When Akhil K. Gupta says his life is all about “stories”, he is referring to the events that have shaped his life. To be sure, the place he chose for our meeting on a sunny Friday afternoon, Fenix at The Oberoi in Mumbai, also has an associated story—Gupta could well have been there on the night of 26 November 2008, when 13 people were killed in the terror attacks. Gupta and Rajiv Kaul, who was designated chief executive of CMS Info Systems Pvt. Ltd, the company that private equity firm Blackstone Group LP signed to invest on that day, were supposed to have dinner at Tiffin (as Fenix was then called) that evening.
As luck would have it, fitness buff Gupta decided to go to the gym in the evening; the session was extended by half an hour owing to a minor injury. Feeling tired, he asked his friend whether they could meet for a drink at The Oberoi instead. The two went to the Bayview Bar (now called the Eau Bar) and left early. By the time Gupta switched on the TV after dinner at home, terrorists had attacked The Oberoi.
“It’s rebirth for me. This place is special,” says Gupta, as he ushers me into the restaurant. Wearing a pink shirt with thin white stripes and black trousers, the bespectacled, salt-and-pepper haired, 61-year-old Gupta, the India head of $46 billion (around Rs.2.76 trillion) Blackstone, has an air of affability around him. He doesn’t wear a wristwatch and prefers to use his BlackBerry for time.
Gupta asks for a low-fat cappuccino but doesn’t touch the cookies offered. It is as if he knows the agenda on your mind—maybe it’s why he keeps repeating the word “story” during our one-and-a-half- hour meeting.
“People have to associate with you, relate to you at some level,” says the seasoned investor, who has facilitated investments worth over $2.9 billion in India across 27 transactions since he set up Blackstone’s operations here in 2005.
Associating with people is indeed what Gupta’s life has been all about. Besides his family and friends, two other relationships—his friendship with Mukesh Ambani, chairman and managing director, Reliance Industries Ltd, and his love for a lady since he was 32 years old—continue to be the highlights of his life. There have, of course, been professional achievements: He has been the top official in large firms, started new businesses and now finances budding corporate giants.
His association with Ambani goes back to his MBA days at Stanford University, US. They started as classmates and went on to become friends. On most days at business school, Gupta would cook for the two of them and Ambani would buy the groceries.
The never-married Gupta is almost childlike in his candidness when he talks about the woman he loved. While he would not give away her name, he says they met at work in 1984 and he fell almost instantly for this “talented, beautiful” girl who was Miss Reading, Pennsylvania. “I like her but she had to like me too,” he smiles, adding that they meet once in a while. He loves watching actors Katrina Kaif and Gwyneth Paltrow on screen as they remind him of her.
Gupta, who lives in Tardeo, Mumbai, with his parents, grew up in a middle-class family in Chandni Chowk in New Delhi. A topper throughout, his dream was to be a doctor. But though the Happy School in Daryaganj, where he studied, did not have a medical stream, his principal refused to let him leave the institute. He took up PCM (physics, chemistry and math) and aimed to crack the difficult Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) engineering entrance exams. His mother, a devotee of goddess Santoshi, venerated as “the Mother of Satisfaction”, started fasting on Fridays for an engineering seat for her son.
In 1969, he was among the top 50 who made it to IIT. “My mom even today believes it had a lot to do with her fasts,” chuckles Gupta, who remembers his IIT entrance exam roll number: ND/DL930.
After doing his BTech in chemical engineering from IIT, Delhi, he joined Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) as a management trainee in Kolkata. The Hindi- and English-speaking, 20-something worked out a way to connect with people. He started learning Bengali in the evenings at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture and learnt to speak it fluently in a matter of months.
He decided to do an MBA from Stanford University when he was in the US, working with HUL. The MBA, which he finished in 1981, changed Gupta’s life.
“I had no plans to live in the US forever. I just wanted to pay off my loans,” he says. He ended up staying there for a long time. Gupta worked in various roles, from a principal undertaking leveraged buyouts, to chief financial officer at Krauses Sofa and chief operating officer at Stylus Inc.
All this changed in 1992, when Ambani called him. “He said he needed me and I had to be there for him,” Gupta says. He stayed in India for 12 years, living in the guest apartment of Sea Wind, the family residence of the late Dhirubhai Ambani at Cuffe Parade, Mumbai—not a common honour for a Reliance executive. He headed all the new initiatives of Reliance—developing their oil and gas, refining and telecom businesses, serving as chief executive, corporate development, for Reliance Industries Ltd and Reliance Infocomm Ltd.
In 2004, Gupta left for the US in a move that was surprising, considering his closeness to Ambani. Gupta, however, says there was nothing surprising about his plans to go back; he says Ambani knew about it all along. They do not meet as often now but Gupta visits the new Ambani residence, Antilla, occasionally.
While his friendship with Ambani remains a mystery and envy for many, his investment decisions at Blackstone have been trendsetters for the private equity (PE) industry. At Blackstone, Gupta has heralded investments in companies like Intelenet Global Services (a buyout deal), Jagran Prakashan Ltd, Moser Baer Projects Pvt. Lt and International Tractors. “We are confident that we will give back 2.4x to 2.6x (times of the capital invested) in our portfolio when we exit. In one company we expect 1.3x but we already have an offer of 2.6x. We have similar expectations from our real estate portfolio,” he says.
"IN PARENTHESIS: Akhil Gupta believes in the philosophical aspects of religion and does not practise rituals. He plans to retire by 65, in another four years, and intends to work for girls’ education in rural India. “If you educate one girl in a village, you educate the whole village,” he says. He does not intend to become an entrepreneur but will invest in young businesses. Besides, he plans to vacation twice a year—including a visit to Todi, Italy, to see his best friend, and the US to see his niece. “I have no regrets. I am one of the luckiest persons…. I went to the best schools, companies and had the fortune of working with an institution like Dhirubhai.” "
Blackstone is one of the few large PE firms in India that saw investments before the market boom of 2006-07 and the pessimistic periods post 2008-09. From a much sought after growth economy, which was growing at over 9%, India is today a challenging PE industry grappling with few exits, low returns and slowing growth of 6%. “People write me off because Gokaldas (the company’s stock has fallen over 85% since Blackstone acquired it in 2007) hasn’t done well. (The construction company) NCC Ltd’s investment thesis hasn’t panned out well. But you need to see things in totality. Of the 20 portfolio firms, 12 are super successful,” Gupta says.
Off work, he has plenty of company too—80% of his close friends are from HUL and there are 10 godchildren as well. “My friends and their children are a family big enough to take care of my emotional needs,” he says.