It was 2004, just a few years after he took Café Coffee Day national. But there was never any doubt that V G Siddhartha was headed for bigger things. He was the flag-bearer for Bangalore’s rapidly exploding entrepreneurial scene, yet unknown and publicity-shy when he met Man’s World’s Allen Mendonca for this piece. What stood out was his shy, understated and self-effacing style, the essence of which was captured in the title. “I’m not a very smart guy. I just employ smart people,” he told us.
The tragedy of this article is that both the writer and the subject are not with us anymore.
The Calmness of Siddhartha
– by Allen Mendonca
When Sun Microsystems created JAVA, the programming language that could be used on any platform, and created the motif of a steaming cup of coffee to toast the caffeine that inspired the breakthrough, little did Scott McNealy realize that it would set off a young Bangalore entrepreneur on a corporate adventure of his own. Not only was V G Siddhartha inspired to create India’s largest coffee retail network in the form of Café Coffee Day, he has also gone on to become one of the country’s most successful IT venture capitalists.
Siddhartha is even more publicity shy than his new rival from Chennai, Barista’s C Sivasankaran. “I want my ventures to speak for themselves. I want them to turn into corporate institutions of excellence,” is his refrain. The fact that he is the son-in-law of the former Karnataka Chief Minister SM Krishna did not help matters. Congress’ recent poor showing in the state must have been a relief, for Krishna’s long shadow that hovered around everything Siddhartha did, has finally lifted. Last year, C Dinakar, a retired Director General of Police of Karnataka had opened a Pandora’s Box of controversy by writing a book accusing Krishna of paying a huge ransom to the notorious brigand Veerappan to secure the release of the kidnapped matinee idol Raj Kumar. The book alleged that Siddhartha had personally delivered Rs. 10 crore in two installments to Veerappan’s henchmen. “I am a businessman. I pay my taxes. I do my bit for society. I have no time to be drawn into controversies not of my making,” Siddhartha says.
“I am a businessman. I pay my taxes. I do my bit for society. I have no time to be drawn into controversies not of my making,” Siddhartha says.
Siddhartha is tall, pleasant looking in a rakish sort of way and infuriatingly reclusive. You won’t find him on page 3 of the metro supplements. In fact most newspapers don’t even possess a quality photograph of his, though his every move on the business chess board is reported in the financial dailies. But that’s not prevented Café Coffee Day being rated as No. 40 in Brand Equity’s latest list of India’s top 50 most trusted service brands. “The brands that beat me in the café category are Pizza Hut and McDonald’s,” he says. In less than two years his chain has grown to become the largest in the country with 136 cafés in 33 cities along with 6,600 vending machines and 59 small format Xpress cafes. The target is to increase the number of cafes to around 200 by June this year, 10,000 vending machines and 100 Xpress outlets by next year. Like Sivasankaran (or is it the other way around) Siddhartha is also studying the business opportunities for his Café Coffee Day brand in the neighbouring countries as well as in the burgeoning economics of the Far East.
In his well-appointed office, with M F Hussain paintings prominent on the walls, Siddhartha unwinds by first ordering a Café Coffee Day take-away from the kiosk outside the building. “More sugar?” he asks, proffering a sachet. He is thinking about the irony of politics. His IT and biotech-loving father-in-law’s Congress Party was deflected in the rural districts by the thousands of farmers who believed they had been neglected, when they needed the government’s help most during the three years of drought. Siddhartha, after all, is essentially a farmer too, with his company Amalgamated Bean Coffee owning over 5000 acres of coffee plantations in the verdant Western Ghats. “Gandhi was right. We must never forsake our farmers. They are the lifeblood of our existence.”
“Gandhi was right. We must never forsake our farmers. They are the lifeblood of our existence.”
His father, Gangiah Hegde had bought 479 acres of coffee plantation in Moodigere near Chikmagalaur in the late 50s and Siddhartha had spent his youth there before moving to Mangalore to complete his B.Com from Aloysius College in the late 70s. He then shifted to Mysore for a Master’s in Economics but got bored midway and left for Mumbai, where he joined J M Financials (now JM Morgan Stanley) learning the ropes of the stock market. He founded Sivan Securities in Bangalore in 1984 and had a personal bull run for the next six years. “Between 1985 and 1992, I made a killing in the stock market. It was during these years that I began purchasing coffee plantations that were being sold at the distress rates of Rs 6000-Rs 20,000 per acre in the Chikmagalur area. What goes down must go up, that was my reading. Indian growers were then earning 35 cents per pound of coffee, when internationally traders earn $1.20 per pound. But the situation was bound to improve, for India was in the throes of globalisation and I knew instinctively that we would be forced to learn to market our produce better, or sink.” Siddhartha had read the writing on the wall. His leveraged buyouts of coffee estates resulted in him becoming the owner of over 5000 acres of coffee plantations. By the early 90’s, his company Amalgamated Bean had become the second largest coffee plantation company in the country after the Tatas.
