Senior living services, Tara Singh Vachani tells Anjuli Bhargava, could be a big business opportunity in India.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
What do you do when all possible choices in life are open before you?
You can choose to live a life of privilege and indulgence -- as many in similar situations have done -- or be like Tara Singh Vachani.
The 30-year-old third child of Max Group founder Analjit Singh has chosen a path not many in a similar situation would choose on their own accord -- hard work, punishing schedules and travelling at the drop of a hat are her forte now.
We are meeting at the Prez -- a restaurant at Hotel President in Dehradun where she spends most of her working weeks -- for lunch before she heads to the airport.
She orders a Talumein soup and I order a Caesar salad. We are both vegetarians and we decide to share a paneer steak.
When she was 15, Vachani left India to finish her A-level in the UK, took a gap year to learn French (at a language school in the South of France) and then went on to finish a double degree in politics and literature (with a minor in economics) at the National University of Singapore.
Back in India, she joined the corporate development team at Max. Twenty-three and wet behind her ears, she says, she was bored for a year -- she was like a fly on the wall -- even though she now realises the value of what she learned back then.
It was the time when the team was closely working on the launch of the health insurance business, Max Bupa, and also looking at a foray into the hospitality industry -- something Vachani herself was keen on.
"I got to learn how deals happen or don't happen and how investments are made or not made."
A chance meeting with the CEO of a company in Hong Kong the Max Group was looking to acquire turned Vachani's attention to the concept of senior living.
"Something just clicked in my mind and I said, why are we not looking at this in India?" she says.
Here's a country with 1.2 billion people, 112 million of whom are over the age of 60. A major chunk of this age cohort is in need of elderly care.
By 2030, this pie will grow to around 130 million.
That was the beginning of Antara, her 'North Star' and her Rs 550 crore (Rs 5.5 billion) baby -- one that has consumed her for the last six years.
In its initial stages (around 2010), Antara was incubated as a private family venture. However, group President Rahul Khosla, who had come on board by then, suggested that the synergies between the new venture and health care and insurance made it a perfect fit for the group and it would give her the platform to develop the concept.
So in 2012, Antara got board approval and came under the wing of the publicly listed Max India, and Dehradun became a logical choice of location.
Land prices were more affordable than in some of the metros, the family had a base there (her mother's family is from Dehradun), her brother had begun on Vana (the wellness retreat) there and a new Max hospital was coming up on the outskirts.
This worked for Vachani. Her only real exposure to business after completing postgraduation was three months of summer school at the London School of Economics.
And at 23, she needed a mentor -- who was not her father -- to guide her through the intricacies of a new venture.
She began to report to Khosla as she does even today.
"I couldn't have moved an inch -- forget a mile -- without his (Khosla's) guidance."
When we meet, Vachani has just opened Antara, which focuses on a holistic quality of life, to its residents and 20 families have moved in, with an average resident age of 63.
Holistic means that Antara attempts to touch all six elements of the quality of life -- physical, spiritual, occupational, environmental, emotional and intellectual.
The property will have its own wellness centre. It has an active engagement calendar for residents already.
I interrupt to say that this holistic living comes at quite a price, as those who have considered investing in Antara testify.
She is aware of that and in a way the price is being paid by the Max Group. She doesn't expect the first Antara to break even at any stage even if it is sold out (so far, 65 per cent of the 185 apartments have been sold).
The first project factors in the cost of incubation and learning. "I don't expect people to pay for the intangible benefits that I see but, perhaps, they don't."
She says she focused on putting the product together and the price at which it has been sold was determined with the costs for the product as originally envisaged.
But that's where the buck stops.
The next Antara being planned in the National Capital Region will need to break even and stand on its own.
Vachani says she will apply her learning from Antara Dehradun to the next one as "they can’t -- as a publicly listed company -- live on love and fresh air."
She will re-incubate Antara for what she is calling "Inversion 2.0". NCR is the logical choice since people find it hard to move away from their ecosystems.
So the idea is that if one can'’t get Mohammed to the mountain, one gets the mountain to Mohammed.
Vachani now sits on the board of the parent company and is also deeply involved in the Leeu collection, a boutique luxury hotel chain started by her father in 2015 in South Africa. When we meet, they have just acquired two new properties, taking the total to five in South Africa, the UK and Europe.
Vachani has to fly every six weeks to Europe and South Africa to work on the Leeu (Lion in Afrikaans) collection for a week. She contributed mostly to the aesthetic and design aspects of the properties.
Seventy per cent of her time over the last five years or so -- she got married in 2013 and doesn't have children yet -- has been spent in Dehradun to micromanage Antara.
She spends most of her working week in Dehradun, trying to make it back to Delhi (Antara's head office and staff of 100 sit in Okhla) for the weekends, though not successfully most of the time.
Physically, she may be in the work environment for a certain number of hours in a day but mentally she is "always on".
I ask her what keeps her motivated. Is she ever tempted to take the easy option?
She says that is precisely why she doesn't relate to children of many highly successful parents. She has always been a bit of a busybody -- even at eight, Vachani was organising her parents' dinner parties.
She says she is almost "an OCD planner" and would like to know what she would be doing 12 months on. Her husband has been very patient and supportive and it helps that he's a workaholic himself.
"Men seem biologically conditioned to work and perform. I have to say that having a choice, as a woman, makes it harder in many ways."
When she's not working, which is rare, Vachani reads avidly, goes to the theatre and follows art passionately.
It helps to be surrounded by three "driven" men -- her father, her brother and her husband. "My father has always made the most of his time. He never sat back and let things go."
Vachani feels she takes after him in most ways: At the core, she is her father's daughter.