Serving It Hot

For his family, coffee was a bean to be grown. But for Siddhartha, it has always been an experience to be offered. The rest, as they say, is history

Published: May 18, 2009 07:00:00 AM IST
Updated: Jul 30, 2019 03:18:28 PM IST

"Where were you on New Year’s Eve, Siddhartha,” I asked the boyishly handsome man who serves a million cups of coffee a day, as he sat down in my study.

“I was in Calcutta,” he said. An unusual place for the man from Chikmagalur whose money could buy him a holiday in Bali, Big Island, New York or someplace on the French Riviera. Why Calcutta? Turned out that he prays at the Dakshineswar Temple. For two generations, the family has believed in the Ramkrishna Mission order.

But he wasn’t at the temple until the morning of the New Year. He was actually at the Café Coffee Day (CCD) outlet near Calcutta’s Woodburn Street. “How could I be partying while 10,000 of my own people were working that night? I decided to join them and the only job I could do well in an outlet was not that of the manager but of the server at the table.”

So there he was, wearing the CCD uniform, all the way from the 31st evening until close to 3 a.m. of the New Year; running in and out, cleaning tables, greeting unsuspecting customers, seating them, taking their orders, serving the frothy cups and settling their cheques.

The Self Made Man: VG Siddhartha in conversation with Subroto Bagchi
Image: Mallikarjun Katakol for Forbes India
The Self Made Man: VG Siddhartha in conversation with Subroto Bagchi

What was the biggest lesson for him in all this?
“I was simply amazed how indifferent people are to those who serve. Three rich women came, ordered their drinks, did not once look at me, and settled the cheque, did not care to tip me, but worse, did not say a ‘thank you’ before leaving for someplace else where revelry awaited them. It shocked me because it was New Year’s Eve. I thought people would be nice to others because they themselves were in such a joyous state of mind.”

It was time to change the subject. I wanted to know about his beginnings.

“Tell me how you started your life.”
“I was just 21. I told my father that I wanted to learn about financial investing. That I wanted to start something on my own. Ancestrally, we are farmers — we have only grown coffee in Chikmagalur. My father did not quite see where I was heading. Left to the family, making money was not a priority: 350 acres of coffee gave us enough annuity — you could make 10 lakh a year growing coffee.”
He paused.

“My father really had two sons — myself and a cousin. My uncle, a doctorate in mathematics from Zurich had died young, his son was my age. While he wanted to be a wildlife photographer, I wanted to go to Bombay to know what the investment world was like, make money on my own. So, father called us both and gave us Rs. 5 lakh each. He told me that I could start my investment business with that and if I ever failed, to come back.”

“You put that money to stock market?”
“No. I thought I should not do two things: Invest even before I learnt the world of investing. Second, put my father’s grant to risk. So, I bought a piece of land for about three lakh and kept the rest in a bank. Then, I took a bus to Belgaum and then another to Bombay. I got off near the Fort. I had never stepped into the city before. I walked into a dabba hotel that rented rooms with a shared toilet for Rs. 120 a day. Next day, I went to meet Mahendra Kampani of JM Financials — I had only heard the name. I had no appointment. I went to his office and the first thing was that I felt intimidated by the two elevators. I had never taken an elevator in my life. So, I climbed up the six floors. I met his secretary, a man named Mohan. I told him that I wanted to meet Mahendra Kampani; that I wanted to work with him. Mohan was a Bangalore guy. The man somehow felt sympathetic. He said that I could gatecrash just when he would be coming out of Mahendra Bhai’s room. I did exactly that. Mahendra Bhai was perplexed with me. He asked me who I was. I told him that I had come all the way from Bangalore and I wanted to work for him. He made me sit down; he fetched me a glass of water. I had never seen an office as large as his. Then he spoke to me, he called someone to show me the research department and asked me to come back at 3 p.m. to see him again.”

Siddhartha paused. He was in a trance.

“I met him at 3 p.m. He said he would take me in but he had no idea who I was. He asked me to get him at least a letter of introduction. That is how it all started."

“Then what happened, Siddhartha?”
“I spent all my waking hours to learn about the trade. Every single day, I showed up at 7 a.m. at the office and Mahendra Bhai and I were invariably the last to leave well past nine in the night. I would tell the office boys to pack up and it was I who took Mahendra Bhai’s dabba to load it in his car as the last item of work. In the process, he taught me all about the world of investing. He trusted me. He let me handle the accounts of some really big business houses. After a year-and-a-half with him, I was ready to come back to start on my own. I told Mahendra Bhai that. I told him how grateful I was to him, what a lot I owed him.”

“What did he say to that?”
“Oh, he told me that the Universe is connected in a web of timeless relationships. He had merely paid me back for past debt of a previous life — that I owed him nothing.”

