The Man Behind 5-Hour Energy

You may have seen the ads for the energy shot 5-Hour Energy — maybe you've even knocked one back yourself. But you probably don't know much about the man behind those little red and yellow bottles. His name is Manoj Bhargava and he's managed to fly under the radar — until now. Forbes staff writer Clare O'Connor tells host Audie Cornish about Bhargava — as Audie downs her own 5-Hour Energy shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I’M SO TIRED")

BOO BOO DAVIS: (Singing) Whoa, I'm so tired now...

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

All right, here we are, at the end of a long day you might be feeling like...

(SOUNDBITE OF A COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Tired sucks...

CORNISH: You've seen these ads. They play over and over and over again on cable and online. They hock a product that claims to repair your tired days.

(SOUNDBITE OF A COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: 5-hour Energy fixes tired fast. One shot, back to work, problem solved. 5-hour Energy, fix the tired.

CORNISH: So you've seen the ads and maybe you've picked up one of those little red and yellow plastic bottles next to the US Weekly at the convenience store. But you might not know much about the man behind the caffeine-laced energy shot. His name is Manoj Bhargava. And Clare O'Connor, a staff writer at Forbes, learned more about this mystery drink and the mystery man behind it.

Welcome, Clare.

CLARE O'CONNOR: Hi, thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Well, to start, I'm going to crack open a 5-hour Energy because I actually don't drink coffee. So while I may have tasted this once, I don't think I've knocked back a shot.

O'CONNOR: Well, I'm glad you're doing it in front of me for the first time.

CORNISH: Because you did it in front of him, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

O'CONNOR: I did. I did it at his conference room table in suburban Detroit for the first time. And I've got to tell you, for the next two weeks I was hooked.

CORNISH: OK, are you supposed to do it in full gulp?

O'CONNOR: Yeah, one fell swoop. Just get it down.

CORNISH: All right, here we go.

O'CONNOR: Not delicious, is it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Hold on, I need a minute. My mouth is just coated in sugary sweetness. This is berry flavored.

O'CONNOR: Well, its only got four calories, so you're in luck there.

CORNISH: Oh, well then.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: So, let's talk about what is in 5 Hour Energy because the ads make a lot of claims about the contents.

(SOUNDBITE OF A COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Its key ingredients are found in everyday food like avocados, broccoli, and bananas or already in you...

CORNISH: OK. So, avocado, broccoli and bananas, all of those sound like good things. None of those sound like things that I just tasted, to be completely honest.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: So, what is in 5 Hour Energy?

O'CONNOR: Yes, I have to agree with you, it does have a sort of chalky cough syrup taste to it. But what is in it? Actually we hired a laboratory in Georgia to test for us. What it really is, is over 3,000 percent of your daily dose of vitamin B6.

CORNISH: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

O'CONNOR: It's nutrients like taurine. We had it tested for caffeine levels just to make sure. And it really, honestly, it is quite a lot per ounce but it's still less than the average Starbucks coffee.

CORNISH: So, Clare, this was the Manoj Bhargava's first press interview. This is the guy who owns 90 percent of the energy shot market. Tell us more about who he is and how he's managed to basically stay under the radar.

O'CONNOR: That's right. I mean, he proudly told me when I first got out there to Michigan that if I Googled him, I'd find some lawyer in Singapore. This is a man who spent 12 years living as a monk in Delhi and now he runs a hugely profitable company. He moved over from India with his family when he was young, living in West Philadelphia, was a math whiz and he got himself into Princeton, but after one year he realized it wasn't really for him.

He went off to India, where he spent the next 12 years living in an ashram. Came back, he went into a completely different field. He went into plastics where he actually did very, very well manufacturing very unglamorous things like RV armrests and the back straps you see on plastic beach chairs.

CORNISH: So, how did he get the idea for 5 Hour Energy?

O'CONNOR: Well, he was looking to try something new, so he found himself at a natural products tradeshow out in Anaheim. And this is eight years ago now. And he happened upon a stall where there were some guys peddling a 16-ounce energy product. And he took a swig and after a while he thought, you know, this stuff works. And six months later, it was on the shelves. That was that.

CORNISH: And since then, it's just become a hugely popular product. I mean, is there any sense of just how much money this company has made?

O'CONNOR: There is, yes. And I did do - I had to do a lot of digging to find that out. He's very private. But their revenues are crazy. I mean, they've done over a billion dollars in retail sales last year. Of that, revenues are about 600 million, which is huge for this, you know, small private company off the side of a road in Detroit.

And I think also it's become, slowly but surely, a kind of a cultural touchstone. I don't know if you remember back to the original "Wall Street" film in the '80s, you had Charlie Sheen in the back of the limo doing some cocaine. Well, in Oliver Stone's 2010 sequel to "Wall Street," instead of sort of illicit drugs in the bathroom stall, you've got these traders necking 5 Hour Energy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Tossing it back at the computer terminals, right?

O'CONNOR: Well, right. So, I mean, exactly. So I think this just goes to show how popular it's become.

CORNISH: That's Clare O'Connor. She covers the Billionaire Beat for Forbes. She told us about Manoj Bhargava, the man behind 5 Hour Energy. Thanks so much, Clare.

O'CONNOR: Thanks for having me.

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