-sleeper, full sleeper, air-conditioned luxury buses, etc. We were the first to introduce air-conditioned luxury bus on the ECR route. Places like Guntur, Vijayawada and Vizag were also covered. Rathimeena was the first operate 3 trips per day (in the local parlance called as 3 singles) – bus leaving Chennai at 6 am reaching destination say Chidambaram by 12 p.m., returning back at 11 p.m. by leaving Chidambaram at 5 p.m.; and again leaving for Chidambaram at 11.30 p.m. The only big break was between 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Chidambaram.  We operated services like these for many destinations and it caught on with the travelling public, especially the young professional like doctors and engineers. In the beginning when these services were introduced, the buses used to run almost empty but my father insisted on maintaining the schedule; and we had to sustain this situation for almost a period of 6 months before they became popular. Today it’s difficult to get seats in these buses especially the morning service wherein we serve also breakfast,” reveals Mr. Prakash.

Rathimeena has a fleet strength of 80 buses in all the routes. Most of the buses are of Leyland make and they also have 12 Volvo buses. From Chennai they operate about 35 buses and ensure that that in most of the routes they have the full seats, semi-sleeper and A.C. luxury bus combination to meet the diverse demands. Based on their experience, they have a strong preference for a body builder and specific brands for input sub-assemblies and components.

All the bodies are built by SMK Prakash of B’lore. Tubeless radial tyres are invariably from Michelin, seats by Harita, electricals by Lucas, SS wheels from Wheels India and AC unit by Denso. They always go for OE spare parts and enter into AMCs with OEMs for critical electrical/ electronic units. They have their own mechanics to attend to routine maintenance at their workshop and adopt strict quality control checks and measures both in procurement and maintenance aspects. Tyres retreading is always by Elgi, lub oil from Elf and Mr. Prakash asserts though he is open to trying out new brands, unless fully satisfied, would like to stick with the proven and approved makes.

He adds that Rathimeena was the first customer for Volvo in TN and introduced the first 2 buses on the Chennai Kanyakumari route during 1999-2000. There was a lull period after the above in Volvo routes, but with the significant improvement of roads and the company’s service network, he has settled for Volvo in his new procurement as it gives him that advantage to get the best terms from the supplier in all aspects. All of Rathimeena’s BS-IV vehicles ordered, including 2 Volvo vehicles, are under body building and expected to join the fleet in about 2 weeks.

Competition and challenges

With the overall improvement of infrastructure, tollways, a penchant for travel, and overcrowded railways, bus travel option has indeed caught on in a big way during the last decade and shows a strong upward trend in the road ahead. This means more operators will be jumping into the ring to stake their slice of the pie and competition is likely to hot up, discloses Mr. Prakash.

He continues: “We do not mind healthy competition but when it’s otherwise to get the business, it’s hurting a firm like us playing by the rules. For example, if we are offering 32 seats for comfortable journey in a particular bus option, there are companies offering up to 40 seats in the same configuration. In the absence of a comprehensive bus code, extension of chassis to accommodate more seats are also very common. We do not allow our drivers to be at the wheel for more than 3 hrs; he has to sleep or take rest and the second driver then takes over. We do not know how many follow this methodology. Sleeper bus registration is not allowed in TN and hence we have to get it done at Pondicherry. We have to do the FC therein and end up paying double taxes, both in TN and Pondicherry. This pushes our basic costs up. There are others who get the vehicles registered in north-eastern States without taking the vehicles there and paying a nominal amount. These types of unhealthy practices are very much prevalent and they create various difficulties and pressures on our operations.”

However, sensing the ground realities and a likely crowded space down the timeline, Rathimeena has diversified its operations. They have apart from bus vertical, parcel services and cement bulkers taken care of by his uncle and father respectively. His father based in Kumbakonam takes care of the 100 bulkers that cater to the needs of customers in and around that region. Speed parcel service operating with Chennai as the nodal centre has about 40 trucks up to ICV class and move along the bus routes to meet the customer needs. As regards the bus front, they have turned their attention in addressing the needs of TN and the neighbouring regions; and the focus will be to add on more services for strengthening the regional connectivity viz., from interior places to the cities like Bangalore, Thiruvananthapuram, etc.

Customer is king

“My first stint in the customer satisfaction aspects gave me an insight into their needs and expectations”, states Mr. Prakash. He reiterates: “Customer satisfaction in our industry is all about adhering to correct time for services, providing safety and comfort during the trip. It is also a reality that during circumstances like a breakdown in a distant location at odd hours will really test the ability of the operators to respond. It is very difficult to provide a bus meeting up to customer expectation immediately but we always keep up our communication to provide alternative arrangements at the earliest. Punctuality for services is one thing that we have maintained right from the beginning. I have seen my father when managing the operations early on, strictly adhering to this aspect despite requests from customers at times to delay the start for various reason. We take in drivers only with several years of Omni bus experience and that too only after our approved drivers certify the new driver being recruited. We also take feedback from customers about their overall experience to improve upon all fronts”.

Mr. Prakash can incessantly talk on various issues impacting the bus domain operations. He opines Bus travel will take off to the next level with several structural changes being contemplated and the same augurs well for firms like Rathimeena. His passion for the domain, enthusiasm and sincerity in improving the customer service and satisfaction thereof can invariably rub on to anyone even during a brief meeting with him; this portends good times for the company and for sure we are going to hear more about Rathimeena in the travel ahead.

 

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