After building a technology company from zero to 800 people and selling it to a multi-national for multiple millions, Neil Bhaskar had achieved his life goal. “I wanted to retire before 45,” he says. While he won’t reveal how much the sale of NovaSoft, which had its headquarters on Quakerbridge Road, netted him, he says that it was “enough.” He had hoped for an IPO, but when the stock market swooned shortly after the start of 2000, he sold NovaSoft to the K.K. Birla Group, a $7 to $8 billion company out of India.” The proceeds would have provided a comfortable living for him, and for his wife and four children, for the rest of his life.
But it was not long before Bhaskar was reconsidering his life goal. He is now deeply involved in entrepreneurial ventures ranging from rock and roll to recycling to building a major over-the-counter drug company.
Bhaskar clearly appreciates the good life, both for himself and as a motivator for those who work for him. “At NovaSoft I gave out Mercedes Benzes,” he says. The company received a lot of press about his policy of having all employees set goals for themselves, giving them the freedom to achieve, and then rewarding them handsomely. At one point his first-level rewards were two-year luxury car leases. “No one on the board liked the idea,” he says, “but I did it anyway.”
He then added Rolex watches and large cash bonuses. The strategy, along with the Y2K technology fixes that were a company specialty, made NovaSoft one of the fastest growing companies in the late 1990s. At one point it was named 16th fastest grower in an Inc. 500 national survey and third fastest grower in New Jersey, although most of its employees worked from overseas. Bhaskar himself was recognized with a number of awards, including Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year designation in 1999.
Goal orientated himself, Bhaskar’s plan for NovaSoft was “IPO by 2000.” He now says, however, that he is not sorry that the IPO window closed before he could take his company public. Sale to another company can be even better, he says. “It lets you take a lot of chips off the table all at once,” he says. Under SEC regulations, it can take 10 years or more to cash in stock options.
So Bhaskar went for a sale, found a good acquirer in K.K. Birla, an long-established Indian company held in such high esteem, he says, that Ghandi was a frequent overnight guest at the founder’s home. But the deal — or, in fact, any deal at all — came within a hair’s-breadth of not happening.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” he recounts. “I was flying home from Amsterdam on September 11, 2001, the day after signing the papers.” Given the severe aftershocks from that day, and its effect on business, he is sure that had the transfer of his company been scheduled just one day later, it never would have happened. “The value of the company would have dropped like a brick,” he says. “All of my work since 1993 would have been for naught.”
As it was, his company was shut down for weeks. Worse, he says, “I had people in the World Trade Center.” He is aware that this tragedy could have taken his own life. “It could have been my plane,” he says. “I was due to land in Newark.” Instead, along with 15 or 16 other planes, his was re-routed to Gander, Newfoundland, where he stayed for several days. “We doubled the population of the town,” he says. “There were 300 or 400 passengers on every plane. We now hold reunions. We meet once a year. It was a profound experience in every way.”
Back in the United States, Bhaskar continued to work at NovaSoft, which he was selling in stages. He had received proceeds from a 40 percent sale of the company, and sold the remainder of the company over the next four years, stepping aside for good in 2005.
Leaving NovaSoft was not difficult for Bhaskar, who promptly devoted himself to a whole range of hobbies, including golf, chess, swimming, gymnastics, and in-line skating. Most importantly, though, he decided that it was time for him to get closer to his family.
“My whole family is very musical,” he says. The first piece of furniture he acquired for his wife, Janette, a native of New Zealand, was a grand piano. The couple’s four children, he says, are accomplished singers and musicians. “The oldest, Charlotte, is studying biology at McGill,” says the proud father. “She was in the state choir and plays the piano. Catherine, a 12th grader, is also in the state choir. Alexander, a 10th grader, is into music — band, state choir, also violin. William, a 9th grader, plays base guitar in a band.
“I decided to join them,” says Bhaskar. So soon after he sold his NovaSoft, he began to take guitar lessons. But apparently once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur. “I was getting bored,” Bhaskar admits. And this despite the fact that, truth be told, he had never totally retired. Keeping his hand in business, he had continued to be involved in NovaEquity, which he describes as a “small private equity company.” The company invests in early-stage entrepreneurial ventures. Bhaskar says that it has a particular interest in green enterprises and has recently funded a recycling company that is to have offices in Pennington, but is now operating from the U.K.
But it was not long before Bhaskar’s entrepreneurial interests began to multiply. His interest in learning to play an instrument was the start. “I was taking learning classical guitar with Steve Schaffer,” he says. “I have always been interested in helping young entrepreneurs, and wanted to set him up in business. He was 23 or 24. He was taking a degree in music and in accounting at the College of New Jersey with the idea of starting a company. I said ‘maybe I can help you out.’”
