It is late afternoon when Forbes India meets Raamdeo Agrawal, 59, at his corner office at Motilal Oswal Tower in Mumbai’s Lower Parel. The joint managing director (MD) of Motilal Oswal Financial Services Ltd (MOFSL) has a Moscow-bound, red-eye flight to catch in a few hours and he has made time for this conversation in between a bunch of office meetings.
The eighth-floor office provides a peek into Agrawal’s personality and also the investing style of his company. There is a cabinet packed with books on topics ranging from investment to management; among them, Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup and Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. There are hardly any books on stock markets or short-term trading.
Also on his desk is John Kay’s Other People’s Money, a book he has been recommending to his team lately, and four other books he plans to read on his flight. All of them deal with how to build and sustain businesses. “We have a culture of reading in this office. It helps us work on new ideas,” says Agrawal.
He is proof of that. Agrawal has used his bookish knowledge practically. It helped him start MOFSL, with close friend Motilal Oswal, in 1987 as a sub-broking firm and grow it into a financial conglomerate with interests in broking, private equity, home loans, portfolio management services (PMS) for HNIs and most recently mutual funds. In FY16, the group garnered revenues of Rs 1,055 crore and a net profit of Rs 163.32 crore.
But it was building the mutual fund business that tested the patience of Agrawal and Oswal. Motilal Oswal Mutual Asset Management Company was a late entrant in the market. It began in 2010 by selling exchange traded funds (ETFs), which were not successful and Agrawal had to revisit the idea. In 2013, in a change of strategy, the mutual fund business launched actively-managed funds, which turned out to be a key decision of his professional life.
That year, Motilal Oswal Mutual Fund launched three schemes in the large-, mid- and multi-cap segments, which have outperformed their respective categories. The flagship fund, Focused Multicap 35, has delivered an annualised return of 26 percent over the last two years, compared with 9 percent for the BSE 500. The Focused Largecap 25 has returned 14.62 percent against the Nifty’s 5.76 percent in the same period. The Focused Midcap 30 has delivered returns similar to the Multicap 35. MOFSL currently manages equities to the tune of Rs 10,000 crore, of which Rs 5,420.52 crore is in the mutual funds business and the rest in the PMS business.
“Building the mutual fund business was tough. We were the outsiders. It took us time to crack the code but we finally did it. We never hired any of our fund managers from the mutual fund industry; all our talent is homegrown,” says Motilal Oswal, 54, chairman and MD, who has oversight of the overall business while Agrawal manages the investment piece.
The mutual fund had to go through a lot of pain in its initial years, before active funds were launched. The firm hired Nitin Rakesh as the CEO and MD of the business in 2008. The maiden mutual fund offering, in 2010, was known as India’s first ‘fundamentally-enhanced’ ETF, popularly called active ETFs. ETFs are products that track an index by investing in a fixed portfolio of stocks and can be traded on the bourses. ETFs had been around in India since 2001. But the idea of an enhanced, or active, ETF was new. In an active ETF, the fund manager tries to enhance returns by actively changing the weightages of the stocks in the portfolio. Agrawal gave Rakesh the go-ahead to test the waters for the product in India.
Rakesh had led the India operations of State Street Syntel Services, a joint venture between State Street Bank and Syntel, for six years till 2008. He had focussed more on product development and risk management in his career than investment management. Rakesh felt India was ETF-ready.
“Agrawal has a deep knowledge of the competitive advantages of companies. In 2004, he told me that holding companies in India do not get good valuations. He has been so right about it,” says Sonthalia. He adds that Agrawal’s attention to research has worked wonders for the PMS business.
Meanwhile, his partner Motilal Oswal was asking Agrawal to collapse the proprietary book and move that money into the mutual fund business. The idea was to align the company’s interests with that of the investors. Agrawal was initially averse to the idea. He had built a portfolio of $100 million over the last 20 years and it was a difficult decision to shut this down. But Oswal convinced him. “Moving our proprietary money into the mutual fund was the best way to tell the customers about our conviction in the product,” Oswal tells Forbes India.
The mutual fund had already filed for the large-cap Focused 25 fund in May 2013 and Agrawal felt that it made sense to move the proprietary book into the mutual fund business. In 2014, the mutual fund launched the Focused Midcap 30 fund and the Focused Multicap 35 fund. By April 2015, Agrawal moved around $100 million into the three, but predominantly the Focused 35 scheme. Similarly, Agrawal also collapsed the corporate treasury and invested the money into the same schemes. As of May 31 this year, the Focused 35 has a corpus of Rs 3,765 crore. The funds have a high exposure to InterGlobe Aviation that runs Indigo Airlines. “This is a company that perfectly fits into our QGLP matrix. The headroom for growth is there in the aviation business. Here is a company that has made an asset light business with low debt. It is basically a service offering. The market is growing and Indigo has a 38 percent market share. The business throws out cash. It is sustainable,” says Taher Badshah, chief investment officer of the mutual fund business.
In essence, everything fell in place when Agrawal decided to look at mutual funds the way he would manage his personal wealth—through the value investing philosophy of Buffett. In fact, Agrawal travels to Omaha every year to attend the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders’ meet and hear Buffett speak.
Critics argue that Motilal Oswal’s mutual fund schemes succeeded because they were launched when Narendra Modi was declared the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in September 2013. The market went up by 40 percent in the next one year. Many analysts say it was prudent timing that helped these schemes top the charts and growth may not be sustainable. They also say the investment business at Motilal Oswal is a one-man show and Agrawal doesn’t have a succession plan.
But Agrawal counters this: “Our investing business is based on processes that everyone in the company follows. I’m more of a philosopher-guide. The entire business is looked after by professionals that worked through the ranks.” Sommaiyaa concurs. He says that the business of Motilal Oswal is based on solid ideas and they have the ability to destroy the ideas that don’t work. He recalls his first day in office. Agrawal called him for a meeting and gave him Joan Magretta’s Understanding Michael Porter: The Essential Guide to Competition and Strategy, and told him, “These are my views on how a business should be built.”
The book summed up the core idea in the first few pages: ‘Aim to be unique and not the best’. Creating value is more important, not beating competition, Agrawal told Sommaiyaa. And, as with other businesses, value investing has worked for Motilal Oswal’s mutual funds too.
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(This story appears in the 19 August, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)