Business Today

Death Of A Coffee King

Siddhartha is an extreme example of how using debt to fund expansions can undo you
twitter-logoProsenjit Datta | Print Edition: August 25, 2019
Death Of A Coffee King

V. G. Siddhartha's apparent suicide and the purported suicide note sent shock waves through India's business circles, especially in Bengaluru from where he operated. It also left a surfeit of unanswered questions - about the exact amount of debt he was reeling under, the value of his assets, the pressures from the private equity partner and his relationship with politicians. For a man who was excessively reserved and took great efforts to shun media publicity, his death has created exactly the kind of media spectacle he tried his best to avoid while he lived.

Some of the answers will eventually come out - like the amount of money he had borrowed from various sources, which is currently difficult to fully collate because of the maze of private and public companies through which they were taken. Others may never be fully answered - including the role of Karnataka politics in the factors that triggered his extreme step.

But his rise and fall provide glimpses of what it takes to succeed and also the factors that can undo decades of hard work.

Siddhartha was not a rags to riches story. He belonged to a wealthy, coffee estate-owning family. His ambition was to build a coffee empire that would rival those around the world and a brand name that could be spotted in the developed world's best locations. He was hard-working and initially borrowed money from his father to set up a stockbroking company. He was a lucky participant in Bengaluru's and India's software services boom. As a stockbroker, he was asked by the legendary Nimesh Kampani to pick up unsubscribed shares in Infosys's initial public offering. When the company listed and the shares went through the roof, Siddhartha made a huge profit. He subsequently invested in other tech shares of Bengaluru companies, including Mindtree. But his first love was always coffee. Any spare cash he had was ploughed back to increase his coffee plantations. Where his family had a few hundred acres, Siddhartha accumulated over 12,000 acres. He married a politician's daughter and had many political friends, but never showed the slightest inkling of building a political career. He was an early beneficiary of India's economic liberalisation, and set up Cafe Coffee Day, which is currently the dominant coffee chain in the country and holds its own in the market, despite competition from global players such as Costa Coffee and Starbucks.

He painstakingly built up his business - but finally what undid him was, among other things, the debt problems and overexpansion that has been the bane of many Indian businessmen. Siddhartha had tried to reduce his debt by raising equity - through his own IPO and later by selling his Mindtree shares. That did not prove to be enough.

The full story behind his income-tax problems will probably never be known except to a handful of people very close to him. The IT department says that it conducted raids and found evidence of unaccounted cash and a possible evidence of it being political money from his premises. The Congress claims that Siddhartha was pressured by tax authorities because of his political leanings despite the fact that his father-in-law had joined the BJP some time back.

Siddhartha is an extreme example of how using debt to fund expansions can undo you.

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