The body of Cafe Coffee Day (CCD) founder V.G. Siddhartha was recovered early Wednesday morning around 9 kilometres from the Nethravati bridge in Mangaluru where he was last seen on Monday evening. Digital news platform The News Minute reports that his body is being taken to Wenlock Hospital for a post-mortem.
Various agencies, from the local police to the Indian Coast Guard, were engaged in search operations for Siddhartha, chairman and managing director of Coffee Day Enterprises Limited (CDEL), who was reported missing since Monday evening. CDEL, in which Siddhartha owns close to 54% stake, is the owner and operator of India’s largest cafe chain, CCD.
A letter purportedly written by Siddhartha surfaced on Tuesday which claims that he was under financial duress. While the authenticity of the letter is yet to be confirmed by authorities, the company’s board, after an emergency meeting on Tuesday, said in a statement that they were shocked at the development and assessing the situation. Steps have been taken that the business is not affected, the statement said.
There have been indications of trouble arising from debt at the company for some time now. A Mint report on Tuesday said that there were several questions about debt reduction when the company held a conference call with analysts to discuss March quarter results. The company said that debt had fallen to ₹2,400 crore. However, this figure seemed unlikely, for the ₹2,100 crore net proceeds (after paying taxes and expenses) from the Mindtree deal would have taken care of more than half of the consolidated net debt which was ₹3,750 crore at the end of the December quarter. In March this year, Siddhartha had sold his 20.32% stake in the Bengaluru-based mid-tier IT service firm to infrastructure major Larsen & Toubro (L&T) for ₹3,269 crore.
The contents of the letter is in stark contrast to what most know about a man who is arguably the lord and master of coffee beans in India. “I take a long term call on all things I do,” said Siddhartha in an earlier interaction in Mumbai in 2015. “If you don't take a long-term call you can’t create value and create great things.” And that’s pretty much how he has gone about building his businesses which now span sectors such as real estate, logistics, financial services, and hospitality. All businesses operate under CDEL.
Take for instance his investment in Mindtree. “It started in my office in 1999 and I gave [its founders] $2 million in investment. Mindtree has given me 41% IRR [internal rate of return] in the last 16 years,” Siddhartha had said four years ago. Likewise, his investments in coffee and building a brand around it with CCD were a long-term strategy of his.
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 eighties after Siddhartha had become a hot-shot stock broker in Mumbai that he started acquiring more coffee estates in the Deccan region to build up a sizeable coffee business. “I traded in equity, more specifically, in inter-market arbitration. That’s how money was made by everybody back then. So, when I made money I started buying property [coffee plantations],” said Siddhartha. He made so much money in trading that between 1985 and 1992 he bought 3,500 acres of coffee plantations in and around his father’s estate.
Some of the companies he had placed big bets on were Infosys, TVS and Hero MotoCorp. However, in 1992, he gave up trading in the stock markets. In fact, fifteen days prior to Harshad Mehta making headlines for his involvement in a multi-million dollar stock market scam, Siddhartha had exited from all his stock market investments. “It was written on the wall that something was going completely wrong,” Siddhartha had said then. Much later he set up an investment consultancy firm Way2Wealth, which is part of CDEL.
By 1995, with his vast tracts of coffee estates, Siddhartha become India’s largest coffee exporter. 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. But, he wanted to be more than just a coffee producer. “Being a coffee grower, I wanted to be in every aspect of the coffee business in India,” he said.
In 1996, Siddhartha opened the first CCD outlet on Brigade Road in Bengaluru with a vision of “connecting people over a cup of coffee”. It was a 2,000 sq. ft outlet that served coffee priced at ₹25 per cup, and allowed customers to access the Internet through 17-inch IBM computers. CCD’s prices were five times the price of a cup of filter coffee available at a local store then. “I just wanted to sell coffee in style,” Siddhartha had said.
The total cost in setting up his first store was ₹1.5 crore, a small amount then for a man who’s coffee export business was making profits in crores of rupees. Since then, as mentioned in Coffee Day Enterprises’ 2018 annual report, “Coffee and hangout spaces in India would never again be the same”.
As of 2018, CCD had close to 2,700 retail coffee points across the country and 47,500 plus vending machines across corporate India. The company controlled more than 70% of the vending business in fresh milk coffee in India.