The wonder boy and his dream woman: Arun and Priya

Meet this Bengaluru-based dynamic duo who are partners in their personal and professional lives.

Text by: Namita Gupta.

Photographs by: Faheem Hussain.

He is taking millions on a roller-coaster ride and giving them an adrenaline rush like no one else can. Well, literally! We go behind the scenes of all the action and get the wonder boy Arun K. Chittilappilly, Managing Director and Founder, Wonderla Holidays Ltd. and his wife Priya Joseph Chittilappilly, Director, Wonderla Holidays Ltd. to spill the beans on their successful entrepreneurial journey, their trade secrets, love life and their future plans. It all began when Arun was trying to fix broken toys with his screw driver as a tiny tot, but he usually ended up damaging them more. Soon his fascination for machines and engineering grew and over time this problem solving mindset gave him the ability to look deeper into problems and find solutions and eventually went on to complete his Masters in Industrial Engineering from Swinburne University (IRIS), Melbourne, Australia. Little did the older son of Sheela and Kochouseph Chittilappilly know then that he would be handling humungous responsibilities that included engineering and design, marketing, communications and finance of a 280 crore company.

Learning the ropes

His undying love for his long-time girlfriend, led him to unleash his business acumen and join his father’s venture. His first challenge was to expand the park, improve its design, and bring new rides and technology, to keep up with the demand. “Industrial engineering, in its simplest form is identifying problems and solving or optimising those problems. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to become an entrepreneur like my dad after my Masters in Industrial Engineering from Australia. I saw his venture growing rapidly, despite the industry-unfriendly nature of Kerala. I was to get married to my long time girlfriend Priya and thought it was a smart thing to work for my dad’s new baby, an amusement park project he had recently opened in Kochi and put my entrepreneurial skills to work. My other option would have been to work in Australia’s auto majors Holden or Ford, for some research projects, which also seemed exciting at the time,” he says nostalgically. But Arun chose the former. He indelibly learnt the nuances of the amusement park business from the best – his father, Kochouseph Chittilappilly who founded V-Guard Industries, a reputed electronic equipment manufacturing company. He set up his own venture on a much larger scale, in Bengaluru, in the name of Wonderla after learning the ropes of the business in Kochi. Now he has amusement parks not only in Bengaluru and Kochi, but in Hyderabad as well. He has been a key architect of Wonderla Amusement parks and has been actively involved in strategising and conceptualising the parks and resorts. Arun now has plans to build more large-format amusement parks in the metros of India, starting with Chennai in 2019. He has plans to make Wonderla a national chain of high quality amusement parks present in all major cities.

Love makes the world go round

Arun and Priya exude an arresting presence every time they walk into a room. “I met Priya in Bengaluru through common friends, when we were doing our graduation. She was from a very different background: her dad was working in shipping. She was educated abroad, was well travelled, and very open as a person. I was from a business family in Kochi and had just moved to Bengaluru to study. We were like chalk and cheese.” He confesses blushing, “I guess opposites attract and we started dating.” Exuding a calm serenity, his demure and pretty wife Priya, executive director of Wonderla, chips in adding, “Our friendship progressed over six months into a relationship. Although we came from very different backgrounds, we connected on various fronts and were very happy in each other’s company. My mother took seriously ill back then and Arun was there for me as my rock. He is not someone who is overtly romantic, but at that time driving me to college and the hospital during my mom’s illness and just always being around was so much more valuable and precious. In time, after my three year degree as a speech and language pathologist, I moved to Australia for my Master’s and Arun, (although he wanted to go to the US to study) also came to Australia for his Master’s a year later for his four year engineering degree. Both of us were in Australia over a two-year period, but were together in Melbourne only for a year. I moved to Hong Kong for a year to stay with my parents and work there after my Master’s in Public Health. Arun continued his studies in Australia and post that we got married in India. We seemed to have worked out our relationship through college and distance over time which convinced us we should be together. Within a month of getting married I decided to work with Arun in Veegaland, Kochi with the intention that we were going to move to Bengaluru in two years to start and set up Wonderla in Bengaluru. We even designed the logo together. My role is to focus on HR and F&B. However, we have always been trained to take on multiple roles and responsibilities over the years by Arun’s dad. So I even help with the interiors of the park and resort, landscaping, housekeeping etc.”

