LAST FALL, while in India for a wedding, Narain Bhatia stopped for a coffee. Looking around the crowded New Delhi shop, the accountant from Wakefield was surprised to see a familiar face. It was his friend Raman Handa, the former owner of Alpha Omega, the Boston-area watch and jewelry company. The two men chatted, but Handa seemed distracted and forlorn.
“He said he was in depression,” says Bhatia. “We did not talk long.”
It has been more than four years since Handa and his family abruptly left the United States and returned to India, and $6.6 million worth of the chain’s inventory mysteriously disappeared. Their departure — or getaway, depending on whom you talk to — shocked the retailer’s employees, customers, and creditors, and eventually led to its closure and bankruptcy. When the doors slammed shut, Alpha Omega owed $30 million to dozens of entities, from suppliers to banks to media companies.
It was a breathtaking fall from grace for the Handa clan, who used to throw lavish parties at their home for local tastemakers when they weren’t busy peddling high-end watches and jewelry to a wealthy clientele that included Bill Clinton, Ben Affleck, and Eva Longoria. Overnight, and without a word to anyone, the Handas disappeared, never to return.
Not to Boston at least. While Raman Handa, 62, and his wife, Nilma, remain in their native India, the couple’s daughter, Nidhi, and son, Amit, are back in the United States, once again peddling luxury living to the rich. Nidhi Handa, who attended Columbia University and was the marketing maven for her father’s stores, is now a licensed real estate broker in California. And her older brother, Amit, who went to the University of New Hampshire and fashioned himself a watch expert while working the counter at Alpha Omega, sells expensive baubles at the Jason of Beverly Hills store at the Cosmopolitan Hotel of Las Vegas. (Though both held the title of vice president at Alpha Omega, neither was an owner.)
Meanwhile, the bankruptcy case involving the Handas, which began in 2008, is finally ending, and the results are unlikely to satisfy Alpha Omega’s many creditors. Accused of “gross negligence” by lawyers representing companies that are owed money, Raman Handa has agreed to settle the case for $1.6 million. But that’s a fraction of the company’s debts. According to court documents, the top 20 creditors alone are due almost $9 million. (The Boston Globe is among the largest of the company’s creditors. Others include Rolex Watch USA, Boston magazine, Swatch Group U.S., and Chanel.)
“They cut their losses and we cut our losses,” says Christian Urbano, one of the lawyers who represented creditors. “In the end, we got what we could get and went with the settlement.”
IT WASN’T SO LONG AGO that the Handas were hailed as a success story. The son of a gemstone exporter from New Delhi, Raman Handa arrived in Boston in the late 1970s and opened his first store in Harvard Square in 1980. Over the next 30-plus years, through relentless schmoozing, splashy ad buys, and sales of pricey watch brands like TAG Heuer and Movado, Handa grew the business to include locations in Natick, Burlington, and the Prudential Center.
His business plan relied heavily on promotion. Alpha Omega spent millions on advertising, and Handa never passed up an opportunity to have his picture taken with a famous face, be it Ben Stiller or Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai, whom, according to India New England, a Waltham-based newspaper, Handa once brought to town to hype a Swiss watch he was selling. The family also hosted annual “customer appreciation” parties at their sprawling home in Lexington, inviting friends, vendors, and assorted boldfacers with whom Alpha Omega had business dealings, including auto magnate Herb Chambers and Celtics CEO Wyc Grousbeck. Former employees say the over-the-top affairs were planned by Nidhi, who many believed was being groomed to succeed her father.
Raman Handa’s approach seemed to work. Between 1997 and 2004, according to court documents, Alpha Omega’s annual sales grew from $10.7 million to $39.6 million. But there were also signs that the business’s rapid expansion, and Handa’s decision to add jewelry to his inventory of exclusive watches, caused financial pressure. Former employees and creditors say Alpha Omega was increasingly slow to pay its bills and Handa would often ask vendors and advertising reps to delay depositing his checks.
“No one wanted to risk alienating his future high billings by trying too hard to hold Raman to tighter payment terms,” says Dan Scully, former president of Boston magazine. “Although Raman paid late, he always eventually paid.”
The company’s bookkeeping practices were also questionable. Documents filed in the bankruptcy case say the Handas “paid little to no attention to accounting details,” and by 2006 the company’s liabilities exceeded its assets by $2.4 million, causing the company to default on a series of bank loans.
“Watches were always mysteriously missing, and no insurance claims were ever filed,” says Adam Jaklitsch, a former employee who now works at Ferrari of New England. “Every day you’d do inventory, and, all of a sudden, you’d open the safe and something wouldn’t be there.”
Jaklitsch and others at Alpha Omega began to sense something was seriously amiss in 2007, when officials with LaSalle Business Credit, an arm of Bank of America, began showing up at the flagship store in Harvard Square to do their own detailed inventories of Alpha Omega’s stock. Employees say Handa did not come to work as often as before and looked haggard when he did. They say he briefly checked himself into the Lahey Clinic for an undisclosed health issue. It wasn’t long before customers perceived a problem.
