The signage of the private equity (PE) office, Multiples Alternate Asset Management, tells you how the organisation operates. The letter P in Multiples is in red; the rest are in black. That’s because “people” are the overarching focus of the company, says Renuka Ramnath, who set up the India-dedicated PE firm in 2009.
Probably the first woman to break into the largely boys’ club of PE, which invests in or acquires companies that are not listed on a public stock exchange, she maintains she has never faced hurdles owing to her gender.
Sussing out the right bet is never easy, of course. “I guess we look at over 100 deals in a year and invest in maybe 5%, which is some four-five deals in a year. Last year was very good for us, we did some six deals,” she says. Over the years, she has raised over $3 billion (cumulative; ₹24,600 crores now) and is currently in the midst of Multiples Fund IV, which is expected to close at between $800 million and a billion dollars, she says.
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As in the case of most other firms, the pandemic forced them to think on their feet. Sometime in late December 2019, at their online annual conference, Multiples projected a promising outcome. Just three months later, covid-19 struck.
“It literally made us put our tail between our legs to have to go back and not just say something contrary to one’s own hypothesis but also to have to use capital to just finance companies to keep them afloat during a time that was so unpredictable,” Ramnath, 61, tells me over cups of south Indian filter coffee at her resplendent office in Worli, Mumbai. Like most PE companies, it has a great collection of Indian art—but unlike others, it is warm, colourful, and decorated like a plush home.
At that point, Ramnath, who has personally overseen some 300 investments since she entered the field in 1999, had fully invested their second fund of around $500 million. Multiples had to request the fund investors for another $100 million simply to save the businesses it had invested in, such as Licious, PVR Cinemas, Delhivery, housing finance firm Vastu and online gaming company Dream11.
By December 2021, she upped her request on commitments by another 30%, or $30 million. Ask her, though, how much she actually spent to “reinforce and rescue” portfolio companies, and you understand the value of asking for more than you need. For, she spent around $8 million. The extra capital was not required. Impressively, they actually added employees during the pandemic, growing from 31 to 44.
Ramnath believes their system of checks and balances, of prepping for contingencies by shoring up funds and bracing for the worst, paid off.
PVR Cinemas, which had to shut most facilities but still pay salaries, is a good example. The pressure was enormous. She could have raised debt, but she went ahead and raised around ₹1,000 crore in equity, demonstrating confidence in the business. PVR’s founder and CEO, Ajay Bijli, says: “Renuka has played the dual role both as an investor and mentor for me at PVR since 2003, when we only operated five screens.”
Multiples holds around 8% of the company, Ramnath is also a board member. During the pandemic, her first diktat was to slash costs, conserve cash and save on the biggest expense—theatre rentals. “She showed greater confidence in PVR during bad times than good, and, along with key investor Warburg Pincus, moved fast by reaching out directly to PVR’s CFO to line up fund-raising and convince the board that was the right thing, knowing that I had enough on my plate to deal with at the time,” Bijli says. They embarked on a ₹300 crore rights issue as well as a ₹800 crore QIP (qualified institutional placement) that allowed PVR to weather the storm. “In the initial stage, none of us knew what was in store and how the situation would eventually shape up. Especially for pure retail companies like cinema theatres, the business prospects were highly unclear and revenues fell to nil. Yet, to stay afloat and grow, the company needed funds. It could raise the same comfortably largely due to the investor confidence that the brand PVR carries,” Ramnath says.
Business leaders attribute her success to three elements: her ability to pursue unconventional businesses/business decisions, an entrepreneurial mindset that allows her to adapt to market dynamics and volatile environments, and the ability to leverage her relationship as a trusted partner with investee companies. Tata Sons chairman N. Chandrasekaran, who has known Ramnath for over two decades, says, “She makes tough decisions, follows them through, and closes them in a fail-proof manner, all with a focus on shareholder value creation.”
“I only double up during adversities,” analyses Ramnath. “Rebooting and moving ahead with confidence to pursue my goals with the courage of conviction, without needing any endorsement from anyone, has been my core strength.”
