Whether it is investing in companies or shopping for ties, Akhil Gupta looks for value. The nattily-dressed chairman and managing director of private equity player Blackstone Advisors, India, is not really into big brands, preferring to buy good lookalikes at half or one-third the price. It's luxuries of another kind that he really treasures, like his father dropping him to work everyday. A big fan of Peter Drucker and sushi, Gupta catches up with Western classical music every night, with his friends over the weekends, and on his sleep on flights. In a refreshingly-candid conversation, he talks about the time he spent with the Ambani family and tells Shobhana Subramanian he has got so much affection from his friends and their children, he doesn't really mind being single.
It's another rainy day in Mumbai and we are at Vong Wong in Nariman Point. Gupta, who will turn 56 next month, comes here often, so ordering is easy; we ask for some steamed chicken dumplings and soup to start with. My guest indulges himself when it comes to food and recalls how he used to gorge on rasgollas and other sweets from Kolkata's Mouchak when he worked in the city with Hindustan Lever in the 1970s. I have a good laugh at how his mother went to the extent of keeping a cow at home because she wanted to fatten him up as he was so pitifully thin. "She didn't succeed, but all those sweets and luchis did the trick," he laughs. Gupta, who now lives with parents in Mumbai, was so taken up with Tagore's poetry, he took lessons in Bengali at Ramakrishna Mission and was thrilled when he finally read Gitanjali in its original form. He was even more thrilled when he sent his favourite poem to a friend in America and it was read out at her wedding.
Talking about Kolkata, he recalls with glee how he located the Reliance Telecom headquarters there because he wanted it away from Mumbai. "I didn't tell Mukesh or Anil: I knew they would be furious," he says and chuckles. And if they had objected, he would have pretended to be hurt and hinted at going back to New York, which of course they would not hear of.
While he did enjoy a tremendous amount of freedom at Reliance because he was close to the Ambani family and didn't really think of Mukesh or Anil as bosses, Gupta still feels that there were times when he was ‘fighting'. But his admiration for Dhirubhai Ambani is evident, and he obviously treasures the time he spent with the family; he is probably the only Reliance executive to have lived in an apartment in the family's 14-storey building. Recalls Gupta: "Dhirubhai was an affectionate man. And it was wonderful the way Mukesh, Anil and their wives and sisters loved each other's children. On Sundays, we would all have lunch together."
Apart from giving him an opportunity to work on some large projects and helping him understand how committed entrepreneurs could be, Reliance, says Gupta, helped him break out of the "Lever mould". Lever executives tended to be arrogant and snobbish, judging people by the kind of English they spoke. Of course, he didn't mind being a Lever-ite "because women were very impressed if you were one". Lever is still in his DNA, he says. A lot of who he is was determined at Lever because it was his first job. And even today, his closest friends are colleagues from Lever. As we help ourselves to the main course — crispy aromatic duck, vegetables and mushrooms tossed lightly, and wok-fried yellow noodles — Gupta says he makes it a point to have a meal with them on weekends.
Once in a while, he meets up with Mukesh who he met during their Stanford days and with whom he worked very closely on both the oil and gas and telecom ventures. But, obviously, it's not the same anymore. "We don't talk much about the old days. We generally discuss work, possibly because it's such a passion for the both of us. The last time we met, we were aghast at how both of us are putting on so much weight," he laughs.
Whenever Gupta lands in New York, he immediately places an order for his favourite food, sushi, so that it arrives by the time he gets to his apartment. Exercise bores him but he never misses a day's yoga and meditation. As a child, Gupta used to read a lot and that hasn't changed, though he regrets not managing to get through any fiction because he's become such a slow reader. But Western classical music at night is a must.
The fund manager says he doesn't worry too much about his personal investments: Most of his money is in funds that Blackstone manages. Some is in Blackstone stock that he is holding on to, even though the price has come down to $17 from the $31 that it listed at. For his India fund, Gupta is betting big on Indian infrastructure companies which he feels are now reasonably valued, and on some niche media players in the vernacular space.
How is it that he didn't anticipate the political angle to the $260 million-Ramoji Rao's Ushodaya deal? "We had anticipated it. But we were assured by seniors in the ruling party that there would be no problems for such a big FDI, especially after RBI had cleared it. We had the support of most people, including the FIPB, but somehow it didn't happen," says Gupta.
We decide to have a dessert and split a flourless chocolate pastry. A Delhi boy, Gupta prefers to be in Mumbai. And he loves it that his father drives him to work everyday: "It gives us time to chat... I don't get to see my parents too much." Gupta's willingness to talk about his personal life so openly is refreshing. "There was someone I wanted to marry. She waited for two years while I was in Stanford, but she didn't want to wait for another year," he says. Recently, he met up with a friend whom he has dated in the past. While talking about marriage she pointed out that he has so many friends, he is probably better off single. "It's probably true. I am lucky to have the affection of many friends and their children: My emotional needs are satisfied. I don't see Mukesh's kids too often these days and I miss them terribly. But I am very close to my other friends' children. I feel blessed."