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'RIP, Rocky': Udayan Mukherjee's tribute to Rakesh Jhunjhunwala

'RIP, Rocky': Udayan Mukherjee's tribute to Rakesh Jhunjhunwala

"Dalal Street will always remember him, for while there may be many successful billionaire investors in the years to come, some even wealthier than him, there will never be another Rocky."

'RIP, Rocky': Udayan Mukherjee's tribute to Rakesh Jhunjhunwala 'RIP, Rocky': Udayan Mukherjee's tribute to Rakesh Jhunjhunwala

The first time I met Rakesh Jhunjhunwala was at the turn of the millennium in January 2000, as the global technology bull run was galloping to its heady climax. I was only a young TV anchor in my late twenties and he had already quite a reputation, though not quite the multi-billionaire yet. I had walked in to his office, with some trepidation, to find a portly man staring intently at a trading screen, furiously chewing paan, the run off from which had stained his trademark white shirt. When he turned to me, I may have nervously asked if he didn’t tire of staring at the same screen all day. I still remember his reply. With a gleam in his eye, he shot back - ‘My friend, it’s like having sex for six hours every day, would you be bored?’
That was Rakesh for you: sharp and witty, with a ribald sense of humour that marked him out in a room full of uninteresting punters and brokers.

Over the years that followed, I met him several times, often more than once a year and what remains with me is this lively personality of his, more even than the fabled investing acumen on which reams have already been written. What endeared him to me, and perhaps to many of his countless friends, was this exuberant and unreserved quality in him - in turns joyous, animated, even angry and foul-mouthed, but never dull. To tot up the kind of wealth he did, he must have been a shark at some level, but always one who wore his heart on his sleeve.

The other aspect which stood out was his incurable optimism. Nothing, and nobody, could ever make him see any blemish or downside to the ‘India story’. Even in the depths of a vicious bear market, he would remain convinced that it was only a matter of time before the tide turned for the better, paving the way for the mother of all bull markets. In a way, it was his biggest strength, as it helped him find the conviction to hold stocks for decades, through thick and thin. Sometimes though, it acted against him, as it wasn’t uncommon to see drawdowns of over fifty per cent in some of his holdings and he was the first to admit that he had lingered too long on an investment. ‘I reserve the right to be wrong’ was a quip he enjoyed using, and while mulish about his bets, never lacked the humility to concede that he had made an error in judgement. ‘You know, Udayan,’ he told me once, ruefully, ‘it took me years to figure out the importance of using book value and not the PE multiple in valuing banking stocks; and how many millions it must have cost me!’ It is true that for an investor as savvy as him, he missed out on the bull run in the HDFC banks and Kotak banks of the world, only to try and play catch up with some of smaller private banks later, a trade which never quite worked out. He was a proud investor too, shying away from already discovered stocks, however good they may have been. Thus, the reluctance to own Infosys and TCS, choosing instead the smaller Aptech, again a decision which won’t be remembered as his finest.

With a portfolio full of jewels and duds, his career is a glowing testament to the time-tested adage that it is time in the market, and amount of exposure to it, rather than stock selection that ultimately determines wealth creation. On this, Rakesh is the benchmark, for his exposure to the stock market was always 100% of his portfolio. So much so, that he would scoff at people who put money in Fixed Deposits or bonds. ‘How can you live in India and buy anything other than stocks?’ He would ask, bewildered, and he remained the original perma-bull till his last day.

As blue-blooded investors go, Rakesh was a strange beast. On one hand, he would build a position in a stock and then hold it for years, without flinching, to realise its full potential, in classic Warren Buffet style. On the other, he would actively trade futures and options, moving in and out of counters with the practised ease of a hard nosed day-trader. I asked him about this once and his response was classic Rakesh. ‘Investing is like sipping wine slowly, trading like downing Tequila shots. You know which is good for health, but also which one is more thrilling!’

The punter in him led him down some risky paths over the years. Maybe the long periods of holding the Titans and CRISILs bored him and he longed for a frisson of excitement, for what else could explain his dabbles in names like Mandhana and Dewan Housing? The lure of a quick buck, surely, and choices he must have regretted. But this attribute also made him open to seeking opportunities in sectors many conventional investors shun, such as gambling and gaming. Delta corp and Nazara Technologies are among his prominent holdings and I may have questioned the wisdom of owning a casino company once when he rebuffed it with - ‘Casinos and brothels can never go out of business, as long as human beings live.’ Try countering that.

Towards the last decade of his life, one could see that his focus had shifted to ‘creating’ businesses rather than simply being a passive investor in them. Perhaps it was his legacy that he had in mind, or the path blazed by his mentor Radhakishan Damani, the founder of D-Mart, that he wanted to emulate. His investment in Star Health Insurance and launch of the Akasa airline are a testament to such aspirations. I also sensed that he knew time was running out for him. All the years of intemperate living - he always drank much more than was good for him - had taken their toll. My last conversation with him was shortly after he had bounced back from a prolonged illness last year. Battered by it but still the same, old Rakesh; ever optimistic, speaking with childlike enthusiasm about the mansion he was building in Mumbai, how wonderfully his daughters had turned out and how much he treasured his time with the family. He may have had only 62 years but in that he packed in what others would in a life of a hundred, or more.

Dalal Street will always remember him, for while there may be many successful billionaire investors in the years to come, some even wealthier than him, there will never be another Rocky.