Fears grow for India’s missing coffee king

Fears grow for India’s missing coffee king

BANGALORE: Indian police on Tuesday launched a major hunt for coffee tycoon V.G. Siddhartha, amid mounting fears for the billionaire who admitted in a letter before disappearing that he had “failed as an entrepreneur”.

The founder of the Cafe Coffee Day chain that beat Starbucks at its own game in India was last seen Monday night walking across a bridge in the southern state of Karnataka.

His chauffeur alerted police when Siddhartha did not return.

Police divers, backed by local fishermen, searched the Nethravathi river near Mangalaru while senior Karnataka politicians flocked to the tycoon’s home.

Shares in the coffee chain fell 20% as worries over the company grew and its board held an emergency meeting.

Coffee Day Enterprises said directors had discussed a letter to the board purportedly signed by the 57-year-old chairman in which he admitted mistakes handling his affairs.

“I am very sorry to let down all the people that put their trust in me,” said the letter, which was released by the company.

“I fought for a long time but today I have given up as I could not take any more pressure from one of the private equity partners forcing me to buy back shares.”

He also said he had faced “a lot of harassment” from the Indian tax authorities.

“My intention was never to cheat or mislead anybody, I have failed as an entrepreneur,” he declared in the letter, which was dated July 27.

Siddhartha’s family has been in the coffee business for more than 130 years.

On taking it over, he set up the Cafe Coffee Day chain in 1996 and also became one of the world’s biggest coffee traders, as well the as owner of Asia’s biggest coffee plantation.

Siddhartha owned about 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of plantations and his Amalgamated Bean Company (ABC) is India’s largest exporter of green coffee.

Cafe Coffee Day has more than 1,700 stores, mainly in India, but also in Malaysia, Egypt, Czech Republic and Austria. US giant Starbucks has so far managed to open just over 150 stores in India.

Siddhartha married a daughter of S.M. Krishna, a former foreign minister and chief minister of Karnataka, making him one of the country’s best-connected tycoons.

But his empire came under pressure after the tax authorities launched raids on company offices in several cities in 2017. Reports said Siddhartha was in talks with Coca-Cola about selling a major stake.

Siddhartha left Bangalore on Monday night at first telling his family he was going to the hill resort of Saklesharm, reports said.

Police say he told his driver to go to Mangaluru instead.

The driver was ordered to stop on a bridge near Mangalaru and he got out while talking on the telephone.

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