CHENNAI: A blue-coloured Hyundai Eon with a bright red L-sticker drives into the parking lot of Vijaya Driving School in Nungambakkam. Against the setting sun, wiping the beads off his brows, A Radhakrishnan, owner of the driving school and a driving instructor, steps out of the car, after winding up the evening classes. “Don’t keep your hands stiff while holding on to the steering. Also, you should apply the brakes in such a way that the person sitting behind should not feel the jerk, ” he advises.
It’s been more than three decades since Radhakrishnan took up the reins of the business that was started by his father R Anandan in 1959. Sixty years since its inception with a fluctuating economy, changing customer expectations, advancements in the automobile industry, cut-throat competition and a global pandemic the driving school has seen many rough roads but the wheels kept running.
“After quitting his job as a driver, my father started this school for better prospects in Nungambakkam. It’s named after my mother Vijaya because my father started driving after marrying her. He used to park his Morris Minor with an L-sticker on the main road of Nungambakkam. The passers-by would pause to enquire and then join the classes. The fee was Rs 150 back then. Soon he rented a shed in the same neighbourhood, got a couple of more cars and moved there."
"By 1977, government approval was mandatory to run a driving school and we were the second licensed driving school in the city back then. Out of the 20-25 driving schools that started along with us, hardly one or two have survived, with 100 other players at present,” narrates Radhakrishnan.
Paving the right path
Besides the road traffic recognition charts and boards explaining the hydraulic brake systems, starting and charging systems, and spare parts of the car engine hung on the wall, the office has two dummy carlike set up with an accelerator, brake and clutch. “My father was ahead of his times. He designed the dummy cars to offer an experience similar to what a simulator does today. This is where beginners get a hang of operating a car on their first day and so did I. As a kid, I used to clean the cars in our shed and accompany my father in the backseat during his driving lessons.
I picked up the skills by observing him and listening to his instructions. Soon after I turned 18, I got my licence and joined him,” recalls Radhakrishnan. It’s been a gradual growth through word-of-mouth, he says. Until 1976, the driving school had Morris Minors, Fiat models and Ambassadors. By 1989, they purchased a few Maruti 800 models. Within a few years, Santro, Eon and other hatchbacks joined the list. Currently, they have four cars to teach their students. “Fuel prices have drastically increased. Yet, we continue to offer 5 km a day for 22 classes.
There’s no compromising on theory classes either. Since March, we’ve been charging Rs 6,500 for teaching driving. After paying instructors and the RTO fees, there’s hardly any profit. But that’s the nature of the business. Even during my father’s days, he made enough to feed and provide us with education but there was no savings,” he shares. While Radhakrishnan is focussed on the front-end operations, his brother A Murali is in-charge of RTO and licencerelated work for their students. Two other instructors handle the driving classes for different batches of students from morning until noon.
“To date, I come to the office at 5.45 am as most students prefer early morning sessions. From the age of 18, anybody who is in a good physical condition is allowed to learn. Those days, there were only a few female students and most were from affluent backgrounds. My father had to go to their house, pick them up and teach driving. But soon after I took over the business I ensured that everybody learnt at the school. Now, there are more female s tud ent s , ” point s out Radhakrishnan.
A bumpy road
While there’s been a spurt in the number of students with increasing purchasing power, it’s the dedication that has gone down, feels Radhakrishnan. “Students were punctual and used to wait arrive early for classes. They would interact with other batchmates. Even parents encouraged us to be strict with them until they mastered the art. But now, we need to be cautious and patient. Students don’t like being scolded. The point of taking other students in the same batch is to ensure they observe and learn from others’ mistakes.
But everybody is glued to their smartphones. Some instructors give up halfway and in that case, I need to take over that specific student and teach. I cannot risk the business as each one is a priority,” he rues. Radhakrishnan agrees that not everybody who’s a good driver has to be a good teacher. “Even when I select instructors, I observe them from a closer distance and take them along with me for driving classes so that they see and learn.
There’s a knack to teach driving and that’s what has brought me this far in my career. I have multi-generational customers. I always say, ‘you learn in our car and practise in yours.’ A strong foundation is mandatory for driving and this is why you can’t learn on your own. If my students drive well now, it’s because of their effort so the credit should not come to me entirely,” says Radhakrishnan, whose expansive list of clients includes comedian Vivek, actor Livingston, actor Janakaraj’s son and other celebrities.
The journey matters
It’s the customer loyalty, relentless dedication on his part along with his team, and hardearned reputation that keeps the driving school going even without advertisements or social media promotions. “Nothing comes close to recommending someone to opt for our school from your personal experience of learning there. That adds more credibility. Only recently, my students told me that we have a good rating on Google. Now I’m focussing on improving that aspect as digitisation is inevitable and you need to adapt. That apart, the RTO procedure to apply for a licence too has moved online.
We do not handle the licence works and driving classes for heavy vehicles. That’s a different segment,” he elaborates. Radhakrishnan is not the one to be caught up in the rat race. Customer and personal satisfaction, he believes, are significant factors to measure growth. “I have many customers who drop halfway from other driving schools to join here. While the fancy and pricey ones may seem attractive, not all deliver what they promise. There are no shortcuts to learning and that doesn’t change with time,” he says. They say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
True to this principle, after remaining closed for four months since mid-March 2020, the driving school reopened after lockdown relaxations on August 6, 2020. They’ve been operating with hygiene protocols in place ever since. “In the initial days, when we were closed, I was looking after the two and four-wheeler licence process and earning a small amount from that. We managed with the savings. Our peak seasons are vacat ions. Fortunately, after opening, we’ve been having the same count of 40-50 students a month. As colleges remain closed and most offices are operating with work from home policy, people are opting to make use of this convenience.
I’m taking only two people per trip to teach, one in the front and one sits behind. Vehicles are sanitised and masks are mandatory, ” says Radhakrishnan wh o ’s uncertain about the future of the driving school after him. “I will teach as long as I can. I’m not sure about the legacy of this long-standing driving school after that,” he adds. Only time will tell how long Vijaya Driving School will manage to travel on the long road ahead.
Address: 140, New no 203, Subbarayan Street, Valluvar Kottam High Road, Nungambakkam, Chennai: 600034 For details, call: 28273614