A roller-coaster ride

Although most amusement parks follow the same tenets, what was the secret behind the success of this man, we ask and Arun recalls, “My role in the business has evolved over time. I started as a director of technology, looking into new projects that the park needed. When the amusement park in Kochi was built, it was designed with a very small capacity, but the response we got was tremendous. Our first task was to make sure we expanded wisely and made sure our guests could be accommodated. Later, I became deeply involved in designing a brand new larger amusement park project in Bengaluru with an extensive use of solar energy and water treatment and conservation system. We knew that Bengaluru had less water, so every square foot of our park here is designed with the intention of conserving resources and this would make Wonderla hugely profitable in the future. I was spearheading the marketing and communications for Wonderla simply because there was no one else to do it. Right from the design of the logo to every statement that went out in the last 13 years, I was involved in some way or the other. I enjoyed working in marketing and I still do. Then when the park in Bengaluru wasn’t doing well initially, my role was to see how we could make it even more cost effective. I started looking at finance in detail. This helped me understand how to control the costs of running a park. Now I look at new ride technology, new projects in other cities, talent hiring and nurturing, cost control, finance, settling in our leadership team etc. Our family’s three verticals are V-Guard industries, an electrical goods manufacturing that my brother Mithun takes care of, V-Star apparel that my mom looks after and my dad has launched a new construction business. I look after Wonderla theme parks and I love the fact that we make people happy.” Arun soon set up a resort called the Wonderla resort, first of its kind luxury resort in India with the Wonderla Amusement Park right in its backyard – making it an ideal place to extend your holiday.

High stakes

In 2014, under Arun’s leadership, the company raised close to 200 crore through an IPO and has now scaled great heights. “We wanted to raise the money for our new project in Hyderabad and felt that an IPO could be a good way to do it. We tried to go the private equity way but since we already had a listed company in the group we were confident of going through the long and laborious IPO process. It so happened that it was a really bad time for IPOs and the markets were not kind to IPOs. We had issues with SEBI for getting clearance for the fund raise. Interest from investors was low. We still decided to go ahead, and finally it turned out to be one of the best IPOs of all time. We got heavily oversubscribed, and this was even before Mr Narendra Modi won the election. This gave a huge boost to our company and our employees who were also given shares during the IPO. We have done quite well after the IPO. Our valuation has tripled, as have our revenues. But there are challenges due to our growth. We are now trying to reorganise ourselves to our new vision: to become a national chain of high quality amusement parks and are in the process of executing our vision,” states Arun.

Man of many passions

Apart from being passionate about theme parks, Arun’s other interests include music, cars, reading, fitness, traveling, adventure sports and swimming. The man who has a fleet of luxury cars in his basement says, “I went to Japan, Bali, South America, Peru and Machu Picchu with Nat Geo recently and also watched Coldplay perform live in Copenhagen. Priya and I live in Bengaluru and the rest of my family lives in Kochi. We are in touch constantly and since my parents love spending time with their grandchildren, we make efforts to meet at least once a month, and take a family vacation at least once a year with them.” Talking about maintaining the work-life balance, Priya who likes to read, cook, bake and go for spiritual workshops shares, “Working in a business family means there is very little work-life balance as all conversations with family and for us, especially because we work together, revolve around work. In fact, so much so even our nine year old son asks and is encouraged to participate in these discussions. Also, both Arun and I are travel junkies. We travel a lot together and separately as well for work and pleasure and we take trips with our son too. We invariably land up in some amusement park, entertainment arena, or related business across the world discussing and thinking about various opportunities and learnings from our travels to implement in our business. My parents and I have had the opportunity to travel the world and live in cities like London, Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai. My father’s job took us all over. Some of my favourite holiday destinations include Antarctica, Tasmania, China and Peru. Luckily, we are in the fun business and we have so much opportunity to unleash our creative streak. We work hard and party hard. Change is constant, and we believe in living our lives to the fullest as we both understand that we have just one life to live. At work, we both have very clear and different responsibilities so we rarely get involved in each other’s space. We have based our entire relationship on a partnership, of open communication and dialogue, friendship, mutual respect, trust and love. We fully imbibe the mantra of choosing to “agree to disagree” on various issues, but try to resolve most issues before the day ends.” She quips, adding, “I am very conscious that at work Arun is my boss, and at home I am.”