The Tragedy Behind The Death of Former Billionaire V.G. Siddhartha, India’s Coffee King


As a younger man, V.G. Siddhartha struggled to seek out the best path for himself. Perhaps the armed forces? No, no—a failed entrance examination to India’s National Defense Academy put the kibosh on that concept. What about group activism? “I was impressed by the philosophies of Karl Marx,” Siddhartha recalled a couple of years in the past, “and really thought I would become a communist leader.”

After graduating from St. Aloysius College in southern India, he struck out into the provinces, keen to place Marx’s maxims to work elevating the fortunes of the poor. This proved as impractical as navy service. The countryside was rife with corruption and nepotism, impeding any progressive agenda. “India was so poor that there was no scope to become a Robin Hood,” Siddhartha stated. “That’s when I realized that rather than being a wealth distributor, I should become a wealth creator.”

He did simply that, founding India’s largest coffee-shop chain, Coffee Day Enterprises, a $572 million-in-sales enterprise (with greater than 10,000 workers) that persuaded a rustic raised on tea to eat one thing else fully. It made him a rich man, one of the richest in India and, for a short second after Coffee Day’s 2015 IPO, a billionaire. Siddhartha got here to signify every part India dreamed of changing into: a contemporary nation the place entrepreneurs may brew new concepts, altering their lives and the circumstances of everybody linked to them because of this. That’s a radical notion for a nation constricted by millennia-old rigidity round class, construction and expectations. Siddhartha was totally conscious of this. “If I was born 20 years earlier, I would have surely failed,” he stated in 2011.

In demise, Siddhartha, 59, whose physique was discovered Wednesday morning within the Netravati River in an obvious suicide, will doubtless additionally come to signify grimmer realities: the bounds of the Indian financial miracle, the constraints of making a enterprise inside a creating market and the alleged harassment by authorities officers, which might have been not not like the corruption that disgusted him within the first place.

Siddhartha was reared on espresso, his father’s household longtime plantation house owners. He resisted following custom, although, and after school, in 1983, he took two buses from the countryside to Bombay, the place he talked his approach into a gathering with one of the nation’s largest stock-brokerage companies. (He’d examine investing in and located it attention-grabbing.) To be extra exact, Siddhartha charmed the secretary of the agency’s chief govt, Mahendra Kampani, and with the secretary’s assist, confirmed up at Kampani’s workplace someday.

“The first thing was, I felt intimidated by the two elevators [at the Bombay office]. I had never taken an elevator in my life. So I climbed up the six floors,”  Siddhartha later described that first day. From there, he reached Kampani’s internal sanctum. “He asked me who I was. I told him that I had come all the way from Bangalore, and I wanted to work for him. … I had never seen an office as large as his. … He said he would take me in, but he had no idea who I was.”

Quickly Siddhartha proved to be a pure. “If I started with $1,000, I made a $3,000 by the end of the day’s trade,” he stated. By his personal estimate, it took him solely a yr and a half to be taught the brokerage sport and construct up sufficient wealth to launch his personal e-book again in Bangalore. He began funneling earnings into espresso plantations, amassing 2,500 acres by 1992.

Around then, the Indian authorities pared again laws on espresso growers. Before, that they had been compelled to promote to a nationwide clearinghouse for 35 cents a pound, lower than half what the beans may fetch abroad. As the principles fell away, costs for espresso started to rise. They hit $2.20 a pound in 1994 when a freeze in Brazil decimated that nation’s crop. Siddhartha picked up the slack, fulfilling orders for four,000 tons. The sudden growth paved the best way for one more thought: a string of espresso homes, modeled on an identical thought he’d seen in Singapore. In 1994, Coffee Day Enterprises opened its first 20 shops. Siddhartha was “constantly thinking and creating, never happy to rest on his success,” says Nandan Nilekani, a buddy and former CEO of Infosys Technologies, an Indian technology-consulting enterprise.

Since Siddhartha owned espresso farms, he may minimize away many of the middlemen who added bills to his rivals; he even milled timber from his properties and turned it into furnishings for his eating places. Coffee Day actually took off as soon as he added computer systems with web entry to his places, creating some of India’s first cyber cafes. 

What Siddhartha beloved greater than espresso was working, and he celebrated New Year’s Eve 2009 in a Coffee Day, taking notes on methods to enhance service—and going behind the counter to see firsthand how prospects handled his workers. “I was simply amazed how indifferent people are to those who serve. Three rich women came, ordered their drinks, did not once look at me, and settled the check, did not care to tip me, but worse, did not say a ‘thank you’ before leaving for someplace else where revelry awaited them,” he stated. “It shocked me because it was New Year’s Eve. I thought people would be nice to others because they themselves were in such a joyous state of mind.” 

His industriousness was getting seen. The following yr, a bunch of buyers, together with famed KKR, put $200 million in Coffee Day for a 34% stake. Revenue was then round $200 million, and gross sales almost doubled inside 4 years, when Siddhartha took his firm public. His caffeinated kingdom prolonged throughout India, to 1,513 cafes in 219 cities. But to maintain increasing, Siddhartha grew hooked on one thing that will, apparently, weigh closely on his thoughts on the finish of his life: debt financing. Coffee Day’s whole liabilities blossomed from $189 million in 2011 to $758 million final yr.

Earlier in 2019, Siddhartha started trying to find a solution to reply calls for from his rising mountain of collectors. He tried, futilely, to speak Coca-Cola into shopping for a stake in Coffee Day and explored different asset gross sales, determined to widen his money stream. In a extra mature financial system, he might need secured different types of funding from the start—presumably the non-public fairness buyers he attracted in 2010 pushed him to load up on debt—or had the chance to borrow at much less onerous charges. We’ll by no means know what would have occurred had that been the case. But on July 29, Siddhartha switched his cellphone off, instructed his driver to take him to the Ullal Bridge over the Netravati River, obtained out of the automotive and was by no means seen alive once more.

Purportedly, Siddhartha left behind a be aware, outlining the grief that drove him to his tragic finish. He highlighted harassment from a tax official, prompting outcries from Indian politicians that the federal government has not carried out sufficient to spice up entrepreneurs like Siddhartha and tamp down on corruption. Siddhartha additionally talked about needing to borrow a big sum from a buddy to remain afloat and, of course, mounting strain from lenders. “My intention was never to cheat or mislead anyone, I have failed as an entrepreneur,” the letter reads. “This is my sincere submission, I hope someday you will understand, forgive and pardon me.”

The missive’s authenticity has not been verified. But its ending is actually very Siddhartha, a cool-minded tabulation and twin insistences: that he hoped his belongings would outweigh his liabilities and that, in the long run, his household and enterprise “can repay everyone.”

With reporting from Forbes Asia and Forbes India.

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