As we enter real estate magnate Varun Manian’s sprawling and gracious home, one can’t help but notice his five luxe cars lined up and gleaming on one side of the driveway. The young mogul has been in the news recently, grabbing headlines thanks to his foray into Kollywood. The first film that Varun is funding is a Siddharth-Prithiviraj starrer produced by YNOT Studios and directed by Vasanthabalan. Through his entertainment company, Radiance Media, Varun is finalising plans to select good scripts and create quality cinema under his own banner. The company will be producing their first film with director Balaji Mohan.
This third generation entrepreneur who heads Radiance Realty Developers India Ltd, a real estate venture that is his brainchild, is passionate about his business. His gracious home on a leafy avenue in a posh locality in Chennai reflects the elegance and charm of the man. Dressed casually in jeans and a tee that accentuate his boyish, clean-cut, handsome looks, Varun greets us warmly as we enter. While ace lensman Kunal Daswani gets ready for the exclusive cover photo shoot, we sit in the spacious living room, attractively furnished, with French windows looking out onto a pretty lawn fringed with plants.
Born into one of the well-known, old Chennai families, Varun has had a privileged childhood. Nevertheless, he is determined to strive and succeed on his own terms. He recollects, “I grew up with two working parents. My mother worked for a travel agency and my father inherited his construction business from his father.” Varun grew up in a joint family with his parents and grandparents; he lost his grandfather when he was very young. His father and his uncle – his father’s younger brother who is no more – worked in the family business. Says Varun, “I grew up in a work-charged atmosphere. So it would have been illogical of me to think I would be doing anything else except this.”
The family is tightly knit and the four of them – his parents, Varun and his sister – share bonds that are very strong. He says, “My father is very, very particular about family values. We’ve grown up that way and till today, the four of us largely dine together.”
He recollects cherished childhood memories in the warm embrace of his family and the fun holidays they would embark on. “My father would insist on taking us abroad every year on a holiday to see the world and get exposure. Those trips were very memorable. Once he took us to Spain and insisted we watch their famous bull fight and observe their culture; that experience is still fresh in my mind.” So did he have a pampered childhood? “Not really, I don’t think it was a pampered childhood…comfortable, yes. I think my sister was pampered, not me… she’s had it easy, being the younger one,” Varun chuckles and continues, “I would go to school in a car pool and we would make sure the car was shared by at least three other people so our car would go to school only twice a week. These were small, but important values taught to us. We used to travel by train as much as possible when I grew up…so we were not completely spoiled, I would say.” But this hard-headed, practical upbringing has borne fruit. He reflects, “I totally believe that one of the motivations for me to do well in business and succeed has been that my parents never gave me all the luxuries when I was growing up. I think I always had that hunger in me to do more, to do well… I believed that I needed to do well for myself to live the life I wanted to. That was definitely a big motivator.”
Before joining the family business, Varun studied in New York, an experience that he enjoyed and which also taught him a lot. Talking about his studies abroad, he says, “It was the trend at that time for everybody to go abroad and study. We did our SATs. I was at home one day after my SATs, putting in applications for various universities, and those days you got a cover. If it was a thick cover, you knew you had got into college and if it was a thin cover, you knew it was a rejection letter. So I got a few thick covers and I got a call from New York University saying this is what we want you to do and even offering a study abroad programme comprising six months in Italy. It was great. I was partial to NYU because of the city, that’s the truth.” Studying abroad was a sea of change. “New York taught me a lot of things…I learnt to be completely independent…to do things like cleaning your apartment, washing your clothes, cleaning your toilet even…stuff you wouldn’t dream of doing over here! That kind of basic discipline set in,” he says with a smile. “And the best part is that the city was a major catalyst. NYU itself was a historic building. It was an amazing learning experience.”
Varun was in New York for four years and even did a short stint working for UBS. Nevertheless, Chennai beckoned. He says, “I was absolutely clear that I wanted to come back. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel and I knew I had a golden goose here that I could nurture, so it didn’t make sense for me to stay there.” He briefly refers to his work experience in UBS saying, “I realised that the work they make you do is so basic.”
Back in the city after four years of living alone, Varun joined the family business. Talking about the sale of NAPC in 2012 to the Vinci Group, a global conglomerate, Varun says, “We felt that in today’s competitive environment, the best way for us to support the growth of the company was by giving it to somebody much bigger than us, who would take the company to another level, so the decision to sell was definitely in the interest of the company doing even better.” Nevertheless, his father is still involved in NAPC. Varun explains, “It’s important for my father to be a part of the business to ease the transition.”
