Life, loss and white lies
"Ah, cruel fate, how swiftly joy and sorrow alternate”
Raimbaut De Vaqueyras
Roughly 100 days before his initial public offering hit the market in April, Arokiaswamy Velumani lost his 55-year-old wife to pancreatic cancer. The loss was more than a blow; it felt more like a tight slap.
Velumani says that his wife, one whom he didn’t really want to marry, was the backbone of the company - Thyrocare - he built from scratch with a capital of Rs.2/- lakh (his provident fund money). “No man can be successful unless his wife trusts, energizes, supports, appreciates and backs him. If a wife questions or doesn’t trust you, it can dissipate all your energy”, he says. In his case, not only did she support him, but she was the main pillar.
But even as his Rs.2/- lakh investment grew to Rs.3300/- crore, Velumani didn’t have the pleasure of sharing his success and joy with the one person who had contributed to it most. “Life has its own calculations. How else can I look at it”, he adds. The IPO (initial public offering) had been a dream for them when they were nurturing the business but no one expected her not to be there to witness it.
I feel tears pricking my own eyes as I listen to Velumani’s poignant description of his wife’s illness, the mishandling or so he suspects, by her caregivers in her short period of illness (she was diagnosed on October 1st, 2015 and died on February 13th, 2016), how he tried his best not to marry her, how he finally did and how it turned out to be his best decision ever.
We are meeting – I suppose – for a business story but it turned into quite a love story in my head. What kind of mishandling, I butt in. “She walked in alive and all I got back was a corpse. In between, I know nothing about what happened”. He says his grief was so devastating that he failed to question “how, why or why not” of the matter. He says he blames it 33-33-33 on three factors. 33% is cancer itself - sometimes such cancers can multiply and nothing can be done, 33% chance that the hospital was not truly equipped to handle this kind of surgery and 33% could be human error by the surgeon.
Prior to the treatment in India, he’d taken her to Sloan Kettering in the United States but had been told to wait 25 days for an appointment. “The whole experience was quite humiliating, impossible and disappointing.”
At the Crowne Plaza in Gurgaon, we meet at the end of a conference he is in town to attend. Velumani and I have exchanged emails for almost one year – more in the nature of a casual chat. We agreed over email that we will meet post-IPO and it finally fructifies. I don’t particularly write on healthcare but people and their life stories interest me. He is in a mood to speak and although I interrupt many times, I am in one to listen.
Graduate for Fairer skin
Velumani was born in 1959 to a landless farmer in a tiny village Appanaickenpatti Pudur, 26 kilometers from Coimbatore. Inability to cope with adverse circumstances for a sustained and seemingly endless period, Velumani’s father had given up leading his family of four children quite early in his life. Faced with her husband’s helplessness, his mother took on the mantle of keeping their head above water by investing in two buffaloes. The money from the milk, Rs.50/- a week, was what sustained the family for almost ten years till Velumani graduated from college. Government schools, where the children got their mid-day meal ensured that he and his siblings did not starve.
“It must’ve been hard to live in such extreme poverty”, I say, sounding a bit silly even to myself. But Velumani says he never felt that they were too poor as he could see some people even poorer than them.
To attend college, Velumani had to leave the village as there was no bus service and certainly no colleges. His motivation for graduation was also not the usual. He did it more to get a “fair skinned wife” than the pursuit of knowledge. “In those days, in our village, only boys who were graduates could hope to marry a fair girl. At 21, Velumani finished his BSc in 1978 and started looking for a job.
Jobless and Wifeless
Despite his degree, Velumani simply couldn’t find any job in Coimbatore. One, employers seemed keener on one’s facility with the English language than one’s knowledge and his grasp over English was not – and still isn’t – something to write home about. “English is a language; it is not knowledge. But no one seemed to realize that back then”, he says.
Two, almost everyone who interviewed him wanted to know what experience he had. As a fresher straight out of college, he, of course, had none. The matter irked him enough today to today only freshers in his company. If you want to work for Thyrocare, you can only get the job if you have no prior experience. Barring two or three people in the company, all 700-odd employees are straight out of their studies.
Finally, after months of looking, he landed a job at a capsule-making factory as a chemist at Rs.150/- a month (1978). “Graduates in Tamil Nadu then were paid less than watchmen”.
He used to keep Rs.50/- and send Rs.100/- home to his parents – who needed the money to educate his other siblings. “In some ways, I became a father at the age of ten when I realized my own father could not bear the burden. And it is to my mind the hallmark of a good son even today; to live frugally and still send 60% of his earnings to his parents” he says.
After working at the capsule making company for four years (he was now earning Rs.225/- a month in 1982), Velumani could see his life wasn’t going anywhere. But luckily for him, neither was his company. A month before its imminent closure, Velumani resigned and applied for a job at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center in Mumbai (he used to go every day to the district library to scour the Times of India for job ads since he couldn’t afford to buy the paper daily). He borrowed the money to go for the interview and landed the job at a princely sum of Rs.880/- a month.
Relaxing in Government
A government job was to his mind like 8 hours of rest every day. Air conditioned offices, comfortable chairs, a clean working environment, he couldn’t quite call it work at any stage even though he put in long hours. So, to supplement his income, he started giving four tuitions a day (two in the morning and two post work), adding up to another extra Rs.800/-. With Rs.1680/-, he sent Rs.1200/- home every month which was crucial too as he had lied – a white lie - to his mother saying that he was drawing a salary of Rs.2000/- a month. “If I didn’t send at least Rs.1200/-, she’d say her son was ruined for life. But I also knew that she wouldn’t let me leave the village for a salary of Rs.800/-”. Hence, he chose to lie and told her that his BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Center) job paid him Rs.2000/- a month.
