Ranjan Pai’s mind keeps going back to the words of V.G. Siddhartha, founder of India’s largest cafe chain Café Coffee Day (CCD) who was found dead on Wednesday. “When I was going through the Fortis transaction last year he [Siddhartha] had called me one night and spoke to me at length about the deal,” says Pai, chairman of Manipal Education and Medical Group (MEMG). “Don’t lose hope and keep going at it. The asset [Fortis Hospitals] is very good,” Siddhartha told Pai then.

Pai recalls that post the conversation with Siddhartha he felt very positive. But today when the Bengaluru-based billionaire entrepreneur heard that Siddhartha’s body was recovered 9 kilometres away from the Nethravathi bridge in Mangaluru where he was last seen on Monday evening, Pai simply couldn’t connect the dots—between the Siddhartha he knew and how his life ended.

“I have known him over the last 10 years. He was very calm and reserved, a bit shy, but very much a gentleman in the business circle today. He would never engage in small talk and fluff. Always to the point,” said Pai. The two were also office neighbours in Bengaluru’s central business district; Pai’s office is on the topmost floor of the JW Marriott hotel, opposite the headquarters of Siddhartha’s company Coffee Day Enterprises Limited (CDEL). Both their corner offices overlooked Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park, an envy of many corporate honchos in India’s tech city.

I have always known him to be very optimistic. That’s why I can’t relate to how it ended
Ranjan Pai, chairman, Manipal Education and Medical Group

Siddhartha, chairman and managing director of CDEL, which runs India’s iconic cafe chain CCD, was reported missing since Monday evening. According to a report by digital platform The News Minute, Siddhartha had got out of his car near a bridge across the Nethravathi river in Mangaluru in Karnataka. His driver panicked when he did not return in an hour, and informed the family. A massive search and rescue operation was launched by the local police and at 6.30 am on Wednesday his body was found.

Like Pai, numerous business leaders and industry experts Fortune India spoke to expressed shock over his tragic end. Incidentally, a letter purportedly written by Siddhartha surfaced on Tuesday which claims that he was under severe financial duress.

The CDEL board on Wednesday said they would investigate the legitimacy of the letter in which Siddhartha is said to have written that he failed as an entrepreneur—a fact that none in the business community are willing to accept.

“Siddhartha was a visionary. I would say that he leaves behind a legacy that he can definitely be proud of,” says Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairperson and managing director of Biocon Ltd.

Yet she recalls him complaining about the fact that the stock market was down, his share value was down, and that he was finding it difficult to keep borrowing. The fact is that nearly 76% of his 54% shareholding in CDEL was pledged to various lenders. Multiple media reports suggest that the company’s gross debt had climbed to over Rs 6,500 crore at the end of fiscal 2019.

“He [Siddhartha] was actually quite on top of this (so-called) financial crisis. Because he ran a profitable business,” asserts Mazumdar-Shaw. “The financial burden that he undertook was not insurmountable. There might have been something beyond that.”

An investment banker, who didn’t wish to be identified pointed out that with the ongoing crisis in the NBFC sector, the rotation of money in the market has come to a halt, impacting many businesses. “This could impact the working capital flow in the business. However, it is hard to pinpoint any one particular reason that has led to the financial stress in his [Siddhartha’s] businesses,” said the banker.

In March, Siddhartha had sold his 20.32% stake in the Bengaluru-based mid-tier IT service firm Mindtree to infrastructure major Larsen & Toubro (L&T) for ₹3,269 crore to pare debt. There were even media reports of him looking to sell some of his commercial real estate assets, which could have raked in funds to the tune of ₹2,800 crore.

“I don’t want to speculate. Obviously, something was not comfortable for him and so uncomfortable that he decided to take an extreme step,” said Harish H.V., managing partner, ECube Investment Advisors, an ESG (environment, social and governance) platform.

There will be a lot of speculation—some real, some imagined. There will be one set which will blame the government and tax authorities, and there will be one that will try and paint him [Siddhartha] as a villain. The truth will be somewhere in the middle
Harish H.V.

An investor, who didn’t want to be identified, said, “I spoke to many of his [Siddhartha’s] close friends and colleagues and they told me financially things were not so bad that he had to take his life.”

But then Siddhartha, while being an affable person was also considered to be a loner, pointed out a person who knew him well. “He was a very private person. He didn’t open up to people easily,” said the person, who didn’t wish to be named. “He probably kept things to himself and couldn’t share it with his close circle of people. It is mentally stressful when you can’t share what you are going through.”

Siddhartha was a business leader who firmly set his sights on the endgame. His weapon: take long-term calls to create value. And that’s pretty much how he built his businesses, which span sectors such as real estate, logistics, financial services, and hospitality.

“He actually built the Internet cafe sector for India,” points out Mazumdar-Shaw. His first CCD outlet in Bengaluru in 1996 had Internet, a trend which spurred the Internet cafe revolution in the country. “To a large extent, Bengaluru’s startup culture owes a lot to what he did in the late ‘90s when he invested in Mindtree and a number of other companies,” added Harish.

Coffee is something that Siddhartha grew up with as his paternal family had been growing coffee in India since 1870. However, as a result of a split in the family in 1956, Siddhartha’s father chartered his own path in the coffee trade by acquiring an abandoned 479-acre coffee estate in Chikmagaluru in Karnataka.

It was only in the late ‘80s after Siddhartha had become a hotshot stockbroker in Mumbai that he started acquiring more coffee estates in the Deccan region to build up a sizeable coffee business. He made so much money in trading between 1985 and 1992 and bought 3,500 acres of coffee plantations in and around his father’s estate. In his personal capacity, he is said to own over 12,000 acres of plantation land in India, besides owning vast tracks of forest land outside of the country.

While the jury is still out on whether a debt overhang was the actual cause of Siddhartha’s death, in every tragedy, there are lessons to be learnt. “Having a huge debt or being over-leveraged does expose one to high risk. And if you don’t have the ways to manage that risk properly it will have a huge impact on you,” said Mazumdar-Shaw. “And it’s sad, as I didn’t expect Siddhartha to be that person. He was very resilient.”

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