Success stories are intriguing and inspirational in equal measure. The diary of someone making it to the top helps so many others who are perched on lesser rungs on the ladders of life. There is comfort in knowing the climb is hard, but for the hardy, the rewards are great.
What if such a story is also laced with practical advice and valuable information? Kalandoor, founder and chairman of an eponymous empire based in the UAE, recounts his experience with distinctive wit and wisdom. “For many, persistence and perseverance are mere concepts,” he says. “They should become compasses instead.”
His employees speak volubly about his mentoring, parental role in their lives and those of their families but Kalandoor himself is succinct. “To be in charge of people’s livelihoods also means taking up responsibility for their lives. It is no small task, and this is what defines my own role in life.
Motivating employees key to success
“How you manage to motivate your employees will chart your success.” When he started his company in 2000, Kalandoor had to wait for a year before he could afford to hire an assistant. Some 20 years later, he has more than 500 employees drawn from 20 nationalities working at his offices, workshops, and warehouses. This catapulting he says, came about because of a single factor.
“The most important aspect of doing business – and doing it well – is confidence,” he explains. “Someone can receive a gift of a million dollars to set up a business, and it can be called good fortune. What they do with that money and how well they use it depends on something else – good sense.”
Kalandoor himself had no large cash gifts to start him off. After an idyllic childhood in pastoral India, and armed with a degree in mechanical engineering from Kerala’s famed TKM College, he made his way to Saudi Arabia. “My parents were simple folks involved in small-scale agriculture, but they had such large plans for their children. I learnt life’s lessons from them.
“My father insisted on equipping us with formal education, and it is what I pass on to my children now. Education is a fundamental right, and it is the greatest gift parents can give to their children.”
The determination to succeed
In Saudi Arabia, the young Kalandoor could not find satisfaction at the workplaces he was employed at – dreaming big and wanting more. In a few years, he took the plunge and set himself up as an air-conditioning service agency, working with friends to receive a percentage of every project that he brought in. Woven with this implicit confidence was the determination to succeed. “I had no customers, no colleagues, and no company, but I had more than enough confidence. Confidence was the only investment I put into my business.”
Such was his prowess and so pleased were his clients, that within a year he had rented office space, registered his own company, and added several services to its portfolio like plumbing and fittings. “Everything my clients wanted, I offered them. One of them suddenly wanted a large project done in Abu Dhabi. Although it was challenging, I said yes, and moved to the UAE for a year.” The project was completed ahead of schedule, and Kalandoor stayed back to open a second office, and establish his headquarters here.
Impressive client roster
The Kalandoor Group of Companies has built a handsome roster of clients through their offices in Riyadh and in Dubai, and delivered more than 2,000 megaprojects across the GCC. Most of their clients have stayed the course for the last 20 years – returning to a reliable partner every time they have a new requirement. These clients include large international retailers such as Azadea, Burberry, Landmark and BMA International as well as Damas, Sun and Sand Sports, and Sharaf DG. The roster is shared between some of the largest institutions in the UAE and individuals who seek perfection in their offices and homes.
Just as the company’s client base continued to grow, so did their service offerings. “In the beginning, we were small project managers for interior fit-outs, and we worked with external suppliers for supplies and services,” he says of the ambitious backward integration programme that defines their success story.
“Slowly, we set up in-house units for all aspects of our work, to serve our clients fully, without having to rely on third-party suppliers.” These full-fledged business units of joinery, glass and aluminium works, and furniture manufacturing now serve as the Group’s conduit to undertake projects in new-build and refurbishment, interior design and fit-outs, construction, and engineering and design coordination.
Ideal business environment
Kalandoor dons two hats with ease as successful business owner and avuncular employer; devoted family man and busy industry captain; student of life and leader of men. This dichotomy may be rooted in his place of birth, the idyllic village of Bayar, straddling the two south Indian states of Karnataka and Kerala. Surrounded by hills and blessed with a chilly climate, the place is abundant with commercial crops like cocoa, coconut, vanilla, pepper and aracanut.
