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Coffee Billionaire

A fast expanding coffee-to-infrastructure to-financial services sprawl already ranks V.G. Siddhartha among India's 50 richest people. And, this is just the beginning.

K.R. Balasubramanyam | Print Edition: May 16, 2010

CCD Chairman V.G. Siddhartha
It is late on an April Monday evening and the air is muggy on the northern outskirts of Bangalore, signalling premonsoon rains are not far away-a good omen for a three-dayold Cafe Coffee Day outlet that has opened on the highway to the airport in India's Silicon Valley. V. G. Siddhartha, who majority-owns the coffee chain, Asia's largest by number of outlets, is sipping a green apple soda that retails at Rs 55 a fill. Store staff wait around nervously.

A key ingredient in the drink popular among the young is soda imported from France, which alone costs Rs 12 each glass. Siddhartha makes a mental note of it. Later, that Saturday, at Chikamagalur, an estate town on the Western Ghats 260 km northwest of Bangalore, he quizzes Pradeep Kenjige, the head of a team of 15 food technologists who develop new beverages for CCD, as Cafe Coffee Day is also known. Siddhartha is told that the development team has successfully cloned the French soda for taste and effervescence, and can make it locally at one-third the imported cost.

SIDDHARTHA, THE PERSONA

  • First-gen entrepreneur; from a family of coffee planters.
  • Admits to share trading expertise. In the mid-80s, he often used to make 10 per cent returns a day.
  • Takes things personally even in business. "He's touchy; that helps in speedy action," says a PE funder.
  • Retains a strong sense of national pride. Wanted to join the Indian Army but didn't make the cut.
  • Carries a Nokia phone costing Rs 6,000, drives an Innova SUV and says his household runs on less than Rs 1,50,000 a month.
  • Regrets not buying an IPL cricket team. "I never thought it would become so big."
  • Admires the Tatas for their philanthropy. "The Rs 60 lakh they gave to establish the Indian Institute of Science (in 1909) is equivalent to Rs 7,000 crore today."
The thrifty CCD Chairman grins- he's cut out another cost coming in the way of wider customer acceptance of his coffee empire. An empire that stretches from the 10,000 acres of coffee estates he and his family own in Chikamagalur, to some 918 CCD outlets spread from Mumbai to Gangtok, from Srinagar to Thiruvananthapuram.

An acceptance that is critical to Siddhartha's ambition that CCD will rank among the top three cafe chains in the world before 2018. Market leader Starbucks runs 16,635 cafes, Dunkin Donuts 8,800, Tim Horton's 3,527 and Costa 1,511 globally, according to data from brand consultancy Harish Bijoor Consults Inc., and if Siddhartha can break into that league, he will be the first entrepreneur from outside the US and Europe to do so. And, a very prosperous man.

Siddhartha's story, never told before in deep detail, is best narrated with his first CCD outlet on Bangalore's Brigade Road, the city's main street for teenagers, tourists, and city residents out for a beer or high street shopping.

Opening for business in August 1996, the two-level cafe was schizophrenic: it served traditional south Indian filter coffee on the ground floor, and cappuccino and espresso on the mezzanine floor. Espresso was both a foreign word and taste for most customers and many frowned at the dark brew.

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