Bhaskar set Shaffer up in an office building he owns at 3750 Quakerbridge Road. Shaffer, his teacher as well as his protege, ran a music school there for a year, but decided that business was not for him. “He was a great musician, but not a great business person,” says Bhaskar. “He found out that he just wanted to teach, he didn’t want to run a company.” Meanwhile, however, Bhaskar had bought the House of Music, a Pennington business that gives lessons on a number of instruments, from Lou Cordas in 2005. His plan was to set Shaffer up in business there.
That arrangement did not work out, but Bhaskar’s interest in the business of music had been ignited. He is holding onto the House of Music, and hired Justin Toth, a Rider graduate, to manage it. He also rented his Quakerbridge Road offices to Mike Morpurgo, who opened a franchise of the Paul Green School of Rock there. Unlike the House of Music, which gives instruction on playing an instrument, the Princeton School of Rock teaches rock musicians how to make a successful leap to the stage. “A lot of people want to learn music, but they also want to rock,” says Bhaskar. “People think it’s easy to rock. It’s not.” Powered to a good degree by the success of American Idol, the school’s help with putting together a set for an audience is in great demand.
Sensing opportunity, Bhaskar signed an agreement with Morpurgo and his wife and partner, Annie Morton, to merge Princeton School of Rock with the House of Music and to create the Princeton School of the Arts, which was to quickly establish branches in several locations around Princeton. The papers were signed, and the parties were all set to go, but, says Bhaskar, the parent company filed a lawsuit to stop the merger. At this point, he says, “it’s too much of a hassle” to fight the lawsuit, so he is walking away from the deal, although the rock and roll school will continue to rent his building.
While Bhaskar is disappointed that his personal rock and roll dream is on hold, it was always just a side gig for him. The former retiree, now age 49, is busy with other ventures. One is LawCast, which he bought in 2007 from Jason Meyer, a Princeton University graduate. The company provides continuing legal education lectures in the form of audio disks, which attorneys can listen to while they drive. State bars require this instruction, and Bhaskar says that listening to it while going back and forth to work, meetings, and court is a painless way to attain the knowledge.
His partner in this business, which is located in the Straube Center, is Ray Moser, who also owns Moser Intellectual Property law firm with some 15 employees in Shrewsbury. The company has four editorial employees at that location and four or five more in Morristown.
Business, says Bhaskar, is “very good, expanding, growing.” The company now provides continuing legal education in 38 states. It concentrates on the areas of intellectual property, labor law, and Supreme Court rulings. It sells its CDs on a subscription model. “Attorneys get CDs two times a month,” Bhaskar says. After listening to them, they sign affidavits indicating that they have done so, and are then issued certificates.
“I ran it day-to-day in 2008, but it was too much,” says Bhaskar. “Now Moser runs it.”
One reason that hands-on management at LawCast was too much is that Bhaskar is deeply immersed in starting a large new over-the-counter drug company. Called NovaCare, it is growing from a Salt Lake City-based company that he purchased in 2008. This start-up is the result of Bhaskar’s exhaustive hunt for a distressed OTC drug company ripe for a turnaround.
“I had been looking aggressively for months,” he says. “I saw 30 to 40 companies. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.” The search nearly ended when he found a Hamilton company that seemed to fit his requirements.
“It has 60 to 70 employees, and is in bad shape,” he says. He saw opportunity there, and liked that it was located near his home, in Hopewell. Negotiations on the $11 to $12 million deal were nearly complete when he began to question how forthright the current owners were being with him. “First they said they needed $1 million right away, before the audit,” he recounts. He says that he was fine with that amount, and realized that it was necessary if the business were to keep running. “Then the next week, they said they needed $1.5 million,” he says. “It went up to $2 million, and I didn’t know what to think. How much did they really need? How honest were they being with me?”
Bhaskar decided that he was not being given full access to the facts on the state of company’s operations. He passed on the Hamilton company with regret — “It’s right in my backyard,” he says. “It’s a very sad story. I’m sure they’re headed for Chapter 11.” He kept searching for a good acquisition. The hunt took him to Salt Lake City, where he met Kelly Harvey, owner of TSN Labs, a 14-year-old company that manufacturers vitamins, dietary supplements, and related OTC products.
He liked TSN’s owner right away. “Kelly is transparent,” he says. “He let me see the good, the bad, the ugly.” Harvey wanted to grow his company and was realizing that he could not do it on his own, says Bhaskar. “He was running it on his credit cards,” he says. “You know you can get something like $85,000 on an American Express card.” Harvey needed a partner with capital, and he and Bhaskar quickly struck a deal that gives Bhaskar, through NovaEquity, a majority stake. His partner in the venture is India-based Rajat Pharma.
