Somewhere in the narrow strip of the Arabian Sea separating the UAE from Iran, a small fishing boat pulls astern a merchant ship. A man climbs aboard. Once on deck, he whisks out a necktie from his pocket and promptly puts it on as he is being ushered into the captain’s cabin. He has learnt that it’s important to be presentable when making a business deal.
Introducing himself to the captain, the visitor explains he represents a company that supplies food items to ships and asks if the captain is interested in doing business. His host nods and the pair begin to talk. In about an hour, the deal is done and the visitor returns to the boat and sets off back to shore.
That scene was played out in 1983 and Jeyaram Subramanian, also known as JR, then aged 30, was pleased that his novel method of beginning a business relationship and procuring contracts was bearing fruit. He, along with two partners, had just set up Barakat Shipping Channelists, a predecessor of Barakat Vegetables and Fruits LLC.
“Those were the days of the Iran-Iraq war, and the Iranian merchant navy needed good food suppliers to bank on,’’ recalls JR. “We landed many orders and did brisk business.’’
Soon they expanded and today his company’s food stuffs are sought after by hotel and airline industries in the UAE, Oman and Lebanon. Barakat’s growing list of clientele includes The Hilton, Emirates Flight Catering, Starwood Group, Jumeirah Group and The Hyatt Group.
“Barakat literally means ‘blessings’ in Arabic, and the name reflects what we are passionate about,” says JR, now CEO of the Barakat Group of Companies LLC, which employs almost 1,000 people. “We feel blessed to deliver the natural and health-promoting goodness of fruits and vegetables to our clients, in the best way possible.”
JR, who will be celebrating his 60th birthday next year, believes that service replete with kindness is what has truly enriched his life. He first saw this quality in his father, Subramanian Sankaran Iyer, who ran the family restaurant business in Mumbai, India, in the 1960s.
“The restaurant patrons ranged from the well-to-do businessman to the new city migrant. Being new to the city himself, my father sympathised with other newcomers and would take care of their food needs until they could find employment and repay him. Sometimes, they couldn’t repay, but father never seemed to mind,” JR says.
However, during a brief spell of social unrest in Mumbai in 1965, the restaurant became the target of rioters and JR’s family lost everything and had to start from scratch. “Whatever the challenges, my father made sure all of us completed our studies,” JR says.
Although he was keen to earn a degree in commerce, he didn’t get a place in a commerce college and so ended up taking a degree in law. But destiny had carved out something different for him. “My first job in 1973 was in the accounting department of New India Industries Limited, a company that manufactured products for photographic film. Family circumstances did not allow me to pursue my studies towards being a chartered accountant, and this job gave me valuable, hands-on experience in the field. So, when Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, chairman of the UAE-based Bukhatir Group, visited Bombay in 1979 looking to recruit accountants for his Sharjah office, I had the professional experience to meet his selection criteria.”
JR has lived in the UAE for over three decades. It was here that his two daughters, Mahima, 28, and Monisha, 23, were born. And it is here that he has led a company that has, for the past five years, grown at a rate of 25 per cent per annum, with revenues touching Dh650 million in 2011. JR talks to Friday about his journey and what it has meant to him.
During my first years living here, I would leave home at six every morning, and not return before 11 at night.
In those days my wife Santhi held a job in Sharjah to supplement the household income, and she kept it going until Monisha was born.
After a few years with Bukhatir, I switched to a local real-estate company in 1982. Around that time, my childhood friend, John Sebastian, who was also in the UAE, happened to meet Mahmoud Barakat, a 28-year old from Iran. The two of them decided to float a joint venture as food suppliers to ships that sailed into Dubai port. John told Mahmoud about me, and all three of us met.
I learnt that Mahmoud had begun Barakat as a one-man show in 1976 in the Hamriya Market in Deira, Dubai. As a supplier of whole fruits and vegetables, in those initial years he was the truck driver, delivery man and accountant all rolled into one. I was impressed by his hard work.
We joined forces and called our partnership Barakat Shipping Channelists. Soon, I set upon making my marketing calls to ships on the Arabian Sea. We did brisk business until the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines brought all merchant vessels under its purview. Under the new system they introduced, cash transactions were phased out, which consequently affected our cash flow. Eventually, we sold off Barakat Ship Channelists in 1986.
We then directed our focus on the Barakat whole fruit business in Hamriya Market. We won contracts with five-star hotels like The Hilton and The Hyatt Regency, and also supplied fruits to Oman. Our clients rightfully expected excellent quality when it came to the freshness of supplied fruits. This was a challenge, since most trucks in the UAE had no cold storage facilities, and the summer months were particularly harsh. I remember one chef at The Hilton telling me, ‘I ordered strawberries, and not strawberry mousse!’
