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Comeback kid

Asgar Patel was sitting pretty, preparing for retirement when his company lost $300 million and was almost on the brink of bankruptcy. At 57, he rebuilt his empire, House of Patels, with the same gusto as when he established it three decades earlier.

Image Credit:Asghar Khan/Gulf News
"To motivate myself to work harder I refused to give up on luxuries … and decided since I was going down the tube, I might as well do so in style," says Patel.
Friday

Asgar Patel was sitting pretty, preparing for retirement when his company lost $300 million and was almost on the brink of bankruptcy. At 57, he rebuilt his empire, House of Patels, with the same gusto as when he established it three decades earlier.

Asgar Shakoor Patel is a 67-year-old comeback kid. The patriarch of the Indian mega corporation House of Patels started his business as a one-truck operation called Patel Roadways in 1959.

He drove the truck himself, transporting goods all over India and built it into one of the largest logistics companies in Asia.

Over the next four decades, Patel diversified into couriers, air freight, finance, foreign exchange and the fast-growing money remittance business. The House of Patels became a multi-million dollar enterprise.

Patel was preparing to live a peaceful retired life, given to golf and grandchildren, after handing over the reins of this company to his sons.

But at 57 he lost it all. In the late 1990s, a series of economic slumps and internal mismanagement plunged the House of Patels teetered to the verge of bankruptcy. Patel lost some $300 million after investing heavily in dotcom stocks. There was nothing for him to do but start all over again.

Instead of being consumed by self pity or playing the blame game, Patel went back to work. He had a lot to learn, including how to use e-mails, but his basic ethics of hard work and more hard work stood him in good stead.

It took him five years, but Patel pulled his company out of the red and well into the black again.

Today the House of Patels holds 80 per cent of the market in India's courier co-loading industry: a process in which small and large shipments are combined to bring down costs.

It's also a market leader in the logistics, foreign exchange and inward remittance businesses. With the group turnover exceeding Rs 5 billion a year and ambitious diversification plans on the anvil, House of Patels is one of corporate India's success stories.

Not bad for a school dropout who started his career working as a stenographer, secretary and auto salesman before turning entrepreneur.

Patel's extraordinary story of success, failure then more success is truly inspirational. And his love of golf and deal making inspire comparisons to Donald Trump, except for the fact that he has been married to the same woman for 40 years and is still deeply in love with her - his wife Yasmine.

"She was the beauty of the neighbourhood and never dated anyone," he says. "I took it as a challenge to court her."

I

I would not like to lose $300 million again. Looking back, I think it was our reporting system that was to blame. If we had a better reporting system in place, we could have seen that we had overinvested in dotcoms and we could have spread the risk.

We now have better systems in place. Unfortunately, it's a bit like locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. Fortunately, we were able to get the horse back.

I am a businessman to the core and a very boring company. My strengths are that I am great at marketing and selecting the right people. There's no better proof of this than the excellent life partner I selected for myself.

I was inspired to use the kangaroo as the House of Patels logo when I started the business. I saw my business as carrying goods safely, securely and with speed across the length and breadth of India.

The best example of this in nature is the kangaroo, which hops at up to 40 miles per hour with a joey safe and secure in its pouch.

I am a disciplined person. I reach my office at 7am every day, two hours before my staff starts. Today my sons emulate many of my mannerisms. They both started at the lowest rung in the company - in the mailroom. For two years they were apprenticed to the managers.

ME

Me and my childhood:
I was born in Mumbai, India, on February 28, 1939. My father, Shakoor Hasham Patel, had been a farmer in the western Indian state of Gujarat before we migrated to Mumbai.

My family had six brothers and four sisters and I was the second youngest. Growing up in such a large family meant that if you didn't hurry for your lunch, you would miss getting any.

There would be no fish or mutton pieces left. It taught me very early on to be on time!

My father became a very successful businessman, one of the richest men in the city. He was known as the King of Caps, on account of his cap manufacturing business. His factory manufactured millions of Gandhi caps, Nehru caps and fez caps, and distributed them all over India.

Then came Partition in 1947. My father decided that my brother and I should move to England for our education. I was a little over 6. We boarded with a Scottish family he knew.

They soon became 'mum' and 'dad' to me as I stayed with them until I turned 12. My Scottish upbringing impacted on my personality deeply. Living with the Scottish family, we learned how to be thrifty.

When I was 13, my father moved us to a boarding school in London. It was more convenient for him as he frequently visited London. The school was not as good as my Scottish school, but it compensated with its sports. I represented Sussex in table tennis and cricket.

