Fortune has a profile of Manoj Bhargava, the creator of the 5-Hour Energy drink. At $3 a bottle, creating this concoction has made Bhargava billions (he claims that he’s the wealthiest Indian in America). The energy drink is sold under the company Living Essentials, which doesn’t report revenue or profits (but a source with knowledge of its financials says the company grossed above $600 million last year on that $1 billion at retail).
Early on he realized he didn’t much care what sort of business he was in as long as he was winning at it. At 17 Bhargava noticed that blocks of low-income homes in the roughest North Philly neighborhoods were being razed and cleared. Bhargava bought a 1.5-ton 1953 Chevy dump truck for $400 and started clearing out debris from the demolition. He’d find rats bigger than cats among the garbage and rubble. “The stench was mind-bending,” he says. He remembers hearing gunshots outside a crumbling house on crime-ridden Girard Avenue and learning an old man had been killed for $5. Still, Bhargava made $600 that summer—and resold the Chevy for $400. He didn’t care if the work was unglamorous. It was profitable.
He won a full scholarship to the Ivy League feeder Hill School before heading to college at Princeton in 1972. Bhargava lasted a year. The pretentious eating-club culture wasn’t really for him, and he didn’t find his math classes particularly challenging. “‘Annoyed’ would be a mild word for my parents’ reaction,” he says. He returned to Fort Wayne, Ind., where his parents had settled and his father owned a plastics company. “There were no jobs; it was a disaster,” he says. “It was right before the oil embargo, the stagflation era.” He started reading books about a Hindu saint who’d spent his life on a spiritual quest. That, he thought, was something worthwhile. In 1974 he moved to India.
Bhargava says he spent his 20s traveling between monasteries owned and tended by an ashram called Hanslok. He and his fellow disciples weren’t monks, exactly. “It’s the closest Western word,” he says. “We didn’t have bowler haircuts or robes or bells.” It was more like a commune, he says, but without the drugs. He did his share of chores, helped run a printing press and worked construction for the ashram. Bhargava claims he spent those 12 years trying to master one technique: the stilling of the mind, often through meditation. He still considers himself a member of the Hanslok order and spends an hour a day in his Farmington Hills basement in contemplative silence.
Bhargava would return to the U.S. periodically during his ashram years, working odd jobs before returning to India. For a few months he drove a yellow cab in New York. When he moved back from India for good, it was to help with the family plastics business at his parents’ urging. He spent the next decade dabbling in RV armrests and beachchair parts. He had no interest in plastics whatsoever but devoted himself to buying small, struggling regional outfits and turning them around. By 2001 Bhargava had expanded his Indiana PVC manufacturer from zero sales to $25 million (he eventually sold it to a private equity firm for $20 million in 2006). He decided to retire and moved to Michigan to be near his wife’s family. “Nobody moves on purpose to Detroit,” he says. His retirement lasted two months. He knew from his plastics success that the chemicals industry was ripe for exploiting. “Chemicals are really simple,” he says. “You mix a couple things together and sell it for more than the materials cost.”
Aside from this feature on him, you won’t really find Bhargava on the internet:
His paper trail is thin, consisting primarily of more than 90 lawsuits. This is his first press interview. “I’m killing it right now,” he says, adjusting a black zip-up cardigan from behind the table of a soulless conference room in a beige low-rise building in a suburban business park in Farmington Hills, Mich. “But you’ll Google me and find, like, some lawyer in Singapore.”
What’s most interesting to me is that Bhargava’s idea for 5-Hour Energy wasn’t new (he went to a trade show where he tasted an energy drink and copied its ingredients in 5-Hour Energy). What was novel was his idea of incorporating energy drink ingredients in a tiny package and effectively selling the product (having it on Wal-Mart store shelves certainly helped).