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Cafe Coffee Day founder's body found in river, apparent suicide shocks business world


Press Trust of India Mangaluru/Bengaluru
The body of billionaire coffee tycoon V G Siddhartha was found Wednesday on the banks of the Netravathi river in Karnataka and cremated in his ancestral village

from where he began the hugely successful cafe chain that helped make coffee a lifestyle beverage in India.
The death of 59-year-old Siddhartha, who police say appears to have committed suicide by jumping into the river near Mangaluru on Monday, left numb the business world as theories swirled over why the founder of the Cafe Coffee Day chain would have taken his life, ranging from harassment from tax authorities to possible undisclosed debt.
His shirtless body was found on the banks of Netravathi river by a group of fishermen. After a post mortem in Mangaluru, it was taken to his Chetanahali estate in his ancestral village of Chikkamaguluru district where he was cremated.
Siddhartha is the son-in-law of BJP leader and former External Affairs Minister S M Krishna.
Hundreds of people attended the cremation including Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa, his predecessor H D Kumaraswamy, other politicians, villagers, employees, family and friends, many of whom were inconsolable.
The tycoon is survived by his wife Malavika Hegde and two sons, Amartya and Ishaan. Amartya lit the funeral pyre after the last rites were performed according to the traditions of the Vokkaliga community from which Siddhartha hailed. Amartya broke down several times while performing rituals. The 87-year-old Krishna and his wife Prema too fought hard to control their tears.
Police said preliminary evidence pointed toward suicide: Siddhartha had asked his driver to stop on a bridge while driving toward Mangaluru, and had walked on the bridge until he was out of sight. When he failed to show up, the driver raised an alarm, prompting a 36-hour fruitless search in the river until his body was found early Wednesday.
"Investigation is going on. Prima facie every thing points out to that (suicide) only. But we still we can't rule out anything. We will have to finish the investigation," a senior police official told PTI.
The suicide theory was also strengthened by a letter purportedly written by Siddhartha to the Board of Directors and employees of his company, Coffee Day Enterprises, showing he was struggling with financial problems due to debt, taxes and share buy backs.
Siddhartha, an MBA from Mangaluru, had begun his business career after borrowing Rs 5 lakh from his father. Known to be a shy and self-effacing person, he went on to become India's "coffee king" with his Cafe Coffee Day chain, creating jobs for thousands of youth and fostering a Starbucks like culture years before the the U.S. giant entered India.
He opened Cafe Coffee Day's first outlet on Bengaluru's upscale Brigade Road in 1994 with a tag line 'A Lot Can Happen Over a Cup of Coffee'. It's now the largest chain of coffee shops in India, a nation of tea drinkers, with 1,750 cafes in more than 200 cities, including outlets in Prague, Vienna and Kuala Lumpur. Coffee Day went public in 2015.
Siddhartha also expanded his business, venturing into IT, finance, hospitality, resorts and timber. He, however, found himself in trouble in September 2017, when the Income Tax department conducted raids at over 20 locations linked to him.
His Coffee Day Enterprises Ltd had seen net loss widening to Rs 67.71 crore in the fiscal year ended March 31, 2018, from Rs 22.28 crore loss in the previous year. This despite revenues climbing 59 per cent to Rs 122.32 crore.
"He had more assets than liabilities," Chief Minister Yediyurappa said.
His death also became a political issue with the opposition accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of betraying the people who voted for an independent and hassle-free economy.
Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said Siddhartha's death reflected a "worrying trend".
"Ease of Doing Business" under BJP translates into "Ease of Ending Business". The #VGSiddhartha tragedy reflects the worst of a broader, deeply worrying trend," he tweeted.
Reacting to Siddhartha's death, the Karnataka Congress said on Twitter, "Result of harassment by IT officials and decline of India's entrepreneurial position turning virulent by the day, with Tax Terror & collapse of economy."

In his letter, Siddhartha had complained of "a lot of harassment" from the previous DG Income Tax. The IT department, however, has rejected the charges and said it had acted according to the provisions of the Income Tax Act.
The letter, whose authenticity could not be independently verified, also showed he was under "tremendous pressure" from lenders.
"I have failed as an entrepreneur," he said in the alleged letter.
Siddhartha said he had fought for a long time, but "today I gave up as I could not take any more pressure from one of the private equity partners forcing me to buy back shares, a transaction I had partially completed six months ago by borrowing a large sum of money from a friend".
According to reports, Siddartha had been in talks with Coca-Cola to sell the company for $1.45bn although it was not officially confirmed from either side.
Coffee Day Enterprises on Wednesday named independent director S V Ranganath as the interim chairman of the company to replace Siddhartha.
The company board, in which Siddhartha's wife Malavika is also a director, met on Wednesday to put in place a working structure of the company.

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First Published: Jul 31 2019 | 8:40 PM IST

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