Amazing History of KPN Travels

KPN, the very mention of well recognised brand acronym of K.P.N. Travels India Ltd., brings relief and joy to the thousands of travellers planning their trip for crisscrossing various cities and towns in south India.

Their frantic search for the booking be it by train, air or in various private/Govt. run bus services comes to an end after glancing thro’ KPN’s schedules of multitude of buses starting from various destinations – and once they go thro’ the KPN experience, they become steadfast and loyal customers sharing their gratifying travel experience with their relatives and friends.

Well, this word of mouth recommendation has been one of the main mantras of KPN having its headquarters in Salem, Tamil Nadu to expand its customer base and become one of the favoured travel firms for providing quality commuting service; and KPN has been successfully leveraging the goodwill of the customers to chart out its growth path and elevate the travel experience to even a higher level.

To understand the reasons for the popularity of KPN amongst the discerning travellers, we met Mr. K.P. Natarajan, Managing Director in the time slot squeezed out between his attending Omnibus Operators Association meeting and the departure to HQ at Salem, at his place in Chennai; he is also fondly referred to as Dr. K.P. Natarajan or simply Dr. KPN along honorific title given for his contribution to the transport industry but being a simple and unassuming man from the agricultural family, prefers to be addressed as Mr. K.P. Natarajan and we comply with the same.

Meeting him at the entrance of the door and getting a warm reception reflects affable personality in Mr. Natarajan; clad in a spotless white pant and shirt and knowing the purpose of the visit, he offers the seat next to him on the sofa, putting one in the comfort zone for further interactions – read on for the excerpts from the lively tête-à-tête with Mr. Natarajan.

Mr. Natarajan’s fascination for buses started very early; as a lad travelling in buses fitted predominantly with side seats, he developed an affinity for buses and wanted to get associated with the segment – when an opportunity arose, grabbed it to begin his exciting journey. During 1967, joining hands with his brother’s father-in-law as an even partner, borrowed the required money and bought 1 bus – to commence the night service between Coimbatore and B’lore, the first of its type in T.N. at that juncture to the best of his knowledge.

The time was just around 3 yrs after the Omnibus had entered in the market and about 25 to 30 permits were given at that time; and he was lucky enough to get one. “During the time when we were operating just 1 bus, I used to travel in it and even act as the cleaner; and take control of the wheel depending upon the need. This field experience exposed me to customer expectations, needs and became the foundation for shaping up the company in future viz., listening to customer’s feedback to incorporate changes and add on the fleet”, says Mr. Natarajan reminiscing his early days.

After a couple of years he teamed up with his brother to start Shivakumar Travels and a few years later in 1972 came out of partnership and started KPN Travels. There has been no looking back for him since that time. “My approach to building up the organisation has been cautious and steady; after the loan repayment for the first bus was thro’, I went for the procurement of the next one. The fleet strength was thus increased in stages and during the passage of time, we introduced many features like providing reclining seat, head rest, air suspension system and A.C. The name ‘Airbus’ was coined by me to designate the bus fitted with air suspension system and this has stuck on to all such buses fitted with it. The Airbus was introduced during 1994 with the association of wheels India that supplied and integrated the fitment to the chassis”, recalls Mr. Natarajan.

Teething problems were there with the changes and improvements done; and even the A.C. which they fitted in the initial period posed challenges but such issues were sorted out with the supplier’s active participation-today all KPN buses that have A.C. ambience are fitted with Thermo King brand and they are happy about its reliability and performance. KPN has 250 buses in its fleet and Ashok Leyland (100 plus) and Volvo (90) dominate their presence thro’ nos.

They also have introduced Volvo Eicher buses in the fleet recently and find the same to be performing to their satisfaction. All Volvo buses are multi-axle type and they also have 2 nos. Mercedes muti-axle buses in the fleet. Recently they have ordered for 10 nos. Scania multi-axle buses and would be getting delivery as the ‘first bus customer of Scania in India’ during Nov. 2013.

The buses Mr. Natarajan points out are being built in Malaysia and recently his son Mr. K.P.N. Raajesh, Executive Director who takes care of most company operations had visited them and approved the painting scheme; incidentally the first 100 buses of Scania are going to be imported as their factory in B’lore is not yet ready, he adds.

“Today all these multi-axle buses of foreign companies are priced Rs. 1 crore plus and typically have between 350 and 410 HP; and to drive them in Indian roads under the economical fuel band, we need to touch a higher speeds and at this juncture the same is simply not possible.

Hence the important program on top of the agenda for the Govt. should be to build 6 lane highway all over India. This will ensure the travel becomes faster enabling quicker movement of people and goods, resulting in various direct/indirect benefits and also in fuel savings”, opines Mr. Natarajan.

KPN has also buses with sleeper berths and these are getting increasingly popular for overnight journeys. With the increasing sophistication in the new generation buses, service factor assumes a great significance. KPN has dedicated workshops in all the cities and towns and get their vehicles serviced only there; and have their own team of service technicians to attend to various issues be it at workshops or en route.