Peter Livingstone, who lives in Concord, had coveted a fancy timepiece made by German watchmaker A. Lange & Sohne, and he discovered that Alpha Omega carried it. He put down a $50,000 deposit and then waited. “Amit called me and wanted another $170,000 as a deposit,” says Livingstone. “I didn’t give it to him, and, three or four months later, he ended up calling and saying they weren’t going to do the deal. Then they were gone.” Livingstone got his money back before they left. “My lawyer dealt with Nidhi,” he says. “Amit was a moron, but his sister was a real smart cookie.”
Then, about 10 days before Christmas 2007, as the holiday shopping season was heating up, the Handas vanished. Stunned employees learned later that the family had hastily packed up their belongings and, driven to Logan International Airport by their gardener, flown to India. They didn’t alert anyone — not employees, customers, or even family. Their $2 million house, which they had used as collateral for a business loan, was eventually foreclosed on and sold at auction.
“I have not talked to them at any time since they left,” says Vinod Kapoor, Handa’s cousin and the owner of Masala Art, a restaurant in Needham. “Raman’s pride was much bigger than anything else. He was embarrassed to talk to me. Someday, if he decides that he wants to talk, I will be very happy.”
Attempts to contact Handa in India were unsuccessful, and his lawyer in the bankruptcy case, Edward Quinlan, did not respond to several phone calls. Nidhi and Amit both declined to be interviewed for this story.
What followed the family’s departure was a byzantine bankruptcy proceeding that involved a takeover by LaSalle Business Credit; a liquidation sale; and a legion of lawyers, bankers, creditors, and the FBI, which seized documents from Handa’s Cambridge headquarters in March 2008 after the bank reported more than $6.6 million in missing inventory. No charges were ever filed against the Handas, who claim in court documents that they had “acted upon the advice of retained professionals” in managing their finances. The FBI won’t say whether the case is still under investigation.
“I’m surprised [the FBI] never came back to me,” says Urbano, the creditors’ lawyer. “I talked to them once and then never heard from them again.”
AS THE BANKRUPTCY case winds down, Handa’s two children are back in business. In 2009, less than two years after fleeing the country, Nidhi quietly returned to the United States, creating a company in California called It’s About Time L.A., which sought to sell “hard to find, rare, or limited edition” watches at discount prices. It’s not clear how much business she did, but, according to the website of the California secretary of state’s office, the corporation still exists. The following year, according to the California Department of Real Estate, Nidhi took and passed the three-hour exam needed to get a real estate license. According to paperwork filed with the state, Nidhi now works for Keller Williams Realty in West Hollywood and lives in an apartment a few blocks away. The 45-unit rental complex, with a heated, in-ground pool in the courtyard, resembles the building that was the set of the ’90s TV soap opera Melrose Place. Promotional materials for the palm-shaded complex promise a “luxurious living experience” within walking distance of the Sunset Strip.
Nidhi also has a website, liveandloveinla.com, which touts her experience and carefree philosophy on life. “Professionally . . . my background is luxury marketing and communications,” she writes. “Personally it is living life to its fullest, maintaining a positive outlook and having as much fun as possible in the process!”
Properties featured on her website range from modest duplexes to a $14 million “magical hideaway” in Beverly Hills.
Amit, meanwhile, spends at least a portion of his time in Las Vegas, where he is a “brand ambassador” for Jason of Beverly Hills. (Wearing a vivid yellow sweater, he can be seen helping customers in a YouTube clip of the launch party for the store’s “G-String” bracelet.)
Before that, he partnered with Australian soccer agent Miro Gladovic on a proposed reality show, American Footy Star, about an American athlete playing Australian football. The show was never made. In an e-mail, Gladovic declined to talk about Amit, saying, “I have not had any association with that individual for a long time now.”
While creditors wait for the bankruptcy to be finalized so they might get at least a small portion of the money they are owed, many remain angry. “I’ve always respected the privacy of people I do business with, but Raman Handa made this a public matter when he fled the scene in the way he did,” says Scully, the former Boston magazine president. “Businesses fail all the time, but when they fail accompanied by such deceit and dishonor, it has to be noted and not swept under the rug as though it’s just some routine bankruptcy filing.”
Though the $1.6 million settlement represents only a sliver of what Alpha Omega owes, it’s not clear that Raman Handa can come up with the money. Harry Murphy, the trustee representing creditors, acknowledges “serious collectability issues exist in this matter.” He has collected about $600,000, and only about half of that will be available to creditors after lawyers in the case are paid.
Bhatia, the Wakefield accountant who saw Handa at the coffee shop in New Delhi, thinks his friend feels bad about what happened. “But he doesn’t want to meet anybody,” says Bhatia. “He will probably not come back here again.”
Mark Shanahan writes the Boston Globe’s Names column. E-mail him at email@example.com.