There are people with a gift for apt metaphors, and then there is Anant Gawande. During the Q3FY18 earnings call, the director of Talwalkars said, “If there was a joint, which makes vada pao then it should make only vada pao and nothing else.” Gawande was trying to explain Talwalkars Better Value Fitness’ (TBVF) strategy to demerge its business into two entities — TBVF and Talwalkar Healthclubs (TH). But if you are a fitness chain, you should stay a few miles and rhetorical flourishes away from fast food.
Today, when Talwalkars has been dragged down by its unhealthy appetite for debt, Gawande’s metaphor seems unfortunate. There was one, too many vadas, and worse, the books allegedly were overcooked. Despite repeated attempts to schedule a meeting and Outlook Business sending a detailed questionnaire about the goings-on, the company refused to respond.
At its peak, in March 2015, the stock price of the combined entity was Rs.410. The downward movement began a year later, when the demerger plan was announced. Cracks in its operations began to show when numbers for both businesses — the high-end health-club business (TBVF) and the more lucrative gym vertical (TH) — were reported separately. After the demerger was effected on June 29, 2018, a concealed debt pile came to light. The stock price has since cratered — TBVF fell from a high of Rs.65 in April 2019 to Rs.4.05 in January 2020; and TH from a high of Rs.173 in August 2018 to Rs.3.38 in January 2020 (See: Race to the bottom).
The once marquee gym brand has been reduced to a fraction of its past glory. Last October, rating agencies downgraded the stock to ‘D’, which means the ‘company is in default or is expected to default on maturity’. It is a long fall for a company that pioneered a fitness trend in the country.
Its history dates to 1932, when Vishnu Talwalkar in his twenties set up the first centre at Mumbai’s Linking Road. Then it was called Ramkrishna Physical Culture Institute. The founder (grandfather of the present dir