So, Siddhartha returned and even though he bought over a stock trading firm called Sivan Securities (later renamed Global Technology Ventures), he really put his heart and soul into the coffee business. He bought out estate after failing estate in the wake of unviable coffee pricing and poor margins dictated by an international cartel. Then one day he decided to be his own master. He realised that the real value addition was in converting the beans into the coffee drinking experience and the rest is history.

I look at the man across the table. With 10,000 acres of coffee under cultivation, today, he is India’s No.1 exporter. Shorn of personal glamour, he looks like someone you would notice, only briefly, ahead of yourself in the airport security queue. In a world busy with the idea of success and failure, Siddhartha is a picture of equanimity.

I look at him one more time and think to myself: Probably it is in the name!

(This story appears in the 05 June, 2009 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

Post Your Comment
Required, will not be published
All comments are moderated
  • XYZ

    How about the political connections? It always helps to be SM Krishna's son-in-law. GTV was not a major success either.<br /> <br /> Am sure Siddhartha must be humble, caring and hard working. But political connections can take you a long way in India...

    on Nov 24, 2009
  • YK Maheshwari

    Subroto's story telling is great..!! Sivan securities was one of the first offices next to Habitat in church street which now became "Way to Wealth" . It was next to the office of Dept of India Tourism . It was a very nice,small but very customer friendly office. I am sure Mumbai 'speed' and culture has lot to do in making it a client's delight. I have known Siddartha and am impressed with simplicity of Siddhartha during Kshema's time as a first IT company into which he invested his money as well. He also got the unique tech park where Mindtree and couple of other companies operate out of --as the only IT park on Mysore road ..The campus has a great landscape and a nice place to work at..

    on Jul 30, 2009
  • Manjit

    It couldn't have been better than this!!! What an inspiring article to start the Zen garden. Forbes India is doing a fabulous job to inspire the old and young alike.

    on Jul 23, 2009
  • Prasad

    Hi Mr Gardener, ,<br /> <br /> what a start to the articles on Forbes with Zen , siddhartha ( Buddha), garden .Truely it's in the name .Your book also mentions a lot about Mr.Siddhartha and as u said Cafe Coffee Day is truly a inspirational story coming from India at a time when Starbucks, Barista were embarking India today Coffee Day is a synonmyous<br /> with the lifestyle here. <br /> <br /> A good Article

    on Jul 14, 2009
  • sabareesan

    Truly inspiring. I liked a couple of things, the selflessness with which Siddartha learn't and did not consider it work, Mahendra Bhai only reciprocated to a dedicated pupil who was sincere and persevering.

    on Jul 3, 2009
  • Ankur

    One of the most inspiring interviews that i have come across in the recent times. What a fantastic presentation! A great take-home...

    on Jun 23, 2009
  • Hrithik Dattani

    Well... what can I say? An ace entrepreneur interviewing other great entrepreneurs ... Result = Immense invaluable knowlegde. Looking forward to your new book in September. Thank you.

    on Jun 20, 2009
  • H Rai

    The humility of Siddhartha is humbling.

    on Jun 19, 2009
  • vijay joseph ephraim mampilly

    Coming from a family in which 3 generations have served in the Army; leading from the front was what was taught to me. Unfortunately i missed out of being in the Army and landed in the hospitality profession. In the hospitality business in India, rarely have i seen a top Honcho pulling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty. I am proud to say that i work for him.

    on Jun 3, 2009
  • Geetha

    "In a world busy with the idea of success and failure, Siddhartha is a picture of equanimity. I look at him one more time and think to myself: Probably it is in the name!" Referring to a leader's ability to manage his emotions, Krishna tells Arjuna, "The wise are neither elated by pleasure nor saddened by pain. They remain in a constant state of inner joy that comes with the supreme state of consciousness." (From the book 'Bhagavad Gita on EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP by Pujan Roka)

    on Jun 1, 2009
  • ashok k

    Surely mention the fact that he is SM Krishna's son-in-law, it was warranted to provide the entire picture of the man. He maybe decent, hard working, shy, but also well-connected.

    on May 25, 2009
    • t n vaidyanathapura

      Why drag his political connections which happened due to his marriage. To put the record straight mr krishna was cooling his heels during 1984-89 after having lost the lok sabha elections. It was in 1988 that mr siddhartha was married to mr krishna's older daughter. Again during 1994-99 mr krishna was cooling his heels when he lost the assembly elections. It was in 1996 that coffee day was launched. Again between 2004 - 09 mr krishna was cooling his heels as governor. It was during this period that coffee day expanded rapidly. I hope mr ashok will give credit to mr siddhartha for being an epitome of humility despite his high connections. also, he is relatively scandal free.

      on May 28, 2010
  • sunil kumar bansal

    Dreams do come true ! Where there is a will, there is a way.. hardwork and sincerety is the way to success.

    on May 23, 2009