Rizwan Sajan was 16 when his father Askerali Haiderali Sajan died.
He (the father), left behind a wife and three young children.
“My sister was 13 and brother eight-years old. You can imagine how tough it was for my mother.”
Naturally, Rizwan, now 55, being the oldest of the three, was handed the responsibility of taking care of a share of the family’s financial burden.
But what could he do? He was just 16 and already doing odd jobs as a street vendor – selling school books and stationary, festive firecrackers. He also doubled up as a milk delivery boy.
"Things were tough, really tough. My father worked as a supervisor in a steel factory earning Rs 7,000 a month. It was a hand-to-mouth situation with running the household and paying school fees,” said Sajan unable to contain his tears while talking to Gulf News in an exclusive interview.
"My siblings and I studied in Fathima High School, Vidyavihar. Our house was in Ghatkapor. For those of you who know Mumbai, these areas are seven to eight kilometres apart. My father used to give me pocket money of Rs 15 every month to cover the cost of my transportation to school and to meet other personal expenses. I chose to walk to my school instead, so I could save that money for ‘samosa and tea’ in my school canteen,” said Sajan.
"One day I asked my father to increase my pocket money. He made me sit next to him and explained the financial situation at home. I was only 12. But I understood his plight. Our financial situation was tough and indeed we were living hand-to-mouth."
But Sajan was not one to accept this harsh reality without a fight.
"I told my father to lend me some money. I promised to return it with interest. At first he was reluctant. But he trusted me and gave me Rs 1,000. It was the beginning of a journey in the world of business, albeit in a very small way," said Sajan.
Fast forward, today, Rizwan Sajan is the founder and chairman of Danube Group with an annual turnover of around $1.3 billion. His personal net worth runs into billions of dirhams. The Danube group manages a number of portfolios, including the famous building materials company, a real estate firm and an infrastructure company. Two years ago Sajan threw a massive wedding for his son in a luxury cruise. The much talked about wedding came with a tag of a staggering $30 million. But all this splendor and lavish lifestyle was unimaginable decades ago for this Indian businessman who has tasted success after very humble beginnings.
To put it in his words, Sajan said, there are no shortcuts to the top. Hard work and determination are keys to success with dollops of luck. “Not to mention, the luck of the land (Dubai) which has had a major hand in my growth and success,” he added.
Turn back the clock
"Going back to the time when my father lent me Rs 1,000 - the first thing I did with it was go to Masjid Bandar, a railway station in South Mumbai, India, with wholesale markets surrounding the station – and buy some books and stationary. I told my friends I would sell these to them so they don’t have to go and buy their books and stationary items. I sold them the books and stationary for the same price they would get it from outside. For me I was able to secure them at a slightly lower price as I bought them in the wholesale market. I remember carrying the load of items on my back in a jute bag. Soon my friends started placing their orders with me. I delivered their items to their doorstep. And I was just 12!”
“During the festival season, especially Diwali, I would sell firecrackers in the street. One time the civic staff came and took the firecrackers away from me as we were not allowed to sell these pieces on the road. I was sad. It was my bread and butter and I had lost everything. I felt helpless and insecure. I cried like a baby that day on the street,” he said, tears welling up as he recalled his harsh childhood.
During lean periods, Sajan took up the job of delivering milk to people's doorstep. "I would go to the milk centre every morning at 4 am and collect people's order. I would deliver milk to the door step. This gave me additional money in hand. But that too turned out a disaster when my girl friend found out I was a milk delivery boy. She opened the door one morning and was aghast to see me holding the milk can. She dumped me right then and there. I was 14 and heart-broken. Next morning on my way to the milk centre, I was dis-oriented and could not take her off my mind. My cycle hit the pavement and my milk spilled on the road. Just to rectify the problem, I added water to the milk remaining in the can and delivered it to some homes. They complained to my manager and I lost my job. So within 24 hours I lost my girl-friend and my job," he said with a smile on his face.
“An elderly gentleman who was watching this, came up to me and consoled me. He said I must look at it as a learning experience and grow from it.”
When Sajan’s father died, the family’s financial woes increased multifold. “My father’s monthly salary was Rs 7,000 and our expenses was close to this amount. When this stopped it was a tough situation. My father’s gratuity paid us Rs 3,000 a month. The company where my father worked offered me a job for Rs 2,000 a month. We were short of Rs 2,000. What could I do?,” he said.
