In the squalor of Vinoba Nagar, Bangalore, Kullachar Nanjundachar trudged home from the municipal school with 12 slices of bread to feed his hungry parents and seven siblings. The slices didn't come easy: the schoolboy would forego four slices on two days to bring back 12 on the third.
That was 35 years ago. Today, Nanjundachar, 49, no longer goes by the name in his school records. He is K.P. Nanjundi, owner of the Sri Lakshmi Golds Palace chain, and a well-known face across Karnataka. Nanjundi expects to end this March-end with a turnover of Rs 800 crore, and cross Rs 1,000 crore a year on.
Nanjundi already owns seven jewellery showrooms in Bangalore, Mangalore, Hubli and Belgaum, and plans to add six more, including one at Goa, in 2014/15. He also owns five silk showrooms - a typical showroom has four floors, with gold and silk occupying two each. He is also planning a capital expenditure of Rs 300 crore over the next three years to build a movie hall in Davanagere in central Karnataka, a star hotel in Mysore, and eventually list his business.
So, how did all this happen? In a candid conversation with Business Today Nanjundi bares all, often breaking down and wiping his tears while remembering his father's struggle to raise him and his siblings. He would struggle to buy even ragi, the cheapest foodgrain, says Nanjundi.
"Everything you get in a slum is third rate - from drinking water to vegetables to foodgrains," says Nanjundi, providing graphic details of life in a slum stretching along a gutter. Toilet for him and other males in the slum was the footpath of the main road (H. Siddaiah Road, Bangalore) because the only two toilets were used by all the women. "Once in a while, I still visit the slum where I lived," says Nanjundi, now a member of Bangalore's affluent business community.
His early years still rankle. His classmates got to know that he lived in a slum and stopped mixing with him. His mother tried to add to the meagre family income by selling flowers. From his goldsmith father Kullachar, Nanjundi learnt polishing, repairing and making jewellery. But their visits to jewellery shops, trying to sell small pieces of jewellery they made, were frustrating. "The shop owners would treat us like dirt, and make us wait for three to four hours," he recalls.
Nanjundi, the fourth of eight children, cleared his XII standard exam with a first class and shifted to a better school. But the hard times continued. When he was in college, his father died of liver cancer and his brother and mother took to drinking. By the time he had turned 18, Nanjundi witnessed everything a family like his was vulnerable to - poverty, starvation, humiliation, and death.
For him, drinking and smoking were not an option - he had a large family to feed. He continued with his father's profession in the morning, attended college in the evening, and plied an autorickshaw at night, catching some sleep between trips.
But still, the ends rarely met. He finally asked his married sister to give him the 15-gram mangalsutra that she had got from her husband. She gave it to him happily. Nanjundi used the gold to make small pieces of jewellery, and sold them to the big retailers. "I would fall at the feet of jewellers, urging them to buy my ornaments. Some would suspect that I had made them with stolen gold. But soon I started gaining their acceptance because they knew my father."
Perhaps, the acceptance also had something to do with a pair of spectacles he bought for Rs 100. "Since I was brought up in a slum and had strong muscles, my personality lacked finesse. To polish my appearance and look mild-mannered rather than rowdy, I started wearing glasses," says Nanjundi, removing his zero-power spectacles.
The subterfuge worked. After months of struggle, he began earning handsomely. He soon bought five autorickshaws and a cargo van. He moved his family to a leased house nearby. "It was like a palace, with a separate kitchen, hall and toilet, and power supply. I was 18 when I started using electricity at home for the first time," he says.
The Jackie Chan Magic
He opened a small jewellery shop, and later handed it over to a younger brother. As the years rolled by and finances improved, Nanjundi took a fancy to action star Jackie Chan's movies. He began sourcing them from Chennai and distributing them to exhibitors in Bangalore, making handsome gains in the process. This led to him financing movies and he became a leading financier for the Kannada movie industry. He then produced three Kannada movies.
As his reputation spread, leading Kannada movie producers started lining up at his home to meet him. On one such occasion, a big name in the industry taunted him, saying people like him were fit only to finance movies: they didn't understand acting. Here was a challenge and Nanjundi took it on. "I said: 'I have no reputation to lose. I come from a slum, not from the family of any big actor'. Today, I deliver the most lengthy and difficult dialogues in a single shot which, I am sure, not many professional actors can."
Proud of his success, the goldsmith community declared him its leader, and anointed him as President of Akhila Karnataka Vishwakarma Mahasabha. "As much as developing his own business, he has done remarkable work for the welfare of his community," says Oscar Fernandes, Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways, who has known Nanjundi for 10 years. Nanjundi was sailing through life blissfully until a road mishap hit him 10 years ago. Travelling with three Mahasabha members in Karnataka's Davanagere district, Nanjundi's car collided with a lorry. The driver survived, but three co-passengers died. A private chopper airlifted Najundi to a corporate hospital in Bangalore, the first such incident in Karnataka, recalls Ravi Hegde, Editor of Kannada daily Udayavani.
"I was in the ICU for a week with my body barely covered with a sheet. At that time, no one from the movie industry came to see me, and those who had borrowed money from me were happy to hear rumours that I was dying. I stopped my lending business after that." Eight years ago, Nanjundi entered the jewellery trade. His ad campaign in newspapers and TV channels claims to sell jewellery with the lowest wastage, and has boosted his business.
People who have watched his rise explain his success - his movie funding and distribution business gave him robust returns. He collected fat 'royalties' for the movies he funded. Nanjundi entered gold trade in a boom period of gold consumption, and one was yet to hear the word slowdown. "Corporation Bank supported me in my ventures, and the funds for my future ventures will come from a clutch of banks," he says. "I have been raided twice by income tax officials, but they found no major lapse in my business."