They have mobile service vans to reach the bus that develops a snag within a period of 3 hrs. While small issues can be readily attended by drivers and technicians, in the case of attending repairs en route on fitments like electronic fuel pumps, A.C. etc., invariably they need to avail the services of the supplier – as many of these can not be set right without the basic laptop and special software that only the company technicians have access for servicing. But passengers can not be made to wait till these snags are set right and hence KPN would transfer them to other KPN buses plying on the same/nearby routes.

“We introduce new buses in the regions/sections where we have KPN bus population; that gives us the flexibility to ensure that passengers don’t lose time and get transferred on to the KPN bus in the vicinity. Also we consider such aspects and keep a buffer while booking so that situations like these can be overcome without losing customer goodwill”, points out Mr. Natarajan.

KPN is a closely held family concern that has grown in stages without compromising on the fleet quality or customer needs. In the initial days parcels were carried in buses and this caused great inconvenience to the passengers. This led them to start KPN Parcel Service in 1986 and today they have over 300 LCVs running all over South India for carrying these parcels ; and wherever they have bus offices the same locations are also utilised for parcel service operations.

In the bus domain, on an average over 6,000 passengers travel daily to over 200 destinations. KPN introduced the e-ticketing facility more than a decade ago before even the railways introduced it. This has been indeed a boon to them as it avoids double entries and gives precise information to travellers. Also they do not have commission agents to book their tickets; booking can be done either on-line or at the KPN offices located at various locations.

No overbooking is done and this ensures guaranteed seats to customers; and the buses leave on time even if the occupancy rate for some reasons do not match up to the market economy norms. This ensures that customers reach the destination on time to attend to their other plans. All the above and many other smaller but critical issues like no peak time rates have won the customers for KPN and retained them in their fold.

What about the new facilities like pantry, chemical toilet, individual seat TV and Wi-Fi in the current generation buses? Mr. Natarajan responds: “Many of these will eventually come in though I personally have some reservations about the chemical toilet facility; for buses running to Trivandrum and Hyderabad we are planning to provide quality food from reputed hotels during travel; all our buses have tube/tubeless radial tyres and GPS facilities. We can monitor the bus movements on a continuous basis and a big team at HQ attends to this aspect. Yes, we can precisely know for how long a bus stops and at which location; and if the stoppage is for more than 5 min, the bus crew will get a call to check up the reasons for it–current generation buses incorporating all the technical and customer requirements have definitely come to our aid in extending better services”, indicates Mr. Natarajan.

Drivers form the crucial link in the cogwheel of transportation and KPN has recognised this aspect. It takes various measures to keep them motivated and at the same time attend to their problems. Firstly they are neatly attired and speak politely to customers despite the repeated questions. Up to 500 km one driver takes the wheel and beyond it the second one drives the bus ; and typically for these long distance buses, they have a crew of 2 drivers and a cleaner.

Every week on Saturday all the drivers have a meeting headed by a senior driver to review their performance, challenges and other issues. It is a strict ‘no’ to alcohol and discipline is given paramount importance; the drivers are treated well and paid their salary and incentives well before the due date. All these factors ensure that KPN driver community keeps growing and very few leaving the service for greener pastures.

The industry as per Mr. Natarajan can grow if the taxation in various States hovering around Rs. 3,000-3,500 per seat for 90 days is brought down. When the buses ply across the States, they need to pay to each State the tax amount while the STUs have about Rs. 500 as tax per seat for the same period in mother State; and no tax amount levied in other States.

This puts the bus operators under great strain and the prevalent high rates of private travel firms are mainly due to this issue. Representations have been made to the Govt. to look into this aspect. “Despite the higher tax and initial investments the private sector operators continue to do business, thanks to the public patronage and encouragement. A new bus for a private operator works out about Rs. 6 lakhs or more assuming it is got thro’ the chassis and body building route as compared to the same one supplied to STU – because of various tax benefits. We understand the need to have special concessions to STUs and would only want the tax anomalies to be attended to at the earliest; in such a case we can offer better rates to customers and this will have a cascading effect, viz., in increasing the traffic and the Govt. ultimately getting more revenue both thro’ direct and other indirect modes. As regards our growth plans KPN has been predominantly a bus operator and would like to continue to grow in the same line; yes, we started the parcel service and have dedicated fuel bunks to service our vehicles and others but these are ventures closely linked to our main operations. We do get some thoughts of establishing driving schools and colleges but have little time to attend to these diversification ventures”, summarises Mr. Natarajan.

For its stellar service and performance many awards have come KPN’s way but Mr. Natarajan proudly points out: “The biggest reward for me and KPN is when a customer rings up and compliments for the excellent service; for only thro’ customer feedback and implementation of their suggestions, we have reached the stage where we are today. Ideas flow in from the customers and all our new initiatives be it the fleet changes or new routes have mainly from the customers”. With high quality customer service, comfortable new generation bus fleet, reliability laced with safety and a friendly crew, it would not come as a surprise if KPN in the future decides to spread its wings all India and soar to even greater heights.

Source – motorindiaonline..