When Coffee Kills : Freaky Fridays – Weekly Blog

As the business fraternity in India tries to recover from the shock demise of Café Coffee Day Founder VG Siddhartha, lets take a look at some unaddressed issues facing the society at large.

Siddhartha, through Coffee Day was one of the shining stars in India’s entrepreneurial circuit in the late 1990s. From the first Coffee Day in 1996, the chain had expanded to 1600 outlets as on date. A phenomenal achievement considering the modest beginnings. The rise of CCD as a youthful, aspirational brand coincided with the rise of India’s middle class with higher disposable income. Siddhartha had most things going in his favour – a strong business case with a first mover advantage in a then untapped segment ( pre Starbucks, pre Barista, pre Chai Point), a good customer experience offering by and large and strong political contacts. Very little could go wrong, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, running a business in India is not as easy as it seems. For every celebrated entrepreneur, there are untold stories of five to six failures. You not only need to compete with competition, but also with political and regulatory uncertainties. On top of it, working capital challenges crop up. The desire to grow top line, bottom line quickly leads to more debt, leading to increased exposure and when the engine stops due to a seemingly small issue, the vehicle comes to a halt. The desire to become a cult celebrity may force people to take risky paths.

While various angles are being probed into Siddhartha’s death –  tax terrorism, investor pressure, political vendetta, what I fail to fathom at the core of this issue is this. As per the unverified letter written to the shareholders, Siddhartha acknowledges huge debts and declares enough assets to pare the debts. The huge debts could have been a reason to sell off his Mindtree shares. If he was so sure of him having enough assets, why then end his life? He cites pressure from a certain private investor along with tax harassment. Is the pressure unjustified? Was there financial fraud, which not many were aware of? With a new BJP government in Karnataka, was he fearing the worst of times for him? Only Siddhartha knew the answers and hopefully a thorough “un-tampered” investigation will reveal finer details.

With a huge debt burden ballooning and banks tightening credit norms in the wake of the ILFS crisis, Siddhartha had a huge task at hand. Siddhartha’s story is very similar to Ramalinga Raju of Satyam. Great brands, great promise but the owners confessed shockingly when nobody expected them to. And until they confessed, the world did not know that things were murky. They took that step because all roads led to a dead end.

It is saddening that Siddhartha chose to take the most extreme step when cornered. He seemed to have decided that ending his life was better than suffering in possible disgrace. When stress gets the better of the mind, then all hell breaks loose. The most important organ in the human body, aside of the heart is the human mind. Unfortunately, most of us give least importance to maintaining the mind in good condition. When we have the slightest of physical pain, we reach out to a doctor, take tablets. But when something troubles our mind, we decide to keep it to ourselves. We somehow feel that by confessing to a mental health specialist or a counsellor or a psychiatrist, we may be “labelled” as “mentally ill”. I wish Siddhartha had explored these options. I wish he had a coach who had guided him, along the way , when he was taking some crucial decisions. Very few organizations today focus on “mental conditioning” – training the mind. When we know that uncertainity is going to be a recurring theme in the business context, why not accept it and try to work on facing it? The mind, if relaxed and conditioned, can take effective decisions and restrict problems to be viewed just as problems, not life-threatening obstacles. Organizations spend time and money training people on data analytics, presentation skills, managerial skills but ignore the most fundamental skills required to survive in a complex environment – the Wellness Quotient (Physical and Mental). In fact, the word mental is seen as a stigmatic word in our society.

The other unaddressed angle is the whole media hype around quarterly earnings and results. This phenomenon is worse in the developed countries where a CEO’s fate is decided by his/her Wall Street performance every quarter. One bad quarter and you are out. Thankfully, India does not seem as cruel but we seem to be heading in the same direction. The pressure to report sustained growth quarter after quarter results in short-term decisions gaining preference. Unless the obsession with this stops , we will continue to see a bunch of stressed out individuals leading a highly stressed life.  Why would one aspire to be a CEO if life at the top is lonely, ever stressful and one mistake pulls you down and impacts your well-being? What’s the point of earning truckloads of money if you continuously are under the scanner?

There are no easy answers out there. But Siddhartha’s reaction is yet another warning of a deeper systemic malaise which is not being addressed at all. Today’s Indian CANNOT cope with excess stress and the environment is not conducive for discussing or managing stress. This coupled with the media fetish for instant celebrity-dom and quarterly earnings growth is enough recipe for disaster. Hopefully, the Siddartha file leads to a national debate on these two areas as well instead of trivializing it as a case on politics, financial ethics, tax terrorism , or ease of doing business , all of which are relevant but not the only issues.

No country for old men weak minds

Jai Hind