Kishore Biyani is waiting, relaxed, in a darkened hotel suite. He's just flown in from cool London to broiling Gurgaon. He talks softly and very fast, jumping in before you're done. He's only 50 years old, and has lived, breathed, talked and experimented with the business of retail for close to three of those five decades.
Just over three weeks earlier, Biyani shook hands in Kolkata with a younger, richer and equally ambitious fellow Marwari, Kumar Mangalam Birla, sealing the sale of what will be a controlling stake in his flagship Pantaloons retail stores business to Aditya Birla Nuvo Ltd. But the man in the hotel room is excited by what lies ahead. Why, just athwart that expressway, sprawled across the basement of a glittering mall, is one more of his hypermarkets. Most of us see a shimmering heat mirage in the distance; Biyani sees thousands of shoppers trooping into yet another Big Bazaar and hears the clanging of the cash registers.
Wait a minute - hasn't he just sold the crown jewels in the retail empire he built from scratch?
"I still believe in that dream," Biyani says. Is he sad he had to do it? "No I don't feel that. I have understood something: in India people are very emotional about business…people feel that if someone is selling there has to be some act of desperation in selling. I don't think so. I think alliances, mergers, partnerships are a way forward and that should not be seen as (an) exit."
Biyani frequently describes himself - and so do his family and associates - as a rebel and an iconoclast in his own 2007 book It Happened In India. He has always been unafraid of striking out in new directions.
By the time he was 26, he had already sold trouser cloth branded WBB (white, blue and brown), readymade trousers called Patloon, started and closed a company called Dhruv Synthetics, and then launched Manz Wear, the precursor to 'modern' retail and the Pantaloons brand.
"There are three kinds of entrepreneurs - creators, preservers and destroyers," Biyani writes in his book. "I consider myself to be both creator and destroyer. Preserving the status quo has never been my cup of tea."
Biyani is fighting a rising tide of debt. The sale to Birla "will help reduce the company's debt by Rs 1,600 crore". How much debt his Future Group carries is a moving figure. Widespread estimates put it at between Rs 7,000 and Rs 8,000 crore, but Biyani says the debt figure is wrongly inflated by his non-banking finance company, Future Capital Holdings.
"(Minus the NBFC) last year we were at 4,800 (crore). This year we will be at around 5,500 to 5,700 crore at this moment. After this sale [to Birla] Pantaloon Retail would become debt free and then debt only remains in our Future Value Retail business" which operates the Big Bazaar (160 stores at last count) and Food Bazaar (44 at last count) chains.
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