Hard work, passion and a bit of luck – the top 10 Indian Owners in the Arab world on Forbes Middle East’s 2014 list swear by these. They tell a reporter what sets them apart, and give us tips for joining the big boys’ club.
Rule number one: money does not always beget money.
Almost all the big business owners on the Forbes Middle East’s Top 10 Indian Owners list started small – rags to riches is the cliché usually used to describe their journey. The number one on this list, MA Yusuffali, Managing Director of LuLu Group International, sailed penniless to the Middle East on a boat in 1973 to work at his uncle’s distribution business. Today he is No. 913 on Forbes’ list of world billionaires with an estimated $2 billion (about Dh7.3 billion) fortune.
The chairman of the Landmark group, Micky (Mukesh) Jagtiani, also started out in 1973 with a single store stocking childcare products in Bahrain, a last-ditch effort to survive with the $6,000 that his family had left him. Today he’s 250 on the Forbes’ list and worth $5.9 billion.
The rest of the billionaires and millionaires on the list all came up in a similar manner. At number three, Bavaguthu Raghuram Shetty (better known as BR Shetty), CEO of NMC Healthcare and managing director and CEO of money transfer agency UAE Exchange, is 1,594 on the billionaires’ list with a fortune of $997 million. He worked in Abu Dhabi as a pharmaceutical salesman when he landed there in 1973 – seemingly the magic year for self-made business magnates in the Middle East. The rest on the list – Sunny Varkey, Gems Education chairman, at number four, real-estate giant Sobha Group chairman PNC Menon at number eight, or Harshad Ramniklal Mehta, diamantaire and chairman of Rosy Blue group, at number nine – all started in near-identitical situations.
In 1980 Sunny Varkey took over the school his parents started in Dubai, Our Own English High School, and expanded it to one of the largest operators of private schools in the world with a network of 124 schools over the Middle East, Africa, Europe, China, and India. Bill Clinton is the honorary chairman of his charity, the Varkey Gems Foundation, and he also has a consultancy that advises governments and non-profit organisations. He is estimated to be worth $1.4 billion today by Forbes Middle East. He is also said to have done everything from laying bricks for school buildings to driving the school bus initially.
PNC Menon’s life fits the rags-to-riches cliché: his father died when he was 10, he couldn’t afford to complete his college education and moved from his native Kerala in India to Oman with just Rs50 (about Dh3) in his pocket. Today his fortune is estimated to be around $1 billion.
Harshad R Mehta too dreamed big, possibly because he had to share a small one-room house with 11 other family members in Mumbai. That dream took shape when as a teenager he visited the palatial house of a prosperous relative. “Their lifestyle made me feel that if anyone wanted to have this kind of life, he had to have lots of money,” he said in an interview with Indian publication Chitralekha. “Had I not thought of becoming rich at that moment, I would not have become what I am today.” His Rosy Blue group is one of the largest polished diamond and finished jewellery manufacturing companies in the world.
What is it about these men that led them to add all those zeroes to their bank account?
The right traits
If there is one thing to be learned from the lives of these successful men, it is that you won’t go anywhere with the wrong attitude. You also need a few abilities to make the most of your potential. “Cliché or not, as they say there are no shortcuts to success,” says Yusuffali. “I am continuously learning. [The most important talent would be] recruiting and retaining good talent. It goes without saying that an honest and transparent approach is most essential.”
He advises against “trying to find quick fixes, shortcuts and jumping into new markets/business without proper due diligence. Never get into a business purely because someone else has made money.” “Any decision becomes a mistake only after the results are known,” says BR Shetty. “Therefore, don’t worry about mistakes, but take precautions.” Shetty’s list of to-dos is simple: “Your employees and associates depend on you. In the face of adversity, always stand by them.”
Don’t be afraid to stand up for your product.
“You are the best salesperson for your product or service,” he says. “Never miss an opportunity to show off your product.”The confidence-boosting advice comes with a rider: “Success should never go to your head, always be down-to-earth.” BR Shetty has three tips for budding entrepreneurs. “Be sustainable and scalable,” he advises. “Stay true to your conscience. And most importantly, have confidence and faith in your dreams.”
