Business Standard

Man of the match

Raj Kundra is famous as Shilpa Shetty?s husband, but there is much more to this wide-ranging businessman

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You know, I had a humble beginning and my life was not as luxurious as it is now.” So says , descending the staircase in his Rs 24 crore beach apartment in Juhu, sensing my awkwardness in the presence of riches. The cars (Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Lambor-ghini and so on), the slew of security personnel including two personal bodyguards of imposing build, the tennis-court-sized, chandelier-lit party room on the ground floor, and the inverted cone-shaped glass gazebo on the neatly trimmed lawn can all make you go weak in the knees if you are not used to such opulence.

The British-born millionaire businessman arrives an hour late for the interview. He had gone to pay his last respects to the late wrestler and actor , whose son is a close friend. On entering the house, Kundra excuses himself for a few minutes before the Q&A session. The house, done up by (actor Hrithik Roshan’s wife), effaces boundaries with an East-meets-West kind of décor. He goes to his bedroom and you imagine him cuddling Viaan (his second child, now two months old) and chatting up his second wife, the actress .

He returns with a fresh smile and a glittering eye. “[Shilpa and I] are just getting used to this change in our life,” says Kundra, sipping his crimson-coloured mixed fruit juice as we sit in the gazebo to talk about his rise in the business world. “We knew it would be life-changing but how life-changing we realise now since we have to look after the baby, and keep it in the same room.”

There is the ring of honesty in Kundra’s voice — honesty and confidence. You would not notice him if he walked down the road without the cavalry, though he is a well-built six-footer. Speaking to him, however, one immediately perceives that it would be impossible to deal under the table with this man. The tone of his voice is his trump card.

Kundra, 37, was born into a “simple middle-class” family in London. About 45 years ago, Kundra’s father was asked by his father to go to London from Ludhiana to “earn some money and send it back to us”. Bal Krishan’s first job abroad was in a cotton factory. Then he went on to work as a bus conductor. His wife worked in an optician’s showroom. On days when their shifts clashed, his mother would take little Kundra to work and put him in a back seat of a car outside the showroom where she worked. Every three hours she would tend to him, change his nappy, refill his milk bottle and then go back inside to work. “My two younger sisters and I realised early that our parents were working really hard to keep us comfortably and that we needed to understand the value of money,” says Kundra. In 2004 a UK magazine ranked him the 198th-richest British Asian.

* * *

Things turned around for the Kundras when Bal Krishan started a grocery business and later bought post offices (this is possible in Britain) and drug stores. Bal Krishan went from one business to the next. If he saw a recession coming in one product, he would hop onto the next thing. Growing up, the biggest influence on Kundra was his father.

An Indian coming to London without “a rupee in his pocket and without an educational background in business and yet turning himself into a successful middle-class businessman” was the best fairytale Kundra heard as a boy. An encouraging one, too. Kundra says he did not have to look beyond his home for a role model.

Those who work under Kundra now speak of him, in turn, as a role model. Kundra works round-the-clock, they say. “The only way I can get better is by working when others are sleeping, much like him,” says an employee.

“At 18, my father gave me an ultimatum,” Kundra remembers with pride. “He said, ‘Either you run our restaurant or you’ve got six months to prove that you can do something for yourself.’” The teenager did not want to wash dishes for the rest of his life, so he went backpacking, with a credit limit of £2,000 on his credit card.

His first destination was Dubai. There he met jewellery and diamond traders. From Dubai he flew to Nepal. “That’s where I discovered . He bought about a hundred and went knocking on the doors of Christian Dior, Josephs, and other brands in England. Britons were smitten. Pashmina shawls became the rage. Kundra had a turnover of £20 million in the very first year, just from the shawls.

Competition eventually ruined the pashmina market. So he went to Dubai and got into diamond trading. “I was always interested in diamonds,” he says. “I had even done a small course in diamonds. I’m still passionate about that business.”

