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Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, the investor who saw the future

It’s not well known that he was a thorough family man, bore no grudges in the dog-eat-dog world of financial markets and was a large-hearted philanthropist

Behind the eye-popping gains Rakesh Jhunjhunwala generated was a mind that understood human behaviour as well as it did the workings of companies. Premium
Behind the eye-popping gains Rakesh Jhunjhunwala generated was a mind that understood human behaviour as well as it did the workings of companies. 

Rakesh Radheshyam Jhunjhunwala, the self-made billionaire investor known for his unwavering bullish stance in the midst of market ups and downs as well as the verve and witticisms that characterized his public utterances, died in Mumbai on Sunday. He was 62.

Jhunjhunwala, also known as the Big Bull or India’s Warren Buffett, a moniker he wasn’t too fond of, was rushed to the Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai after a sudden cardiac arrest on Sunday morning. He is survived by his wife, Rekha, and three children.

His death prompted an outpouring of grief and tributes from government leaders, politicians, businessmen, fellow investors and legions of admirers. His portfolio and public comments have been among the most eagerly tracked in the Indian markets over the last two decades.

Jhunjhunwala, a chartered accountant, started his investment journey in the mid-1980s when stock markets were in their infancy in India. But his love for the markets developed much earlier, in his childhood, watching his father and mentor—an income tax officer—invest in the markets. The ace investor rode India’s market reforms to grow his modest 5,000 of initial capital to around 32,000 crore at the last count, making him the 36th richest Indian and among the top 500 wealthiest in the world.

While Jhunjhunwala was known for his stock-picking skills and holding onto winners for decades, the veteran investor also made large bets on startups and private companies, including Akasa, India’s newest airline, health insurer Star Health and Allied Insurance and footwear retailer Metro Brands.

However, his two most prominent wealth creators have been rating company Crisil Ltd and jewellery and watch retailer Titan Ltd, which is still the most valuable investment in his portfolio. The investor first bet on the struggling Tata group firm in the early 2000s. The stock has soared more than 26,000-fold since 2005.

In many ways, Jhunjhunwala’s personal journey and the explosive growth of his portfolio mirrored India’s growth since it undertook reforms in the 1990s, opening up its markets to foreign investments and junking its socialist leanings.

But unlike some other “Big bulls", his legacy won’t be tainted by scams. Harshad Mehta, one of the first to be given that title, was the kingpin of one of the biggest stock market scams in the early 1990s and spent his final days in prison. Ketan Parekh, another pretender to the throne at the turn of the century, ended up in equally disgraceful circumstances.

Unsurprisingly, tributes to India’s most successful investor flowed in. On Twitter, Prime Minister Narendra Modi condoled his death, saying Jhunjhunwala left behind an indelible contribution to the financial world.

In a statement, Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Trusts, said Jhunjhunwala was known for his jovial personality, kindness and farsightedness.

Remembering his school and college mate, Uday Kotak, the founder of Kotak Mahindra Bank Ltd, said: “One year my junior. Believed stock India was undervalued. He is right. Amazingly sharp in understanding financial markets."

Both graduated from the Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics in Mumbai.

While his many admirers follow his every move, it’s not as well known that he was a thorough family man, bore no grudges in the dog-eat-dog world of financial markets and was a large-hearted philanthropist.

A former employee, who worked with him on the private equity side, recalls the day a decade ago when he lost his father in the wee hours of the morning when an initial public offering of a company on whose board he sat was to open. He remembers Jhunjhunwala telling him back then, “Fikar mat kar, mein idhar sambhaloonga, tu ja apne family ke pass." (Don’t worry, I will handle things, you be with your family.)

Jhunjhunwala had a soft side to his hard-driving business mien, exemplified by his christening the partnership firm he founded with his wife two decades ago—Rare Enterprises. Rare bears the first two letters of his and his wife’s first names—Rakesh and Rekha.

Those in his close family circles also remember that he bore no grudges against promoters of companies in which he held stakes, even if he thought their actions were not in the best interests of shareholders. “He would speak his mind, never hold back, but he bore no desire for revenge against any person, a rarity in business," said a well-known wealth manager close to him.

Another lesser-known aspect of Jhunjhunwala was his philanthropy, imbued in him by his late father, who taught him the quantum of wealth earned was less important than how it was used. Jhunjhunwala once recalled his father asking him, “How much tax have you paid and how much charity have you done." Taking his late father’s desire to heart, he donated 25% of his annual income toward charitable work centred on education, which saw him debut on the Edelgive Hurun India Philanthropy list 2021, alongside Wipro’s Azim Premji.

Behind the eye-popping gains he generated was a mind that understood human behaviour as well as it did the workings of companies. He combined a chartered accountant’s training with a visionary ability to look into the future, picking up companies and the people who ran them over the latest fads and flavours of the season.

Whether it was partying at the watering holes on Marine Drive, at least one of which, Geoffrey’s, he made popular by his very presence, or in television studios where he often made anchors squirm and viewers chuckle by the candour of his comments, Jhunjhunwala was an original.

While Jhunjhunwala had his share of run-ins with the markets regulator, he mostly settled them without accepting wrongdoing. His tendency, not unlike Warren Buffet, to rely sometimes on folksy anecdotes or risqué analogies had also begun to grate, as belonging to a less conscious time.

The risk-taker became an icon for a generation of investors by showing them that an ordinary person could make a fortune with disciplined and informed investing. Sure, many stock picks were duds as well in his four-decade-long career. But the ace investor got it right much more often than he did not, making phenomenal gains.

He will be remembered for his tireless evangelism of the India story.

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Updated: 15 Aug 2022, 02:36 AM IST
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