"Parag, you were meant to be here with us for this limited time"

Many people drank the nectar of this contrarian value investor's generosity. Here is an account of three of them

1954 - 2015

By the time you read this, you may have seen many obituaries on my friend Parag Parikh, who recently died in a tragic road accident in Omaha. Parag, some of those obits say, was a contrarian value investor and money manager who took the high road in serving his clients, first at his firm’s PMS and then at his mutual fund. But I want to focus on Parag — the remarkable human being who transformed many lives. ‘Parag’ in Hindi means nectar, which is appropriate because I know of many people who drank the nectar of Parag’s generosity and kindness. Let me tell you about three of them. 

Back in 1998, I was struggling to become a successful value investor. I had returned from England in 1994 and, bitten by the value investing bug, had started my investment boutique with a very small corpus contributed by friends and family members. It would take many years before I achieved any real success but in the meantime, to make ends meet, I used to write columns in The Economic Times and a few other publications.

One day, I had the opportunity to meet Parag who, it turned out, had read a few of my articles. He was running a PMS scheme at the time — something I thought I might want to do one day — and so I was excited to get an opportunity to meet him. Without my telling him anything, Parag saw my ‘situation’, understood it and invited me to write for his firm. 

I accepted his offer and wrote thirteen columns for him on topics such as a (hypothetical) leveraged buyout of Bajaj Auto, the rigged market in PSU stocks and special situations investing. Those articles got me a lot of recognition in the investment community. So, in my early days as a value investor, Parag propelled me forward. And he never stopped.

We had stayed in touch and Parag had kept himself abreast of my progress as a value investor and also as a teacher. In early 2011, he reached out to me with an idea. He was going to hold a symposium comprising value investors. Titled OctoberQuest, the event would seek to be an intellectual hotspot for the exchange of thoughts and sharing of experiences among like-minded peers. Parag wanted me to address my peers in the value investing community, many of whom were much older than me. When I read his mail, the nervous and introverted part of me took over. Speaking in front of students who know little is nothing as compared to addressing peers who know much more. 

That thought made me supply Parag with one excuse after another to somehow escape from all this. It didn’t work.

After reading a series of email exchanges, Parag called me and said: “Sanjay, you can do it.” He talked me into it and on September 28, just a few days before the conference, I wrote to him: “Your persistence got me! If it’s ok with you, I will move my timetable a bit and come to attend your wonderful conference.” 

Parag immediately replied: “Dear Sanjay, thank you so much. Your presence means a lot to me and also to the value investing community. We will schedule your speech first thing in the morning after the keynote address by Mr. Chandrakant Sampat.”

Oh no! I was going to speak immediately after the legendary Chandrakant Sampat. Images of tomatoes and eggs being thrown at me immediately came to mind. It was too late, though, to back out now as a commitment to a friend had been made. So, I gathered all the courage I had and went on stage and spoke something unremarkable to my peers. Afterwards, Parag came up and announced that from now on, I will be the keynote speaker at his conference. He was doing it again — he was propelling me forward. Of the next three OctoberQuest keynote talks I delivered, two went viral on the net. (The third one remains unpublished.) I still get mails from people from around the world about the talks and have made many friends and earned a lot of respect — something that wouldn’t have happened but for Parag.

Arpit Ranka is one of my brightest students. He dropped out of college to study from me and ended up topping my class. When the course was over, he came to me for career advice. I told him to go get a college degree. Thankfully, Arpit didn’t listen. Instead, he went to Parag, who immediately hired him. Over the course of the next few months, Parag mentored Arpit and invited him to collaborate with him on his second book. That book, on behavioural finance, contains Parag’s accumulated wisdom of more than three decades. 

Arpit recalls the experience: “Sometimes a gesture remains with you for your entire life. One such gesture on his part, which greatly exaggerated my contribution, was him sharing 25% of the royalty of his book with me. I consider myself blessed to have worked under somebody like Paragbhai, who not only inspired you immensely but then went out of his way to recognise your contribution, which was effectively fruit of his trust more than anything else.” Years later, Arpit himself went on to become a very successful value investor and I was delighted to learn recently that one of the world’s largest University endowments reached out to him to explore a working relationship with him. Unfortunately, Parag didn’t get to know this. Had he known, he, too, would have been so proud of Arpit. 

Megha More, like Arpit, is a bright ex-student who went on to work for Goldman Sachs and, after a while, when she found herself drowning in that ocean, she sought my help. She had an interest in behavioral finance, so I sent her to Parag, who immediately hired her. 

She recalls: “I would sit with him in his office for about 30 minutes to an hour daily and just rake in all the wisdom that he so freely and happily imparted.” Megha’s story is inspirational because it shows how one thing can lead to another. She recalls how Parag encouraged her to stay fit: “When I informed him that I have joined a gym, he was elated. He knew I had almost an hour-long commute to work. He immediately said, ‘I will allow you to leave one hour early daily if you promise you won’t skip the gym.’”

Megha went to Chicago to be with her husband and ended up running the Chicago marathon. A few years ago, she returned to India and started a fitness company that was recently valued at multi-million dollar levels. She recalls: “I had tears in my eyes when I informed him about my personal decision to move to US but he spoke to me like my father would and said, ‘This is the first of many sacrifices that you’ll make in your marriage. Don’t start this beautiful journey with a regret. You were meant to be here with us for this limited time only.’” 

There is no other way I can justify losing Parag than by quoting his own words to Megha: Parag, you were meant to be here with us for this limited time.