Passion for your job
This may be another cliché, but PNC Menon sets great store by it. “Be passionate about the domain you are entering so you can give it your best,” is his top tip. Micky Jagtiani agrees. “Passion and hard work are both important for success,” he says, “[but first] believe in yourself.” Also do a reality check. “Make sure you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur as some people are better off being professionals in the field of their choice,” says Menon. “Make sure you understand the financial and capital requirements of any business you undertake. Focus totally on the quality of your product.”
Knowing the right time to launch is also paramount. “I think that both as people and entrepreneurs there are some key things that hold us back from reaching our full potential,” says Micky Jagtiani, who lost everything – family and money – before he could fight back and work his way up to the top. “Don’t wait for the right moment, don’t make your dreams wait another day. Do it now.”
He should know. He dropped out of college in London, drove cabs and cleaned hotel rooms to survive, eventually moving back with his family in Bahrain in 1972. More misfortune followed. After his brother Mahesh succumbed to leukaemia, his father passed away within months. His mother died soon after. At 21 Micky was left penniless and an orphan. He wanted to return to India, but felt compelled to complete the task his brother had initiated – starting a shop for which he’d already paid the lease. With the $6,000 legacy that he’d been left by the family, he stocked the shop with baby care items and portentously named it Babyshop. He’s never looked back since.
You need a team
Obviously, a team is necessary to translate your dreams into success. “You can’t achieve everything alone. Trust in people, share your vision, and work together,” says Micky. MA Yusuffali pays a lot of attention to his core team, and it obviously has stood him in good stead. The attrition rate of key senior staff at LuLu is said to be just 1 percent.
“I believe in delegating powers to my people,” he once said in an interview with NDTV Arabia. “They will be accountable and responsible. If I take everything in my hand, the institution cannot work, so I strongly believe in my people, my colleagues. They run the show, because they â€¨are responsible.”
The managing director of construction giant ETA Star Ascon group, Syed Salahuddin – joint number five on the list – feels that the right team is key. “The culture in our company is that every staffer owns the company,” he said in the same interview. “We are all one big family, and we all own it. We were the first company in the 1970s in the UAE to look on our employees as careerists. Before that everybody looked on their staff as temporary – here for two or three years before returning to their home country. We used to hire people just graduating from school and groom them in their jobs, and they have stayed on until their retirement. That’s loyalty for you. I created a family atmosphere, and rather than being called MD of the company I’d rather be called kaka, the big brother.”
The group makes a practice of employing families. “When a person retires, we see that a son or a daughter is employed in his place,” said Salahuddin. “We welcome families here. This may lead to a little inefficiency or nepotism in the short term, but I am more bothered about getting people who are concerned about the company. Inefficiency â€¨can be corrected, but concern cannot be bought.”â€¨
Don’t be afraid to fail
A fear of failure keeps many entrepreneurs from walking new paths. Which is why the list of billionaires remains short. “Success comes through rapidly fixing our mistakes rather than getting things right first time,” says Shetty. “Learn to accept failure,” says Jagtiani. “It teaches you a lot more than success ever will.”
PNC Menon agrees. “You have to have the vision and the ability to see the unknown,” he says, about getting around failure. “And then to grasp the opportunity hiding in the corner.” He should know. His Sobha Group entered the UAE real-estate market just barely before the boom went into decline. Many of their plans had to be put on hold. Now, the Sobha Group is again on the forefront with its real-estate projects while bigger companies have bitten the dust.
Make big bold moves
Yusuffali began his foray into the retail sector in the UAE in 1995 when the Carrefour chain (then known as Continental) made its entry. “Even if there’s an economic crisis, people need to eat,” he said in an interview then. “That’s why we cater to the basic needs of the people, and not the luxury segment.”
It was also the reason his company was one of the few to expand during the global economic downturn. “Static thinking does not work,” says PNC Menon. “Entrepreneurs need to have the ability to think dynamically in this ever-changing business and consumer environment.”