Of course, Ramnath has decades of experience—and has had to deal with her own share of challenges. The death of her husband, a chartered accountant, in an accident in 1995 forced her to recalibrate her professional and personal life. “Compared to him, I had the brain of a sparrow, and I never imagined I was going to be able to manage.” But she has. Both personally and professionally.
How does she operate in a business that is seen as something of a dark art? “We have a methodology, we are not a bunch of people with idiosyncratic styles who say don’t ask me how it works, ‘just make this investment, you will be fine.’ There is a robust methodology behind which sectors we choose.” She adds: “When throwing large sums of money at companies, there’s so much to factor: competitive landscape, pricing dynamics, value creation, government relations, and risks that involve currency fluctuations, government regulations and more.”
Which is why Multiples uses a proprietary matrix—the Leadership Energy Level Framework, set up around four years ago—to filter deals and companies based on the collective wisdom and experience gathered in-house. The system is geared to filter out companies that are, for instance, too dependent on one or two large global clients for business or bring with them man/woman risks.
For instance, Quantiphi, an Artificial Intelligence player that got around $30 million in Series A funding, had a leadership construct that included four CEOs or leaders. She told them all that could go wrong and made them promise they would not let friction fester. They took note. It has worked so far. The numbers look good—Ramnath says her investment is worth tenfold.
Born in Mumbai, Ramnath went to Saraswati Vidyalaya, an English-medium school in Chembur, where Tamil was offered as an additional language—her parents were particular that she read and write Tamil. She went to college at Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute, following it up with a master’s in management science from Bombay University. She began work as a management trainee with Crompton Greaves because she wanted to be on the shop floor. It didn’t take her long to realise, though, that it’s hard to usher change in an established company. In 1986, she says, “I quickly moved to ICICI Bank.”
She headed equities at ICICI Securities Finance Co. Ltd, the ICICI: JP Morgan investment banking joint venture, from 1996-97, transforming the merchant banking division into an investment bank executing marquee deals and bringing together brokerage, research and capital markets at I-Sec. From then till 2000, she was joint general manager and head of structured products group (SPG), at ICICI Ltd; she was, in fact, instrumental in the conceptualisation of products new to both India and ICICI.
From 2001-09, she led ICICI Venture as managing director and CEO, aiding its transition to an asset management firm. ICICI Venture scaled from a sub-$200 million AUM (assets under management) entity to one with over $ 2.5 billion in AUM by creating investment strategies for PE and real estate.
Her track record is impressive. At ICICI Venture, the Legacy Portfolio fund returns were 3.6 times; so too in the case of its India Advantage Fund 1 ($240 million). Multiples returns for Fund I ($400 million) have been threefold; Fund II ($555 million), around fourfold; and Fund III ($650 million), which is still being deployed, at around 1.4 times.
Despite playing in a world full of bulls and bears, Ramnath hasn’t lost touch with her own identity. She almost always wears silk saris. She still likes her Parle-G biscuits and frequently lapses into Bambaiya Hindi to make a point. With her daughter and son, both married, based in the US, Ramnath shifted to Khadakwasla, outside Mumbai, during the pandemic to keep her parents, 94-year-old father and 86-year-old mother, safe.
Once an avid runner, Ramnath, switched to yoga and weight training; during the lockdown, though, her workout took on another hue. “I used to work, do the jhaadu pocha at my house. If there was an Olympic event for sweeping and cleaning, I know I would win it. When I cleaned, my father would say how can I put my foot here because it was so spotless,” she says. “Cleaning is very therapeutic for me. And no high-tech devices. Mop, bucket, detergent.”
In virtually everything she does, it’s her tenacity and attention to detail that shine through. India, she believes, deserves global quality home-grown firms committed to Indian entrepreneurs as their whole and sole purpose. “I am not saying that Multiples, 15-20 years from now, should not have global aspirations. They may have them, but the idea is, can we have a home-grown alternative asset management platform which will give opportunities to deploy their capital in alternative assets and for Indian entrepreneurs to have a serious large PE Indian firm that will bring global best practices in building their own business?” If that answer turns into a yes, Ramnath will have built a firm that will have become an institution. She smiles fully for the first time, in total agreement.
Pavan Lall is a Mumbai-based business journalist and author of Forging Mettle: Nrupender Rao And The Pennar Story.