Police yesterday 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 on Monday night walking across a bridge near Mangaluru in Karnataka.
His chauffeur alerted police when Siddhartha did not return.
Police divers, backed by local fishermen, searched the Nethravathi river while senior Karnataka politicians flocked to the tycoon’s home.
“Sir (Siddhartha) and I left in a car from Bengaluru on Monday afternoon for Sakaleshpur near Hassan, where he has a house near one of his coffee estates. On reaching there by evening, he told me to drive to Mangaluru on National Highway 66. When I drove onto the bridge, he asked me to stop the car and got down, saying he would walk and get into the car at the end of the bridge on the other side,” the driver recounted.
When Siddhartha didn’t reach the other side of the bridge, the driver went in search of him but he was nowhere to be found.
“I filed the complaint with the local police past midnight on his family’s advice, when I told them how Siddhartha suddenly went missing,” he told the police.
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 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 of plantations and his Amalgamated Bean Company (ABC) is India’s largest exporter of green coffee.
On March 18 He sold his entire 20% stake in the software major Mindtree to the Mumbai-based Larsen & Toubro (L&T) for Rs3,300 crore at Rs980 per share.
He wanted to raise funds to reduce his company’s mounting debts.
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 Congress leader who last year joined the Bharatiya Janata Party, 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.