In 2009, on their first wedding anniversary, Kundra gifted Shetty a flat on the 19th floor of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. In the same year, on her birthday, Kundra bought her a two-bedroom flat worth Rs 7 crore in central London. The couple also has a seven-bedroom “Raj Mahal” in St George’s Hill, Surrey, where their neighbours include Cliff Richards and Elton John. This mansion was bought for Kundra’s first wife .

That first marriage lasted two years, and the couple had a daughter named Deleena. “I’ve only seen her the first 30 days of her life,” says Kundra, adding that this fact is a “stone in my heart”. The divorce court awarded custody to the child’s mother, while allowing Kundra to meet Deleena once a week. But he refrained from meeting her. “Kavita and I had a dirty divorce and we never saw eye-to-eye after that. I had to move on.” Also, he says, he didn’t want to confuse the child about being in “her life and yet not being in her life”.

A year after his marriage ended he met Shetty in London. Kundra’s family was avidly following , a reality television show, which eventually brought Shetty to international fame. Shetty’s agent in the UK, who happened to be a friend of Kundra’s, telephoned him after Shetty’s Big Brother triumph to ask his advice on her future business prospects.

The agent wanted to make a movie with Shetty in the lead, but Kundra knew that that would be folly. Instead, he asked the agent to launch a perfume in her name. “I told him that Shilpa is riding a wave right now, but when the film is released she might not be.” To launch the perfume, Kundra made Shetty an offer, but her mother informed him that her daughter had already received an offer from someone else. Kundra doubled his offer and literally bought the time that he wanted to spend with Shetty.

“I doubled the deal, knowing that it was financially a waste of money, but it was love at first sight,” he says. The floral perfume S2 (“S square”) hit the number-one spot among perfumes in the UK when it was released. Looking back, Kundra says that doubling the deal was an astute investment decision, since “the money went into her pocket and has come back to us anyway”.

* * *

Another business from which Kundra has profited is his 11.7 per cent stake in the Rajasthan Royals (RR) Indian Premier League () cricket team. People close to him advised him against buying into a team in 2009, at a time of economic downturn. But he didn’t pay heed to them.

“I’m from a country that loves football and I understand how leagues work,” he says. “And I knew that if a football team can go from $1 million to $1 billion then it’s not long before a $100 million team will be worth $500-600 million in this cricket-crazy country.” Kundra came onto the RR board when it had a valuation of $100 million. Today the cricket team is said to be worth $200-250 million.

There are reports that he is eager to buy out his RR partners. Suresh Chellaram has 44.2 per cent and Manoj Badale 32.4 per cent, while Lachlan Murdoch (a son of media magnate Rupert Murdoch) and Kundra-Shetty both own 11.7 per cent.

Kundra says his statement was misconstrued. A journalist had informed Kundra that the Board of Control for Cricket in India () had allegedly agreed to clear the legal issues it had with RR if Chellaram gave up his ownership share. BCCI allegedly believed that Chellaram was a proxy shareholder for the controversial former IPL chairman Lalit Modi. Kundra, being well-acquainted with Chellaram, refuted this claim. That’s when the journalist asked him if he would buy the shares if Chellaram decided to sell. “I told him if the price was right then I would buy Suresh’s shares only in the company because at the right price the future is still bright,” says Kundra.

After coming close to bankruptcy thrice in his life, Kundra says he decided to create many sources of income. Therefore, he has businesses in construction, renewable energy, precious metals, movie, cricket, the (SFL) and so on. He is also launching a reality TV show that will air from August 5. This show has eight men and eight women living in a Big Boss type of house. For eight weeks they will train there and every week there will be an elimination fight. Two winners will go on to fight in the SFL.

Growing up, Kundra says, he had little pocket money. “When I was in school I would sometimes wash the family car for which Dad would give me £5,” he says. Or he would volunteer to drop something off for his father. That’s how “I learnt the value of money”, he says. In this 20,000 sq ft house, he realises, he has to find a different way to teach his son Viaan the value of money. The morality tale of his bus-conductor father and showroom-worker mother, afternoons spent in his mother’s car outside the showroom — that is not at Kundra’s disposal. The fairytale has to be modified and retold.

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