So how did this sale happen? He replies, “Vinci is the world’s largest construction company. Their turnover equals the GDP of a small country, and is ten times that of say, L&T (Larsen and Toubro). So when they chose us, it was a very prestigious thing. They had looked at various companies in India and I think they found comfort in our family – in the promoters, my father and myself and the way NAPC has always been run.”
Radiance Realty is Varun’s brainchild. He proudly says, “The real estate business is completely my baby. I am passionate about it and believe being a local player is a massive advantage. Look at a huge company like DLF – they still make most of their profits out of Gurgaon but when they come to Chennai, the going gets very tough for them, because they don’t have the local knowledge that is so vital in this business. Also the fact that we are an old, well-respected family has proved to be a huge advantage for us to be in this space. And you know the other big advantage we have in real estate – that made us dive into it – is that we’ve been a construction company our whole life; building is in our DNA – it is a great skill that we have.”
They might be new players in the realty business – a small fish in an ocean of whales, but Varun is confident. “I believe we are well known. Buyers have confidence in us as a family. They know that we will do it; that’s one victory for us,” he beams. Nevertheless, he is realistic about the challenges of the market. “The brand ‘Radiance’ is new and for us to compete with brands that have been around for 30-40 years is quite a task. They have a lot of repeat customers, and huge databases so we are probably a little bit behind on that front but we are aware of it and are very confident of catching up too.”
Varun’s keen business acumen is evident when he outlines the objectives of his business and what he hopes to achieve; there is no room for ambiguity. “Our mission is very clear. We aim to provide global luxury to the Indian youth, so we are focussing on the people who earn considerable salaries, in fields like IT or automotives. Our target is the mid-segment market. If you see, most of our properties are priced between Rs. 3,000 and Rs. 7,000 per square feet. Since we are not in the ultra luxury space, we believe in educating consumers about the choices they have and providing excellent spaces for them at reasonable prices. Our other USP is that we are able to finish our buildings on time because of our inherent construction skills.” Additionally, Radiance has the funds and the professionalism to continue projects even when the market is down, facts that have bolstered consumer confidence.
There is palpable enthusiasm in his voice as Varun continues about Radiance. “You know I started this company as NAPC Properties. We rechristened it ‘Radiance’ after we sold NAPC. Real estate is a very interesting business to be in. From day one, I have been a hands-on promoter, striking deals, buying properties, negotiating and getting into joint development agreements. That’s what I call the honeymoon period. From there, until you get the sanctions, build your building and hand it over, it is an absorbing journey.”
Varun takes comfort in the fact that his parents have been a huge support. “I am where I am because of my dad. He means the world to me. My dad is supportive, broad-minded and encouraging of new ideas. He is the first guy to say yes to all the new plans I have! Among her many talents, my mother has a good eye for design. She gives me a lot of inputs on our advertisement creatives and brochures.”
His father has been instrumental in inculcating ethics that have honed Varun’s business acumen and his own personal value system. Varun says, “He insists that cash is king and is very, very particular about cash flows being in order. He does caution me when I’m trying to grow too big, too fast. Sometimes, I call him my speed-breaker (laughs). He’ll make sure we don’t do anything even one percent deviant from what is legal…he’s very, very strict when it comes to that. And having been a hard-core construction guy all his life, he’s fastidious about safety and quality.”
So what are the problems he faces in the business? “There are different challenges,” Varun replies. “One lies in getting government approval. Although this can take a little bit of time, I think our state government is doing a wonderful job here; it’s absolutely fantastic. Getting good labour for us to complete projects – especially the finishing part, is quite challenging from the technical aspect. We do run into rough weather there, but we always overcome it.
When he is not acquiring properties, building homes and producing movies, Varun does like to live life king-size. He has recently acquired a private jet along with a friend. However, he hastens to tell us that this is a business investment which he uses for work purposes. His luxury cars are his hobby. Varun loves spending time in the company of his family, close friends and his mentors, the well-known Maran brothers – Dayanidhi and Kalanithi Maran – whom he holds in high esteem.
How do you interview a handsome, successful bachelor and pass up the opportunity to quiz him on his love life? Considering he is also one of the most eligible bachelors in town, what about marriage plans? And is there a special someone? Varun grins and replies, “No one. If I were to get married, then I wouldn’t be the most eligible bachelor, would I?” We rest our case!