To cover the Rs 2,000 I did part-time jobs in addition to attending school. I would return home only by 12 mid-night. “While my friends were enjoying their teenage life, partying, I was working through day and night just to make ends meet for my family.”
"I was reaching a tipping point. So I wrote to my uncle in Kuwait asking him if there were any job vacancies for me. He said as a 16-year old I could not get a job. It came as a blow to me and I thought he was playing hard. I felt short-changed. Time would tell how wrong I was to think this way about my uncle.”
The next two years, life and its struggles continued for Sajan who worked relentlessly for his family. Then on his 18th birthday, Sajan received a letter. It was from his uncle in Kuwait who offered him a job in Kuwait. "I stared at the letter and tears came rolling down. Finally my prayer were heard."
He got a job as a sales trainee for a monthly salary of 150 Kuwaiti dinar, which equalled Rs 18,000. It was the year 1981. "I was also reminded of how wrong I was about my uncle and secretly asked his forgiveness.”
Sajan credits a lot of his business skills to his uncle in Kuwait. “He taught me how to make two plus two equals five.”
Living in Kuwait
He stayed with his uncle for six months before moving out to a company accommodation. There were 12 people sharing a room. “I was the 13th person to join. So I was offered the floor to sleep. I did not have a problem with that except when people would walk on me in the middle of the night on their way to the toilet.
Looking back I think this made very humble. I knew it was a tough time in my life and I had to sail through it with a smile. More importantly I had to make a plan to better my life.”
Eight years on, Sajan’s career grew thanks to his grit and determination. From a salary of 150 dinar he touched a pay-out of 1,500 dinar. From a sales trainee he had become a sales manager. “Every year my good work was being recognised and I got a promotion.”
He managed to save money as well. “I got my sister married and found a life-partner for myself too.”
Everything was going great until Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait and destroyed the city in 1990. I lost everything I had saved and my life was back to where it all began.”
First real break in UAE
After the Gulf War Sajan returned to Mumbai. He was again on the hunt for jobs. “I had given a couple of interviews including one for a job in Dubai. The salary offered initially was Dh3,000 a month. But by the time I signed on the dotted line the employer dropped it to a monthly Dh1,500. Believe it or not I agreed. Not many would do it in my place. I could not afford to feel short-changed. I was in need of money and I took it.”
He joined a brokerage business dealing in building materials. One day Sajan decided to set up his own building materials trading company. It was the year 1993. “The brokerage business was going great, but I knew the real money was in trading business. So I decided to give it a go.”
How I became a trader
During one of my brokerage deals, there was a discrepancy on one of the consignments I had worked on. The buyer was not happy with the product which I helped him secure through one of my suppliers. He was furious and called me to the port. He was yelling at me, calling me names like hamar (donkey).
“The supplier on his part refused to take his product back. The issue was that some MDF boards which my client ordered had dust and fungus on it. I tried explaining to him that we could fix this. But he refused. So I called the supplier and negotiated a deal. I told him I would buy the product myself and sell it for him. I took the MDF pieces to my warehouse, cleaned it and sold with a 20 per cent profit. It struck me then to start my own trading business. The real money was here.”
That is how Danube was born. It was first established as a small trading firm with a few hundred dirhams. His wife Sameera was his first employee. The rest is history.
How luck played a role
“Sixty per cent of my success can be attributed to luck. I was in the right place at the right time and it always gave me the break that I so badly wanted. I have also learnt as a businessman to never miss an opportunity. If you want to succeed in business, you need to be able to take that calculated risk. Grit and determination are a must have if you want to be a successful businessman.
“I was 26 years old when I came to Dubai. Today I am 55. The growth has been phenomenal for Dubai and me. This country has given me more than I could imagine. It has given me name, fame, wealth and happiness and I cannot thank my stars for this,” he said.
Philanthropy and more
Despite leading an opulent life-style, Sajan has not forgotten his struggles and tough childhood. Keeping this in mind, he started the Danube Welfare Centre, which offers a number of free training courses to help unskilled workers improve their skills to help them further their careers. “The greatest pleasure for me now is giving back to the society. Coming from Mumbai, I am passionate about Bollywood movies. For this reason I forayed into publishing industry to support Filmfare Middle East. Someday I would like to make a Bollywood movie!”