We needed a solution urgently. We toured factories in Europe and gained insights into the way they retained the freshness of fruits throughout the entire supply chain. As part of the solution, we introduced a fleet of Thermo King cold storage trucks in 1987 – the first in the UAE. Finally, the chefs found no unintended mousses or jams as part of their consignment!
Barakat’s business grew on the back of booming Dubai’s tourism and hospitality industry in the 1990s. The year 1998 proved to be definitive for Barakat, thanks to Michael Wunsch. I knew him then as the chef at Al Bustan Rotana. One day, he told me that almost every hotel in the UAE faced challenges when it came to fruits and vegetables. Catering to demands for fresh juice and salads during peak season was difficult for the kitchen personnel. He suggested that Barakat should build a factory that would become the extended kitchen for every five-star hotel in the country as far as fruit and vegetables were concerned.
I agreed, but wanted him to partner with me in this project too. Mike resigned from his position at Al Bustan and, in 2002, Barakat opened its first factory in Jebel Ali Industrial Area. Our products were fresh and gained immense popularity. One satisfied customer meant another potential customer, and every hotel that came into Dubai signed up for Barakat. The company witnessed significant demand for its products in other Middle Eastern markets such as Oman and Lebanon too, which led us to open a second factory at Dubai Industrial City this year.
All this we could never have done by ourselves. With us is a small army of Barakatis – our staff – with whom I feel a tremendous sense of brotherhood. We do what we do with all our hearts. In fact, several processes at our factories are not mechanised – they are painstakingly done by hand, fruit by fruit – sanitizing, peeling, slicing, and packing. We take this approach because we want people to relish what we prepare for them.
I often have my daytime meals in the staff canteen, because I like interacting with my people, getting to know them better and asking after their welfare. We always want to be beside them in their time of need. For instance, in 1992, a Barakati, originally from Bangladesh, had a fatal accident while on duty. I cancelled my leave at once and returned to Dubai. He was survived by his widow, a six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. We opened a bank account for them in Bangladesh, and until the day the son graduated, Barakat continued to pay the late employee’s full salary every month. The son will soon be joining us in a responsible position.
I was born in Kanyakumari, a town on the southernmost tip of India. I have five brothers and four sisters. From the start, our parents taught us that while industriousness is a definite virtue, of much greater worth are compassion and kindness. These qualities are what make us distinctively human.
My father was keen that all his six sons lend a hand in the restaurant that he set up in Mumbai. So once school and games were over, my brothers and I headed to the restaurant to help out in whatever way we could.
My father was particularly pleased with my accounting skills, and I would happily sit at the cash counter tallying up the books. The restaurant had an open kitchen, and I would observe my father working hard with his team of ten, who were more like business partners than employees to him. He divided all profits equally across the team. His kindness was contagious, and I suppose it infused the food with greater taste. My father always commended me on a job well done and entrusted me with money to buy groceries from the wholesale markets located downtown... I was being educated in the ways of the world.
Even as a child, I looked forward to occasions like Eid, Diwali, Christmas and New Year – father involved all his family, workmates and friends, and celebrated them with gusto. I continue his tradition today. At Barakat such special occasions are times when we all come together and celebrate.
Every day, I am up by 5:30am. Yoga, prayers and newspapers over coffee are my daily routine. I prefer to complete my work before I leave. That was seldom possible in the past, but now I have 27 managers working with me, so I delegate things to them. Evening sees me hitting the treadmill or walking my pet dog, Scooby, which is a saluki-Labrador mix.
Weekends are always spent with family and friends, and a movie is invariably on the agenda. I love playing cricket. Marriages and special events in the family keep bringing me together with my seven surviving siblings. My daughter Mahima married in 2010 and is now in Perth, Australia. My other daughter Monisha helps me in my duties at Barakat.
I can truly say I have had a fruitful life, pun intended, and most of my dreams are fulfilled. I would consider it my privilege to keep influencing others, in my own small ways, to be more compassionate. In our busy lives, there is one essential ingredient that is getting to be in short supply, which needs to be cultivated by us all the more – compassion.
The dreams of my daughters are also mine. Mahima is learning the export business of fruits and vegetables. And I hope Monisha gets to pursue her dream of opening and running a restaurant business in the United States someday. I will be happy to see her to undertake work that takes me back to my childhood days.
I always tell my children what my own father told me years ago: “Share your blessings with others, and watch them multiply”.