The Marriage That Was Not To Be
At 27, Velumani’s to be father-in-law approached him to marry his daughter - a girl working in the State Bank of India for a salary of Rs.1600/- a month. Velumani took one look at the girl and was not too keen to marry her – she had darker skin than his. Yet he didn’t want to reject her outright either so he agreed to meet her. “Very difficult to tell an old man your daughter is not up to the mark”.
I interject at this point; this fair skin nonsense is getting to me. I ask what is fair and what is dark? “I am kind of the cut-off” he says. He’s marginally darker than me so I suppose I am fair – for whatever it’s worth. Ridiculous to my mind but I keep my thoughts to myself. He too sees the stupidity of this line of thinking but it is a reality he’s lived with and many continue to live with.
At the first meeting at her office in SBI, he falsely portrayed all his “assets” as liabilities to dissuade her from agreeing to the match. “I cooked up stuff hoping she would reject me and tell her father this boy is not worth marrying”. He says he spoke continuously for 55 minutes and she listened quietly without saying a word.
But at night, the father called to say that this daughter had agreed to the match. When later he asked her why she agreed despite him de-selling himself, she said she “knew he was exaggerating” and that “bade ghar me mai choti ban jaungi lekin chote ghar me mai badi reh sakti hoon” (If she marries into a family much above their status, she would be looked down upon; since his family didn’t have that kind of status, her position would remain intact and strong).
“In life, one has two options. One is debt and one is equity. Debt is safe but equity can give an enormous infinite return but is riskier. My wife chose equity and I respected her for that. She knew I was equity.”
I ask how he thinks she knew he’d be equity. “Otherwise why should she marry a poor man. Somewhere she felt I’d deliver”, he adds. He was poor, not much better off than her own people and she didn’t know him either (it wasn’t a love marriage). It was a hell of a gamble to take.
On her part, she won despite her colour, since she had managed to keep silent for almost one hour (something he thinks women can’t usually manage) followed by her simple logic of her position in the family. He agreed to marry the dark but sensible girl. He presented his mother with fait accompli, aware that she would never accept such a dark skinned girl.
Rocking the Boat
After marriage, Velumani started doing his Ph.D. in thyroid biochemistry (by then his daughter, the second child was born). It took him ten years.
Meanwhile, his two brothers were also brought across to Mumbai for higher studies at the instigation of his wife. “The entire credit for making the family what it became goes to my wife”. Today, one of his brothers is the CFO of his company.
“In some ways, my HR was managed by my wife from 1986”, he says. When she took care of his family, she left him free to take care of his education and then business.
Velumani had been working for 15 years tirelessly at his non-tiring government job but a kind of restlessness had begun to set in. He was watching those who had learnt how to do thyroid testing minting money all around him while he continued to struggle on a government salary. He thought to himself, “if I have taught this to so many for ten years, why can’t I mint more money”.
In 1995 – without consulting anyone including his wife, he resigned. At 2 a.m. one night, he broke the news to her. She didn’t react and then said: “what if I also resign from my job”.
“It came literally like a dhamki (threat). So I said “jiyenge saath, marenge saath”. The next morning onwards, she stopped going to the office. She quit SBI after 16 years.
Frugality Runs in the DNA
His mother died a year ago. It was before the IPO but she knew her son was now the richest man in the district. “Beyond the district, she understands nothing. So one day she asked me if I was richer than the richest man in the district and I said yes”. For her, the matter was over.
His father, still alive at 87 did not know how “tall” his son has become. “He doesn’t know or understand beyond Rs.1/- or say Rs.10/- lakh. After that, it’s all the same to him”, he explains.
Once – some years ago, Velumani told his son who was not focusing enough on his studies that he was worried about him. He said that his own grandfather was a very rich man and because of that his father became a very poor man. Now he – Velumani himself, is very rich so he is worried about his son.
Proving that he is his father’s son, the boy replied that he was very happy – because it meant that his son (Velumani’s grandson) would be very rich.
Now 27, Velumani’s son (an MTech in biotechnology) and his daughter (now 25), both unmarried and missing their mother “like anything” - live in the laboratory with their father. As biochemists, both are trained and ready to step into their father’s shoes at some stage, gradually learning the ropes of the business. Of course, the fact that they all live inside the laboratory helps! What better way to learn the business than to live inside it?
Why on earth does he live inside the laboratory, I ask. This is beyond strange – and probably smelly to my conventional mind.
Why not, he says. He has 100,000 square feet so he’s kept aside 5000 square feet to live in. However, even when his laboratory was just 500 square feet, his wife and he lived inside it.
Even his wife was okay with this, I ask. “She lived in it by choice, not compulsion. She was a mother to each and every employee. She knew everyone’s name, middle name and surname so to speak”, he adds, again bringing home the huge void she has left.
His children are frugal in their spending and approach to life. Does he then think they will achieve or amplify what he has built? His daughter says he had an advantage – “the luxury of poverty” but he thinks the values instilled by him and his wife will hold them in good stead, no matter what.
Frugality is the cornerstone of both his life and Thyrocare. Thyrocare offers thyroid tests to patients through its distributors at a fraction of the cost of competitors and has resulted in the prices of testing coming down in the country. He calls the company “McDonald’s plus Walmart”. McDonald’s for its focused menu and Walmart for its volumes.
He’s never borrowed a penny – neither personally nor for the business. “The problem with business and businessmen is that you start spending the money even before you earn it”. It’s something he figured out quite early in life. You cannot spend what you haven’t earned.
“And she was also frugal. I don’t think she consumed 0.1% of what she was entitled to”, coming back to his wife as our conversation winds down. He says if the surgeon had come out of the operating theater and said: “Mr. Velumani, I need Rs.1000 crore immediately, I would have signed without a thought.” But he only came out and declared she is no more.Last Updated - 10 Apr 2017