At 16, I decided to return to India to meet my mother, who I had not seen for all those years. It was an astonishing meeting because we did not know how to speak to each other. She could not speak English, and I had forgotten how to speak Hindi or Gujarati. We both cried and held each other.

Me and my identity:
At that time, I began to question the value of my education. I knew nothing about India, but knew everything about England. My brothers had already moved back to India because they did not like England.

In every sense, England was home for me … that was until I decided to come home for a holiday. After meeting my mother, I decided it was more important for me to know her than get a degree in England. I told my father I wasn't going back.

Of course, he was very upset. When it was time for me to return, my passport conveniently went missing. I stayed in India well beyond the last date for admission for the new academic year.

At the time, I had only done my O levels and some A levels. My father had wanted me to study and be a doctor. He was very upset by my decision to drop out.

Me and starting off:
I knocked around Mumbai, taking up odd jobs I worked as a salesman, a stenographer then a secretary. After that I got a job as a car salesman. In those days, cars were all imported. My English accent helped me to sell them.

Around this time, I met my wife Yasmine, and fell in love with her. Both families adamantly opposed the match … (yet) for nearly eight years, we courted. My father thought the only way he could break us up was by cutting off my finances.

My wife was also asked to choose between her family and me. She chose me and walked out of her house. She became an air hostess with Indian Airlines.

We were neighbours in Mumbai. I found out that every Saturday she liked going to watch a movie. After many Saturdays of managing to buy the ticket for the seat next to her, we slowly struck up a friendship.

We have three children: two sons and a daughter. Fatherhood did not change me at all. Except for the fact that I had to behave myself a bit to set an example for the children.

Me and building the business:
When I was working in the car company, I met a financier. He suggested that I buy a truck and go into business. So I borrowed money with a 28 per cent interest rate, bought a truck and started driving.

I had a truck, but no goods. So I approached the pharmaceutical company Glaxo, which was headed by a Scotsman. I was a single-man operation, so it was difficult to convince him to hand over a consignment.

But he did and I got my first assignment to transport goods from Mumbai to Delhi. I delivered the goods in record time. And as his confidence in me grew, the number of consignments increased and soon I was a contractor.

From a single-truck operation, Patel Roadways grew to have 800 branches all over India. We also diversified into glass, fish processing and exports.

On a flight to the US, I met a Dubai businessman who suggested I come here to do business. When I came to Dubai in the early 1980s, I noticed the labourers queueing up outside the Indian banks for hours, waiting to send money home.

I thought that since I was already transporting goods, there must be a way to transport money too. So I went back to India, got the necessary permissions and started Wall Street Exchange.

It started as a small two-bench office in Naif, but eventually grew to nine branches in the UAE. Wall Street expanded exponentially to have offices in the US, Hong Kong and Singapore. (In 1986, Wall Street Finance was established in India, focusing on foreign exchange and money remittances.)

MYSELF

When you lose $300 million, how do you cope?
Let's be honest. I started with nothing, so the worst that could happen was ending up with nothing. But this was a bad situation because I owed people money.

That was the biggest stress and strain - having to repay banks and creditors. When I relocated to Dubai to rebuild the company, I made this suite at the Radisson SAS my residence. I worked until midnight and woke up at 4am since we had international offices in different time zones.

At such times, there is no place for self pity. You have to muster up your guts. I did not think I would get out of the rut since the losses were so massive.

To motivate myself to work harder I refused to give up on luxuries. I bought a membership at the Emirates Golf Club, a Lexus and a Mercedes and decided since I was going down the tube, I might as well do so in style.

My oldest son, Riyaz, left our family business after the losses. He took personal responsibility. I wanted him (to stay) very badly, as he is the smartest of all of us.

He emigrated to New Zealand with his family, where he handles our derivatives business and Wall Street's offshore banking business.

My younger son, Arif, handled the Indian operations really well. My son-in-law Rajesh, Natasha's husband, has also come on board.

The turnaround took about five years. When I decided to return to work, my HR manager in Dubai asked me how I planned to communicate with the staff since I did not know how to open an e-mail.

But I told her, "Give me 12 days and let's see who is faster on the computer." Needless to say, she lost the bet.

You still spend half a day at the golf course - what has the game taught you?
Golf has taught me to be honest with myself. It has also taught me a lot of humility. I may have the best cars and a booming business, but not being able to hit that tiny golf ball can really make you feel stupid.

So golf keeps your ego within healthy limits. Whatever you may achieve in life, on the golf course you can still be a dunce.

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