Shakespeare certainly didn’t have me in mind when he wrote – “There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” The only tidal connection that I happened to have is Madras, the city I grew up in, but the seashore was about 12 kilometres away. It just so happened that life turned out that way.
I grew up in Anna Nagar. Along with me, our 1,200 square feet, two bedroom house accommodated my parents and my younger sister. My parents were first generation immigrants to the city. My dad studied at Madras Christian College and took up a job at Dunlop Tyres. Those days Dunlop was a thriving tyre manufacturing company. They had a great tagline too – ‘Dunlop is Dunlop, Always Ahead’. Maybe my dad did believe that and, that’s the only job he ever took up. So, he had one job, one company, one boss, one wife, one car… all his life, almost nothing changed for him.
Growing up, the best gift that I got from my parents was work ethic and education. They were disciplinarians and inculcated the reading habit in me. Right from the age of nine, I used to read the newspaper every day, religiously.
I wasn’t a particularly bright student though, in my early years, at Don Bosco. Debating I was good at, maybe because I enjoyed it, and was even the captain of the winning school team. Quizzing was another love. But what I liked most about my school was that there were no favourites; all were equals. Even though I was not among the top 5% academically, nobody shooed me away from participating in extra-curricular activities such as debates or quizzes.
That inclusivity was responsible for the success of many students and leading from the front was Headmaster Selvadurai, a class act with his clipped English. His effort was to make us gentleman out of ruffians and he treated each one of us like somebody who could achieve something but needed some help to get there. He always did that, with the occasional ribbing. So, if you wore glasses and you took it off and still kept looking at him, he would say, “get your glasses on. I can’t see you”. And you would never meet anybody from our class who had a bad word for him, whatever the punishment he meted out to them. That was a fantastic attribute to have. Imagine at the workplace, if people left every feedback meeting convinced that the organisation is trying to find a way for them to achieve their potential rather than find fault. The other teacher who left an impact was Mrs. Mathen, who was the epitome of humility. She always advised us to stay grounded and to never carry a chip on your shoulder. She was inspiring.
Given the warmth around, I made friends easily. There was Sarath, Sandeep, Roshan, Ajit and Ashok. All of them still remain my best friends. These relationships go back to 1976 when I was in Class III. We grew up learning the ways of life, went for tuitions together, studied together, went for school trips, got ragged in first year of college together, tried a smoke for the first time together and had our first drink together.
Sarath and I have had a parallel journey for a long time. We studied in Don Bosco and Loyola together. He did his post graduation in the US and I went to Madras School of Social Work. We both started our careers as trainees in Bombay in 1990. Around 1999, he became an entrepreneur and I in 2000. Our conversations are unguarded. Even today, it’s very difficult for us to address each other by name. It is ‘ennada, va da’, even at board meetings. We crack the silliest of jokes and laugh. Others might wonder – what’s so funny? I don’t think we’ve ever said ‘thanks’ to each other for anything. If we do something for each other, the other thinks its par for the course.
Then, there is Sandeep. Phone conversations with him are never less than 45 minutes. Every time we get together with the rest of the guys, it’s always a late-night session. With some of them, I even co-invest. When you co-invest with somebody whom you have known for 45 years, economic interest is secondary. The primary interest is to find time and do things together. You enjoy the moment, the journey and return on investment is a derivative.
Our get-togethers always remind me of a wealth management company’s ad that I read in a European magazine. It showed four or five friends sitting around a tent in a desert ambiance, smoking a hookah, chatting and dining. The tagline went – ‘Old Friends, New Stories. What’s money got to do with it?’
After finishing my schooling at Don Bosco, Loyola College was where I headed next. Along with familiarising myself with the laws of demand and supply, I also started developing a keen ear for music. Peer group influence fuelled love for bands and performers as diverse as Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, Barclay James Harvest, Whitesnake, Metallica, Neil Diamond and Michael Jackson. Special revere was reserved for Simon & Garfunkel, because their music was simple yet there was complexity in the message. Bob Dylan got love, too, for his anti-establishment stance. Even, ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon hit you with its free thinking. I don’t know what he was smoking when he wrote it, but it’s just such a brilliant canvas he paints for you.
But my all-time favourite was Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Landslide’, which is about coming to terms with the curveballs that life throws at you. Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham had broken up. The lyrics are about her dealing with it, with him strumming the guitar. It’s a crazy piece of real life drama playing musically in front of you.
I think art imitates life. So when you either watch a movie, listen to a song, it’s actually some part of life playing out in a sort of artistic form. Some lyrics have meanings, others inspire emotions. Some spark an idea and others just give you shelter.
My college days were also the time when I made my first bit of money by selling space, to retailers, in a magazine called Sidewalker. It ran for about a year before closing down. That was the first time I learnt how to sell and, in a sense, my risk appetite took wing those days. It was also around that time that the stock market bug bit me hard, a little too hard I think, landing me in bit of a spot.
From class 12 onwards, I had started reading up on companies and even made my first investment in Kaveri Engineering. Later, I also bought Nagarjuna Fertilizers, MRPL and LMW. But then, no newbie in the market wants to get rich slowly. In 1988, the era of physical shares, you could actually go long or short without much money upfront as delivery and payment cycles were days apart. Emboldened, I had short-sold through my broker, who also was my dad’s friend’s son. I thought the short trade would make money but it went the other way and I had no shares to deliver. So my broker turns up at eight o’clock in the night and says, by tomorrow morning, 9.30, I have a pay-in due and there’s no way that I can default. Seeing no way out, I told my mother about the situation and she said, “Tomorrow morning I will give you the money but never do it again.” In those days, #10,000 was a big sum, but she bailed me out. There was good reason not to approach my dad. With his frugality and ethical standards, he would not have been thrilled by the financial stunts his only son was pulling on the side.
I inherited different things from amma and my dad. Amma gifted me the virtue of discipline. She was very measured about how she went about her life, and had a method to everything she did. I also like a well-defined structure to everything. I like a clean office, everything has to be in its place, even in terms of the organisational structure.
At times, the contrast between amma and dad was stark. Nothing excited dad much but he never cribbed about anything either. Amma was gregarious. She took to people naturally, made a lot of friends. She liked to eat out; my dad never did. She liked music, my dad never did. She liked to call people over for dinner; dad liked it, but not too often.
Also for dad, despite his apparent disinterest in business, he always had good judgement about things that mattered. Even today, if I am in a quandary about which direction to take, it’s very easy for me to decide, because I need to only think back and ask what my dad would do. The other thing that I admired was his value system. His salary was not much but I remember he got about 1,500 every year in medical reimbursement. Many of his colleagues would claim it by submitting false receipts, but he would never. His example has always compelled me to take a straight line in life. I didn’t realize it then, but he was my first mentor and continues to be my guiding light.
This is part 1 of Ajit Isaac's Secret Diary. Stay tuned for Part 2 and Part 3.