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Mysterious tycoon bidding for Mumbai's troubled Yes Bank lives in a three-star Canadian hotel he chose for its Denny's

Erwin Singh Braich's colourful past has raised more than a few eyebrows but he says he has provided documents proving his ability to fund $1.2bn bid

Erwin Singh Braich says he has submitted documents to prove he has the resources for a $1.2bn bid for Mumbai's Yes Bank. Reuters
Erwin Singh Braich says he has submitted documents to prove he has the resources for a $1.2bn bid for Mumbai's Yes Bank. Reuters

Erwin Singh Braich, the mysterious tycoon behind a $1.2 billion (Dh4.4bn) bid to rescue a beleaguered Indian bank, says he is Canada’s richest man with a story so fabulous that Netflix wants to tell it.

There’s a less glittering account pieced together from interviews and court records: The son of a timber baron has a history including bankruptcy, lawsuits and soured business deals. He has no headquarters, no banker to manage his money, and is currently living in a three-star motel in the Canadian prairies.

The board of Yes Bank deferred a decision Tuesday on which version of Braich it supports, saying his backing of a preferential share sale was “under discussion”. Braich and his partner, Hong Kong-based SPGP Holdings, offered to buy 60 per cent of the $2bn sale. The Yes Bank board is “willing to favorably consider” a separate $500 million offer from Citax Holdings.

“They must have thought that there is something in the deal,” that the Reserve Bank of India may not approve, said Gaurang Shah, vice president at Geojit Financial Services. “That could be the reason the board did not approve any investor.”

At stake is the future of the Mumbai-based bank that’s staggering under the weight of its bad loans, including to some of the non-bank lenders caught up in India’s shadow banking crisis. Yes Bank desperately needs the cash injection to replenish its core equity capital, which is barely above the regulatory minimum of 8 per cent. The stock has plunged 72 per cent this year, including a 10 per cent plunge on Tuesday, reducing its market value to 129bn rupees (Dh6.68bn).

Bloomberg reported on Monday that India’s fourth-largest private lender is likely to reject the offer from Braich and SPGP, and was looking for institutional investors, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Braich says he has the money for the investment and has provided documentation to Yes Bank’s chief executive Ravneet Gill on his ability to pay. Yes Bank didn’t respond to an email seeking comment about Braich and his bid.

“I’ve been under the radar,” Braich, 63, said in a phone interview last week. “We have a lot of different holdings and assets that people don’t know about.” The funds will be in escrow by the time Yes Bank shareholders meet this month to approve the capital raising, he added.

“I don’t think Mr. Gill is a stupid man,” Braich said, adding “a lot of scepticism will be erased” surrounding his bid.

Yet there are plenty of signs from Braich’s past that some scepticism may be warranted. For two decades, he has been mired in dozens of lawsuits with family members, creditors and business associates, according to Canadian and US court records.

In one case, he pitched two investors on a plan to buy scrap metal from the Democratic Republic of Congo, telling them he had a multi-million dollar commodity trading business, according to a 2008 lawsuit filed in New York.

The investors, Roger and Punit Menda, sued him and four others for defrauding them of $340,000, saying Braich lied about the metal contracts and “did not possess the personal wealth he claimed to and was, in fact, without any personal assets”, according to the filing. Braich failed to respond to the complaint or appear in court, according to a default judgment ordering the money be repaid with interest.

Braich called the lawsuit “so stupid and frivolous we didn’t even bother to defend it”. He said he didn’t pay the judgment but might offer to pay the Mendas back because he feels badly they missed out on an opportunity.

Robin Phinney, former president of Canadian potash developer Karnalyte Resources, says he met Braich several times in 2015 when Braich said he was ready to fund a roughly $2 billion Canadian dollar (Dh5.55bn) mining facility.

Braich jumped the gun with a news release that said his group was set to take control of Karnalyte and would make an “immediate equity injection” of nearly $200 million Canadiona dollars. The company responded by saying the proposal wasn’t binding and hadn’t been accepted by the board.

The deal never happened, and Phinney said Karnalyte was unable to ascertain if Braich had the funding he claimed. “Everything looks wonderful until you have to show up with the cheque,” he said. “I still don’t know if he had any money or not.”

Braich says he had a binding bid with Karnalyte but “they screwed me” and allowed another investor from Gujarat, India to push him out.

Several analysts have expressed scepticism about the potential new investors in Yes Bank. The lender’s shares dropped 18 per cent in the week after the names were announced on November 29, including Braich, SPGP and Citax Holdings. (Braich says he has no affiliation with Citax).

“We have serious reservations regarding the quality of board of directors who are willing to consider these kinds of investors to be large shareholders,” Suresh Ganapathy, an analyst at Macquarie Capital Securities, wrote in a note.

Braich grew up in Mission, British Columbia, 70 kilometres southeast of Vancouver, the eldest of six children in a Sikh family originally from Punjab in northern India. His father Herman was a pillar of the local Indo-Canadian community who’d left India at the age of 14 — taking little but the name of his tiny village, Braich — and built a fortune in British Columbia’s forestry industry. The patriarch died in 1976.

“The reason I’ve had so much litigation was because I was a trustee for my father’s estate,” said Braich. Those headaches include a 1999 involuntary bankruptcy he said was orchestrated by opponents, including his brother. Bobby Braich, reached by phone, said he’s been estranged from his brother for 20 years and declined to comment further.

The bankruptcy remains undischarged with more than $13 million Canadian dollars in total liabilities, according to bankruptcy records. Braich was arrested and prosecuted after refusing to provide records of his assets or appear in court, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada said in an email.

Braich said he always had assets and has repaid his debts with interest. He holds all his wealth in his children’s five trusts, which he controls as sole trustee, to keep them out of the reach of disgruntled family members and unscrupulous lawsuits, he added.

He hasn’t owned a home since the 1990s, choosing to live and work out of hotel rooms around the world from Ritz-Carltons to Kempinskis to Travelodges, he said.

Right now, it’s the three-star Sandman Hotel in Grande Prairie, Alberta, which Braich said he chose for its in-house Denny’s restaurant. He’s been undergoing dental work before what he says are coming TV appearances with Stephen Colbert and Oprah Winfrey.

“A bunch of the major networks want to have me go on a talk show tour,” Braich said by phone, a day after a three-hour, 25-minute stint in the dentist’s chair. “I’m going to get my teeth done so they’re like Chiclets.”

Then there’s Netflix and Amazon.com Inc, which want to do a four-season series on him and his father, Braich said.

The Oprah Winfrey Network said none of its producers are familiar with his name. CBS Entertainment said it doesn’t comment on Colbert’s bookings. Netflix and Amazon didn’t respond to requests for comment.

To support the Yes Bank bid, Braich’s trusts and SPGP have various assets including Black Pearl Investments, a jointly owned Hong Kong company capitalised with about $200 million, he said. The partnership with SPGP is developing everything from retirement villages in the Philippines and Thailand to nitrogen-preserved tea in Sri Lanka through SPGP’s sister company Silverdale Services, he said.

As of May, Silverdale Services’s total equity capital was HK$100,000 ($12,800), according to records from Hong Kong’s companies registry. A Hong Kong-registered company named Black Pearl Investments had HK$1 in paid-up capital the last time it filed an annual return in November 2017.

SPGP’s CEO Somitra Agrawal, contacted via LinkedIn, referred questions on his firm’s investment plans to Braich.

Braich said his rationale for investing in Yes Bank was simple: “I loved the logo and I had my people do the due diligence very deeply,” he said. “If it was called ‘No Bank,’ I wouldn’t have been interested.”

Updated: December 12, 2019 02:01 PM

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