Rising from this small village to surmount the world, Kalandoor attributes his success to the success of Dubai, and that of the UAE. “We are grateful to our rulers. They have created a climate of growth in this country, with advantages like infrastructure, international workforce, safety and security.”
According to him, there is also the often overlooked but more important aspect of an ideal business environment. “Many parts of the world are rife with theft, bribery, cheating and corruption. We do not stop to consider how lucky we are to escape all these plagues. We are successful because we operate in such a clean and carefree business environment. For this we are truly thankful to the rulers and the government of the UAE.”
In 2012, The Kalandoor Group created a subsidiary, Kalandoor Green Energy Private Limited (KGE), to explore the production of renewable energy from plastic waste. “This project was designed as our larger-than-life CSR programme,” explains Kalandoor.
With offices in the UAE and India, KGE set up a plant to generate light diesel oil (LDO) by recycling waste plastic through the pyrolysis process. LDO is used as a fuel in most thermal applications like boilers, furnaces, generators, pumps and a variety of kilns. In its second phase, the plant started producing high-quality carbon that is used in foundries, paper and pulp manufacturing, and cement and thermal power plants. The gas also fuels the KGE plant.
“Green sources of energy do several things at once – minimise waste, reduce pollution, slow global warming and create new jobs. We made a commitment and we are delivering on it.”
WORKSPACE INSPIRES RADICAL DESIGN
Kalandoor’s office is an exemplary showcase of what can be achieved in any empty space with good materials and great taste. The vast expanse of soothing white is defined by textures and contrasts. A sprawling T-shaped workspace is so glossy, it is hard to resist the urge to caress the surfaces in secret. The chenille of the stuffed armchairs and sofas is patterned discreetly. The sporadic touch of gold – a name plate, trimmings, flowers – adds depth and dimension.
Even a casual study of the Kalandoor Group’s portfolio of completed projects provides many insights. Whether they are working with surreal concepts from designers or meeting the precise requirements of international corporations, the results are unusual and unique: new wallpaper is tinted to look much older, furniture combinations defy the conventional, retail spaces are matched to meet shopping psychology, and interior spaces are so flexible they can accommodate anywhere between 20 and 2,000 guests.
Discretion is critical
“Discretion is important in any business, and it is very important in our business,” he says with a kindly shrug when questioned about the largest and most challenging projects the team has handled. Pictures of all the projects are on view, but none of the project owners. “We operate with a basic premise: Treat every project like it is your first and most important project. If you don’t satisfy your client the first time, you will be out of the running for the next one. There are no second chances. Keep the clients happy, and they will return to you.”
The Kalandoor Group of Companies’ new headquarters is located at Dubai Investment Park 1, and Kalandoor says the location, almost mid-point between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, allows his teams to travel with ease in either direction.
Preparing for the future
The sprawling 50,000-square-foot space is split over two levels. On the top, management offices and meeting spaces take in discreet chandeliers, polished parquet floors and recessed lighting in a professional stillness. In startling contrast, there is much activity downstairs at workshops, fabrication units, storage spaces and loading docks, and many people are engaged at work on aluminium doors, curtain walls, skylights and the like.
Kalandoor is an undisputed leader in his domain and has built a sterling reputation to match, but that does not stop him from preparing for the future. A third office is due to open in the Far East later this year, and a corporate restructuring plan is underway.
Concurrent to the international expansion, he is focussed on better serving the UAE. “Look at the astonishing figures for luxury villa sales in Dubai this year. International investors are so confident about the UAE,” he exclaims. “As residents, we have to support the government’s vision of this country as a beacon for the world.”
His teams are engaged in studying the markets to create bespoke, highly-personalised signature-style interiors for owners of luxury villas and luxury yachts. “As soon as any need arises in the local market, we will address it.”
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