“I’m not a very smart guy. I just employ smart people.”
By 1993, the Coffee Board had become irrelevant and Gangiah turned to his son one day and said, “You are doing very well. Why don’t you start something that will be of help to small growers now that the board is defunct?” So Siddhartha began trading in coffee with an investment of Rs. 1 crore. “I was driving with my wife Mallavika one evening when she suggested that we call the company Amalgamated Bean Coffee Trading Company (or ABC). Within two years, ABC made a profit of Rs. 12 crores and in the years that followed, traded an average of 12,000 tons of coffee annually. The company purchased a loss-making coffee-curing factory in Hassan, turned it around and set up another at Chikmagalur, together processing over 50,000 tons of coffee. All of this meant a steady income for small growers and jobs for skilled workers. “I saw to it that small growers were benefited. I also ensured that the local youth found jobs in my estate and in the coffee-curing factory,” he says.
The next logical progression was into coffee retailing. ABC opened 20 Coffee Day Fresh ‘n’ Ground stores, selling various blends in Bangalore and Chennai and kept expanding rapidly. And it wasn’t long before he hit upon the idea of serving coffee to consumers. “I was walking along Boat Quay in Singapore with an investment banker in 1995 when I spotted an Internet pub and the idea took hold,” he says. “I decided I will try the concept with coffee.” That was how India’s first Internet café – Coffee Day opened on Brigade Road and spawned a café revolution in the new millennium. In the last two years, Café Coffee Day outlets have opened in most of the major cities. “Till now, over 25 million people have visited our outlets and we will soon be opening cafés in neighbouring countries,” he says. There are also Xpress kiosks and vending machines and investment in a new venture, Daily Bread, that will churn out a variety of specialised breads including Italian and French offerings.
Recognition for what he had done came in the form of The Economic Times Entrepreneur of the Year Award last year, for creating a new national brand and lifestyle chain.
Coffee, however was not Siddhartha’s only love. He had continued to invest in the stock market all along. In the mid 1990s he saw the oncoming IT boom and founded Global Technology Ventures Ltd. (GTV) as an offshoot of Sivan. “The objective was to invest in exceptional entrepreneurs with guts for the original, and passionately dedicated to building category-leading tech companies.” He invested in five promising start-ups and within a short span Banc America Equity Partners valued his holdings in them at $80 million. They invested $20 million in GTV, followed by fresh investments by AIG and Nomura International.
In April this year, Ittiam Systems, a start-up founded by former Texas Instrument India Head Srini Rajam and founded by Global Technology Ventures (GTV) announced a profit of US $1.03 million. The company works in the niche space of Digital Signal Processing applications in multimedia and communication through of slew of hardware and software products. It has already filed eight patent applications for its technology in the USA, and seven more applications are in the queue. “All within a span of just three years,” Siddhartha says. GTV’s other ventures like Mindtree, Ivega and Kshema are also making waves internationally. Siddhartha in that sense is also among the country’s more successful venture capitalists. When I ask about this, he is characteristically self-effacing. “I’m not a very smart guy. I just employ smart people.” This is from someone whose collective worth runs into hundreds of crores.
Early this year, Siddhartha launched the Amber Valley Residential School in Chikmagalur. Located on 35 acres of wooded hills, the ICSE school will concentrate on educating youngsters talented in sports to become professional sports persons. Former cricketer Javagal Shrinath has already signed up as a consultant, and very soon there will be many more from various disciplines.
“I have already begun work on a vocational school in the same area for the hundreds of village children and youth of the district. Their boarding and lodging will be free.” Siddhartha stretches. It’s been a long interview. “Have another coffee,” he says. The phone buzzes. He speaks softly. “There’s a young foreign-returned IT engineer with a game-plan for a new company. Got to check it out,” he says.
He gets into his silver Scorpio and is off for the meeting.
Days later I ask him, “No Merc, no Beamer. What will happen to the economy if people like you don’t splurge?”
He grins. That’s his way of saying ‘No Comment’.
*This article originally appeared in Man’s World in November 2004.