Perhaps it is a sign of the times that Kandahar, the Northwest Frontier theme restaurant at The Oberoi, is deserted for lunch on a recent Saturday. The restaurant’s empty tables, gleaming plates and wait staff, suitably ethnic in salwar suits and waistcoats, enjoy the spectacular view of a placid Arabian Sea under the bright Mumbai sun with not a paying soul for company.
Or perhaps one needlessly reads “economic meltdown” in every small thing nowadays. Motilal Oswal, the man, not the company, is not too reassuring later over lunch though. In 20 years of managing customers’ money—and seeing his fair share of domestic and international crises—Oswal confesses that this is probably the worst turmoil he has ever seen. “It will take a long time to come out of this mess,” he explains, “it is best if we all just wait and watch without panicking.”
Despite Kandahar’s piped music being dialled down to low volume, having a conversation with Oswal is not easy. The plainly dressed, genial-looking man speaks only slightly above whisper volume—later I find out that my audio recorder sometimes just didn’t pick up his voice—and I often lean over, pointing my stronger right ear at him.
Life lessons: Oswal is an obsessive reader of self-help books.
The first thing that strikes me about Oswal is the complete absence of bling. When you meet someone who runs a diversified financial services firm, with broking and wealth management divisions among other things, that clocked Rs137 crore in revenues last quarter—“an understandably poor one under the circumstances”—and one named after themselves no less, you expect to see, at the very least, a chunky ring. Or, maybe one of those diamond-studded iPhones.
Instead, Oswal wears a sober black-and-yellow T-shirt, corduroy pants, brown shoes and a Titan Edge watch. No jewellery. When he notices me look at his T-shirt he clarifies: “This is our company T-shirt. The staff wear casuals on Saturday, including me.”
Oswal’s story starts from the village of Padru in Barmer near the Indo-Pak border, where his father was a grain trader. Despite always having the option of joining the family business, Oswal decided to first get a complete education and see what options the world had in store for him. “If things went bad, I could always go back and trade grain, no?” he says.
It was while studying for chartered accountancy in Mumbai that Oswal met and befriended Raamdeo Agarwal, who stayed with him in the same hostel—Rajasthan Vidhyarthi Griha in Andheri. Agarwal, in Oswal’s words, was a hard-working fellow with a very bookish bent of mind. “He was always reading balance sheets and doing research and calculating numbers.” It was also around this time that Oswal discovered this “animal called the stock market”. Both friends immediately spotted an opportunity.
After working with an audit firm for a while and then starting his own outfit, Oswal and Agarwal decided to try their hand at sub-broking themselves. Breaking into the Bombay Stock Exchange at the time was impossible. If it were not for some contacts that Agarwal had developed, Oswal remembers, they would have never made it.
“The whole exchange was run by Gujaratis. The floor was full of Gujarati traders and all official circulars and documents were published in that language,” he says, smiling broadly. But partner Agarwal was able to get in touch with a broker who promised to get them a sub-broker’s position on the floor as soon as a position fell vacant.
A few months later, the solitary sub-broker badge was made in the name of “Motilal Oswal”. The name of their enterprise has stuck ever since.
While the waiter serves Oswal his coconut water and me my watermelon juice, I ask him about his equation with Agarwal—the pair has been together ever since 1987 when they met in their hostel. How is it possible for two people to work together for more than two decades? Have they ever thought of splitting up and going their separate ways?
Without hesitation Oswal shakes his head: “No. Never. Raamdeo is now like family. I can’t think of him as anything less. We both have equal stakes in the company. It is actually something like a marriage now.”
Oswal goes on to explain how, over the years, he and Raamdeo have demarcated their responsibilities. Raamdeo takes care of all the “finance stuff”—largely by heading a 40-member research team—while Oswal takes care of customers, human resources, operations and the franchise network. (Later, Oswal tells me that the company had nothing to do with a franchisee in Tiruppur who allegedly sent out text messages asking people to withdraw money from ICICI Bank. “We only tell our customers which stocks to buy or sell. Not what to do with their bank deposits”.)
From their modest beginnings, the enterprise grew into a diversified company, with the latest additions being an investment bank in 2005—which involved poaching a team from Rabo India Finance Pvt. Ltd—and then a private equity fund in 2006. Today, the Motilal Oswal group has grown to 1,800 employees.
When the waiter appears, we decide to share, without a glance at the menu, a rather domestic meal of rotis, yellow dal, two subzis and drink refills. And just as the waiter turns around, Oswal reminds him to also bring a plate of some cut cucumbers, tomatoes and carrots.
As we break bread, I ask Oswal what he thinks of the current financial crisis. Did he have any inkling of the meltdown? I lean forward. “No idea whatsoever,” he says. “We did not expect this to happen at all. Who could have guessed that all these American banks would be so leveraged?”
This candour is probably one reason he is not among the omniscient talking heads on business TV channels. He continues: “See…I don’t think anyone can speak with any authority on the stock markets. More than 80% of all the traders are speculators. Everyone is either greedy or afraid. Besides, if I speak with one channel, then everyone will begin to call you for quotes.”
His explanation and criticism of the American financial system quickly segues into a discussion of his company’s two key principles: “Never speculate. Never borrow.” Oswal says that both partners try to uphold these beliefs in everything they do. From inception, he says, their idea was to sell their intellectual ability. “We always want to stay in an advisory capacity. Help other people invest money. If the American banks had stuck to their mandates, we would not be in this mess.”
As our waiter assaults the tablecloth with an elaborate brass crumber, I ask him if he has ever contemplated changing the name of his company. “Many times. I used to think it sounded very unprofessional. But nobody lets me. Even Raamdeo and my senior team thinks that the brand recognition is too great. Once, we hired a branding consultant who also felt the same way.”
And then, a moment later, he adds: “But then Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley are all peoples’ names only, no? So, it’s not that bad…”
Besides the occasional trip abroad with family, Oswal spends most of his free time catching up on his reading. He is an obsessive reader of self-help books—Og Mandino, Stephen Covey, Robin Sharma, et al.— and business books of the Jim Collins ilk. The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari was so good, he says, that he would wake up half an hour earlier than usual, at 5am, to get some extra time with the book before his daily yoga session.
As we get up to leave after exchanging business cards, Oswal says he likes to email articles to friends and family. He skims my card for my email address and promises to include me on the list. “I send 12,000 emails every week in total!” he says with pride.
As for parting wisdom on the markets, Oswal simply says: “Stay cool, yaar! And don’t speculate.”
Three days later, I receive an email on “The Art of Letting Go”. It included several tips on successfully handling disappointment and betrayal. That could mean only one thing: Oswal had, indeed, added me to his list.
Born: 15 May 1962
Education: SPU Jain College, Falna, Rajasthan; Institute of Chartered Accountants, Mumbai
Work Profile: Oswal briefly worked for an audit firm before starting his own accounting firm. He co-founded Motilal Oswal in 1989
Favourite Book: ‘The Ultimate Gift’ by Jim Stovall. Oswal liked it so much he bought 1,000 copies and distributed them among family, friends and employees
First Impression: What people tell him when they meet him for the first time: “Mr Oswal, you don’t look old enough to have a company named after you!”