Kelly retains a minority ownership interest and is staying on as the company’s president. Bhaskar, the company’s CEO, spends every other week in Salt Lake City, where manufacturing will remain. He plans to establish the company’s headquarters in Mercer County, where he will house its accounting, marketing, and sales functions. He is now in the market for a 10,000 to 15,000 square foot building. He would prefer to purchase the building, and is looking in a number of towns, including Ewing, Hamilton, and East Windsor.
Bhaskar has owned NovaCare for just about a year, and is delighted with the results the company is achieving. “I grew it 254 percent in one year,” he says. I grew the bottom line from 0 to 24 percent.” Meanwhile, he has doubled manufacturing space to 40,000 square feet and doubled employee rolls to 40. Along the way he has spent a significant amount of money — about $500,000 — to obtain GMP, or good manufacturing practices, certification for the company, and has spent another $30,000 to $40,000 on upgrading machinery.
He attributes the company’s increased profitability to his management system, which he calls BODE, an acronym for “builder of a digital economy.” Developed with Wendell Jones, former chair of IT at West Point, the system, which he says is similar to Six Sigma, contains 11 check points and three categories — “directional, finance, and human capital.”
One of the most important parts of the system involves the goal setting that made his Mercedes Benz rewards famous at NovaSoft. Bhaskar says that even start-ups have to “act like adults.” This, he explains, means acting like a public company, which, by law, must disclose everything about its operations, finances, and plans. At his companies this translates into giving employees all of the information on every aspect of the company, quarter by quarter. In fact, at NovaCare, as was the case at NovaSoft, each quarter becomes a year — a “Nova year.”
Every employee must set goals — between one and three — for each year. Then, at the end of the year, “they must stand up and say how they did,” says Bhaskar, adding that “there is nowhere to hide.” The company does not hide information from the employees, and the employees cannot hide half-hearted effort and results from their employer.
Employees who exceed goals are rewarded right away. “We give bonuses four times a year,” says Bhaskar. “We speed up the process.” This system, he is convinced, results in a highly motivated workforce that will grow a company quickly. He says that the results are already showing. “Sales were $2.6 million in 2007,” he says. “They were $6.6 million in 2008. This year they will be $12 to $15 million. By 2010, they will be $25 million.” Further out, he is shooting for profits of $100 million within seven years, at which time he hopes to either take the company public or sell it.
Bhaskar wants key employees to stay around for the ride, and is dangling a carrot with more heft than a Mercedes in front of them. “There is a default compensation plan if the leadership team stays with me for five to seven years,” he says. “They have a pot of gold they can’t touch before then. It’s in a 409(a). It’s tax deferred.” Bhaskar declines to disclose the size of the pot, saying that it will be slightly different for each employee. He does say that the employees will get their reward whether there is an IPO or a sale.
Bhaskar, now involved in many entrepreneurial ventures, says that he learned about the business of building a business from his grandmother as he was growing up in Delhi. “She ran a transportation company,” he says. “Back then it was buggies, not trucks. She owned 50 to 60 horses.” One of his fondest memories is the present his grandmother gave him on his 10th birthday. “She gave me a pony,” he recalls.
“My grandmother was not educated,” he says. “But she managed the people and she managed the finances. It was very rare for a woman to run a company in the 1960s.” While Bhaskar’s grandmother did well with money, her strategy was unorthodox by 21st century standards (although it’s a fair bet that Madoff’s victims would have been better off had they emulated her). “She kept her money in pillows,” says her grandson. “She was not comfortable with banks. She hid silver coins in the backyard.”
Eventually her business grew to include motorized taxis, and eventually she began to put her money into a bank.
“I learned about business from her, and from my grandfather, whose title in the company was ‘great soul.’” While his grandparents took chances and built their business, Bhaskar’s father “found it too hard.” He opted for a job as an engineer, and a steady paycheck . His mother was a social worker.
Bhaskar earned a bachelor’s in engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology and an master’s in management from the Indian Institute of Management. He worked for a bank in Australia, where he met his wife. The couple came to the States in 1990, and he worked for a consulting firm in Tampa before settling in New Jersey.
Nova Group, 3570 Quakerbridge Road, Mercerville 08619; 609-588-0771; fax, 609-588-0031. Neil Bhaskar, managing member. Home page: www.princetonllc.com.
LawCast, 108 Straube Center Boulevard, Suite 20, Pennington 08534; 609-737-6543; fax, 609-737-3860. David Weisenfeld, editor in chief. www.lawcast.com.