Construction magnate and chairman of the RP group based in Bahrain, Ravi Pillai came from a farming community in Kerala, India. “There were no businessmen in our family,” he said in an interview. “But even while I was young I found that farming yielded little returns.” So, Ravi decided to become an entrepreneur and provide jobs to others. And he did it while still in college by starting a local finance company with borrowed money. â€¨“I started a chit [savings] fund with Rs100,000, and made a monthly profit of Rs20,000,” he said. “But â€¨I didn’t use the money to splurge or enjoy; I reinvested it in my company.”
After graduating Ravi could have joined the best of institutions to study business administration. But he chose to go to a local college, enrolling in evening classes so as to concentrate on his business. And when the construction business started booming in Kerala, he started a company in the sector. And when he had labour problems, he decided to move to Saudi Arabia and first accumulated capital through trading before launching into the construction business. Today his group is spread across 15 cities in seven countries. He ranks 1,026 on the Forbes Global list with a personal fortune of $2 billion, and is number 10 on the Top Indian Owners list.
Micky Jagtiani underwrites the LIFE Trust that funds the education of more than 100,000 children in schools in the slum areas in India, and is also the main benefactor for several orphanages. He has said that when he goes to India, he sleeps on the floor in these orphanages because it helps to keep him grounded.
MA Yusuffali is a well-respected philanthropist too. A “sizeable portion of the LuLu group’s profits” goes to various CSR activities and charitable initiatives both in the UAE and India, along with poverty eradication programmes in Africa and education in Palestine, as well as contributing to philanthropic organisation Dubai Cares.
“You can’t just make profit and keep [it for yourself],” he’s said. “Only if water [money] flows out, will more water come in.” PNC Menon established Sobha Heritage and Sobha Academy in 2006 to provide education and social welfare to around 2,500 families in two villages in India – Vadakkenchery and Kizhakkenchery.
The Dodsal Group’s chairman Rajen Kilachand, number seven on the list, is responsible for the growth of the Dodsal Group from a $200 million company to a multibillion dollar organisation. “I believe a gifted life such as the one I have been blessed with needs to be lived with full observance to ‘dharma,’ which is Sanskrit for the karmic obligation of a human soul to participate morally and ethically on the path of duty, which brings wellness to humanity,” he said. “And so, I live this life to the fullest, whether it is crossing new frontiers in business, or path-breaking sociocultural initiatives; hosting annual kite festivals in Gujarat, India, to celebrate my family’s passion and my own expertise in this unique sport; producing short films and books; performing in theatre; supporting musical events around the world, including the New Orleans Jazz Festival; or indulging my interests in subjects as varied as astrophysics and international relations.” He was also the first Indian to extend generous support â€¨to Dubai Cares.
Even with their billions, these tycoons work 12- to 14-hour days. “By the grace of Almighty I have accomplished much more than I had ever dreamed, so materialistically I don’t have any so-called dreams left,” says Yusuffali, 59. “But yes I would love to see my LuLu brand expanding and opening new stores in all major locations in the Mena and Asia region. But by far, what I consider as my greatest achievement is the fact that I have been instrumental in giving employment to more than 45,000 people (past and present).”
Mehta has formally retired at 67, but is even more active now than when he was establishing his company. “I have moved out of an active role in business, which I leave to my son now, and have begun to focus completely on social activities,” he says. “My goal is to help good NGOs become strong and sustainable. I hope I can make a difference in the next two to three years and am able to look back with satisfaction.”
Even at 61, Jagtiani is always looking for new fields to expand into. It’s been less than a year since he launched a sports goods retail arm, SportsOne, but he is already looking ahead into the future. “I am very fortunate that so many of my dreams have become a reality,” he says. “But like everyone else, I believe I have realised only part of my potential, even though I have achieved more than most and worked hard and passionately to achieve it.”
After health care and money exchanges, Shetty, 72, is already working on his next dream: education. “I aim to set up a world-class medical school in the UAE. I believe that when the vision is of such magnitude, we shouldn’t be looking at the time taken. Instead, we should focus on delivering the best, no matter what it takes.”
At 65, PNC Menon says he’s still dreaming. “I began my business journey in my early 20s taking my first steps towards my ultimate dream of creating a global company that changes the way people perceive quality, operating worldwide in major international cities,” he says. “I am still working on my dream and whilst I have had success along the way, I am far from completely achieving it.”