Armed with a smile, his trademark dish-dash gear and a handful of toffees, Mohan Jashanmal Jhangiani, shareholder of Jashanmal Group of Companies and patriarch of the Indian community, greets us with charm and flamboyance all intact.
Many of you already know him as the witty, friendly charismatic businessman who has won the hearts of not just the Indian community but also government leaders.
When the 80-year-old makes his way to the interview room in his Abu Dhabi office, we are quite prepared for a fun chat. And Jashanmal does not disappoint. [His charm and wit are quite capable of getting a lady to ask him for a jive on the dance floor; we see why he was famous for it back in the day.]
Jashanmal first came to Abu Dhabi in 1964 as the manager of Jashanmal & Sons company. He, his father and brothers were instrumental in taking the Jashanmal business to the level it is today. The privately-held company, operates across 100 stores and employs more than 2,200 staff members.
“My father opened the Jashanmal & Sons shop to sell ‘Made in England’ products. The Trucial states of Oman were ruled by the British. And our products were intended to sell British products to the troops stationed in Abu Dhabi. We even sold UK daily newspapers as the British troops looked forward to reading them every day,” he says.
A dramatic start
Ask Jashanmal if his first trip to Abu Dhabi was as fun-filled as our chat has been so far and he replies that with no airport, only a strip of land between a pile of sand dunes, a red jeep for a control room chasing a taxiing plane, it was as dramatic as it could get.
“I was travelling with my wife, Vanitha, in a shaky eight-seater propeller jet. There was sand, sand and sand everywhere. Forget a full-fledged airport, there was no proper landing strip either. There was only a flat land between a pile of sand dunes and the pilot skillfully maneuvered to make a rocky but safe landing. There was a red jeep following the aircraft and the crew informed me it was a mobile control ‘tower’ which doubled up as a fire station in case of emergency. My wife was educated in the US and she was terrified with the ordeal to say the least. She kept asking me if we were going to crash and I kept reassuring her that everything will be fine,” he smiles, recalling the incident.
He said there was no customs, only a policeman with a stick asking people to open their suitcase and the ‘security check’ was done right in the middle of a sand dune. “When I think back now, it was rather fun and adventurous.”
No electricity and water
Jashanmal recalled there was no pure drinking water and very little electricity. “Only the affluent could afford generators in their house, which took care of basic lights and fans. The generators had wires running all over the house and it was not a pleasant sight. There was no electricity for the poor.”
Abu Dhabi – Dubai drive meant crossing an ocean of sand
Unlike today, back in the 60s travelling between the cities would take almost four hours. One of the popular routes is said to have been the one we take today via the Maqta bridge. “Of course there was no bridge then, only miles and miles of sand strips. There was another four-lane road to Dubai which was only available during low tide. During high tide these roads would be covered in sand.”
“The only way to get to Dubai was on a camel or a four-wheel drive. Drivers usually equipped their four-wheelers with a shovel, some food, a water tank and a can of petrol. We usually followed desert tracks, but on a windy day, these would disappear. So we always carried a compass with us. It was our google map back in the day.”
Want a bath? Head to Dubai
There was only brackish water available in the 60s. The water came in diesel smelling drums from Bahrain and Qatar. “[At the] end of the week we would crave for a bath in fresh water to wash off the salt [on] our body. And so every weekend my wife and I would visit my brother in Dubai who lived in Nasser Square at that time.”
“When we would reach his place, he would ask us to wait out[side]. He would get us a pail of fresh-water and tell us to have a bath outside before entering his house. Till today we talk about this in the family. It is a popular joke among us,” he says.
It is another thing that this incident prompted the businessman to import water filters from the UK and make a success selling it to residents in Abu Dhabi.
"Sweet water was available in Al Ain. In 1965, an underground pipe was built from here all the way to Abu Dhabi. Water would be delivered to our doorstep on a donkey."
Where people lived in Abu Dhabi
Jashanmal said people mostly lived close to the water banks or Corniche as we now know it. Hamdan was another popular area where people lived. The first Jashanmal shop was also located close to the beach. It was a single storey building and it was a common sight to find boats anchored on the beach right in front of the shop.
Trust between Arabs and Indians
“There has always been a strong bond forged between Arabs and Indians. We go a long way and have maintained a close relationship. Back in the days, in business, there was no concept of letter of credit (LC). The guarantee was a strand of hair from a man’s beard,” said Jashanmal.
“The hair would be safely tucked into a loin cloth. The name of the man taking credit would be written on the cloth. This was the guarantee. When the debt was met, the man’s strand of hair would be returned to him. This was the level of trust we shared between each other. That is why we are friends even today.”
He cited another sweet incident with the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. “He would come sit in my shop and chat with us a lot. During one of his visits, he asked me to give him pictures of gardens and tall buildings. He had a dream to see Abu Dhabi green with tall buildings and it is beautiful to see how he realised it. He was a visionary and I am so proud to have been able to interact with him closely.”
Jashanmal said he had to work hard to prove himself. It was not that he could take advantage of his name. He had to start from the bottom of the ladder and was reprimanded if he threw his weight around in the office. A related incident is said to have changed his life forever.
“One day I stepped into the washroom of my office and found it dirty. So I asked my office peon to clean it. Later that evening, there was an announcement at work that our shop was going to be closed for an hour. The staff were asked to gather at the back of the office. My brother headed towards me and in front of everybody asked me to clean the toilet. Till today I am careful to not behave in a high-handed fashion with my colleagues. If I see a tissue lying on the floor, I am happy to pick up and thrown it in the bin. I don’t wait for someone to do it. Humility is key if you want to win the hearts of your colleagues and customers.”
His family instilled a ‘do it yourself’ (DIY) concept. “They said if you are selling a product, you should know how to use it. So one day my father said I was going home to the UK to sell Hoover vacuum cleaners. I was given the instruction to knock on doors and sell the machine to the lady of the house. Basically I was a door-to-door salesman.”
He recalls that this was an invigorating experience as he learnt the tricks of the trade and the art of selling.
“The lady of the house would open the door and I would immediately put my foot on the door so she doesn’t slam the door on my face! I would offer my services for ‘free’ to clean her apartment with my fancy Hoover machine. When they heard the word free, they gladly let me in. By the time I was done, the ladies would serve me cakes, biscuits and tea. Remember I am talking about 1957 when everyone was hospitable and gracious with guests!,” he says jokingly.
And so Jashanmal learnt to use the product he was meant to sell.
Of his recipe of success, he says, be humble, always wear a smile on your face and thank your customer. When you have a smiling customer, 50 per cent of the sale is done. Always remember this. When the market gets tough, you get tougher.
And that is why Mohan Jashanmal is a success story today.
Recognising his efforts in shaping the retail sector of Abu Dhabi, Jashanmal received a letter from the government on March 11, 1991, granting him, his wife and children permanent residence in the UAE. In 2011 he received the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award - the highest honour conferred on overseas Indians from the government of India - from then President of India, Pratibha Devisingh Patil. He is currently involved with various activities of Ministry of Culture and Knowledge development.
But all this, he says did not come on a silver platter. He had to work his way up the ladder. His father and elder brother taught him values of humility, integrity and hard work and he says that is how he contributed to the Jashanmal Empire.
What’s with the dish-dash
On a parting note, we ask him what the idea behind the dish-dash attire is. “I had a very close friend who was the head of police. He used to wear his uniform during the day and dish-dash in the evening. Today, people call me Mohan of Arabia, like Lawrence of Arabia. A lot of people don’t recognise me in my western clothes anymore,” he said.
"But I love wearing my dish-dash, it connects me to the UAE."