Manoj Bhargava, richest Indian in US commits 90% earnings to charity

NEW DELHI: Manoj Bhargava, probably the wealthiest Indian in the US ahead of venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, doesn't believe in governments and formal education and was virtually unknown till about a month ago.

"I only had training in common sense," the 58-year-old Princeton University dropout, who came into the limelight after debuting in the Forbes list of billionnaires this year, told ET in an exclusive interview at Taj Mansingh hotel in Delhi.

Meet the founder of '5-Hour Energy'-a 2-ounce energy drink in a red and yellow bottle, which controls 90% of the US energy-shot market with retail sales estimated at $1 billion. This in just eight years after 5-Hour's launch in 2003.

Ask him about his biggest challenge and Bhargava says, "The biggest challenge is always the governments - they try to stop all good things. I try to stay away from them as much as I can, as I know if someone can destroy something good, it's the government!" He sounds like a rebel, but Bhargava is closer to a monk.

In fact, he says he spent 12 years of his life shuffling between monasteries in India and learning to still his mind. He still spends an hour everyday in contemplative silence.

And he is known for his frugal lifestyle and humble behaviour. Dressed in a simple kurta-pajama, Bhargava lives up to this reputation.

He thinks businesses in India give too much importance to education and mostly hire from top institutions. "It's like hiring theoretical plumbers! None of us are too impressed by MBAs," he says.

Bhargava says he abides by Mark Twain's quote: "I never let my schooling get in the way of my education."

He says 90% of what he earns will go into doing charity in India. "I have made a lot of money in the West...(and) I do not believe in much of personal consumption," he says. He has set up a non-profit organisation, Hans Foundation, for charity work.

May spend Rs 5k crore on charity in 10 years

He says the foundation funded more than 400 charity projects including some big ones like Kamala Nehru Memorial Hospital for cancer treatment to the poor.

"Next ten years we would probably do about Rs 5,000 crore in charity," he says.

Yet, he plays tough in business. His privately-held firm Living Essentials, which makes 5-Hour, is known to diligently sue every copycat brand trying to get into the energy-shot market.

Living Essentials, which is owned by Innovation Ventures, another privately-held company, does not report its financials, but media reports have estimated that it grossed more than $600 million and netted some $300 million last year.

Born in Lucknow in 1953, Bhargava relocated to America in 1967 when his father decided to pursue a PhD at Wharton. The family, which was well off in India, had a tough time in the US. So Bhargava started doing odd jobs and businesses in his teens. He excelled in mathematics and joined Princeton, only to quit after one year when he decided to follow his 'own way' of education.

In 1974 he moved to India and spent most of the next 12 year in monasteries of Hanslok ashram.

Bhargava returned to the US for good to help his father with his plastics business. He bought several small, struggling outlets and turned them around, before finally selling his Indiana PVC business to a private equity firm.

He got the idea for 5-Hour Energy at a natural products trade show where he tried a 16-ounce drink that promised to enhance productivity. He found it amazing and he made a mental note of its ingredients.

Six months later he came out with his own version-two ounces of caffeine and B vitamins-because he did not want to compete with Red Bull and Monster and fight for a space in the refrigerator. Despite its small size, Bhargava priced 5-Hour at $3 a bottle, even though he was advised against it, and slowly convinced retailers to stock it at their cash registers.

Bhargava says human nature plays a huge role in shaping one's business. So what does he want to do next in business ? Bhargava says he has four ambitious projects in the pipeline including a catalyst-based project to reduce diesel consumption, reduction in desalination costs and a medical project.

And he believes his biggest advantage is his love for his job. "I go to office and run like hell-running means I do stuff because I love doing it," says Bhargava. "This is my basketball, football, my entertainment. I love it!"

This article appeared in The Ecconomic Times section of The Times of India - April 10, 2012