From the crowded chawls (tenements) of Mumbai, India, to a sprawling mansion in Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah, Firoz Merchant’s story is pure gold.
Sixty-year-old Merchant, founder and chairman of Pure Gold Jewellers, had a tough childhood. His earliest memory is from when he was six.
His father, Gulam Hussain, was a real estate broker and his mother, Malekbai, a housewife. Hussain was the sole earning member for the family that comprised 11 members. They lived deep in poverty.
The family (all 11) lived inside a 100-square-foot room in the ‘Imamwada’ chawl of Mumbai’s Bheendi Bazaar. For those of you not familiar with the concept of a chawl - it is tenement housing, a residential option for the poor in the city. Each building of this type has kholis, or rooms, with a little space for a kitchen and a tiny living room. There are no toilets or baths inside the unit and people have to go outside the building to use these facilities.
“We were a poor middle-class family. Every day was a struggle. I was the eighth child for my parents and very close to my father. I would hold his hand and go along wherever he took me,” he recalls.
“My father taught me to embrace our struggles with compassion and gratitude. Every time I felt I was losing ground in life, he would tell me to find the strength from within. There was no room for self-pity, we just had to get on with life and accept what we had been dealt.”
Merchant said he had to drop out of school when he was in Grade 2 as his father could not afford his tuition fees. “I was a good student. In Grade 1, I did well in academics and stood second in class. The teacher even awarded me a certificate of merit. But sadly the following year my father had to pull me out of school as there was no money for my education. And so my father was the teacher; in fact, he was a body of wisdom and knowledge and I learnt the art of survival from him.”
Life and its struggles continued for the young Merchant. It was only when he turned 13 that the family slowly started seeing better times. “There was no drastic change in our lives, just that the struggles seemed easier to handle now than it did before.”
Merchant helped his father in his real estate brokerage. Every day he would go to work with him where he watched his father connect with customers and close deals. Life started to look brighter.
In 1980, Merchant married Rozina, a girl from Mumbai, and this he says was a turning point in his life.
“I came to Dubai for my honeymoon. During my visit, I made a trip to the Gold Souq. I fell in love with the place. As I walked inside, seeing the dazzling yellow metal adorn shops and jewellery stores - the glitz and glamour of it all - [made me] dizzy. I was awestruck and immediately wished to live in Dubai to run a jewellery business.”
"Much to the angst of my wife, I spent most part of my honeymoon in the Gold Souq understanding how the jewellery business worked. I was mesmerised and immediately wanted to be a trader, a jewellery magnate. With this excitement I went home, only to have my dreams come crashing down. When I told my father I wanted to go to Dubai and work as a jewellery trader, he thrashed the idea.”
But Merchant was not one to give up. With an ample dose of patience and persistence he kept the quest alive. He made regular trips to Mumbai’s Zaveri bazaar, a popular jewellery market, to understand the A-Z of business.
In 1989, it was as if the stars had realigned themselves, Merchant got lucky. After years of convincing his father, Hussain finally gave in. He let him go to Dubai, but not without a warning.
“My father told me not to expect any financial support from the family and that I was on my own. He said his doors would be open for me whenever I wished to return home but that would be all.”
So when he took his flight to Dubai he knew it would be a do or die situation. He was on a visit visa and stayed in a sharing accommodation with some friends. “We were six in a room, but we had a good time.”
He made daily visits to the Gold Souq, enquiring rates for a leasing space there. Merchant also befriended people who told him how to procure a license from the Dubai Economic Department (DED).
At the end of 1989 he set up his own store: Pure Gold Jewellers. “I procured the licence after paying Dh1,000 to my sponsor. This amount was settled in instalments as I did not have the money to pay in one go. I went with the name ‘Pure Gold’ as I was in the business of gold, which is pure in the UAE.”
“I leased a small place in Murshid Bazaar for a rent as low as Dh2,000 per annum. I started my business first as a broker. All the skills I learnt from my dear father were put to test.”
“I was dealing with three wholesalers and earned a commission of Dh5 for [the] sale of every 10 tola bar. The sellers would ask me for an advance payment but I did not have cash on me. So I requested them to send their representative to come with me to conclude the deal. After the sale, I settled the seller and kept my little commission. At first I sold a bar a day. Then it became two [then] three. As the sales improved, my commission and earnings increased.”
This continued for three months and then he opened his first bank account in Dubai with Bank of Oman, now Mashreq Bank. The account was in Murshid Bazaar itself. He was given a cheque book and this helped propel his business.
“I used the cheque as a means to secure deals and trading became easier.”
The rest is history as they say.
Today, Pure Gold Jewellers has 157 stores with a presence in 12 countries located in the Middle East and Asia. The company also operates state-of-the-art factories in Dubai, India and China, providing employment to 3,500 people. Merchant has plans to expand the number to 250 retail stores by 2020. The company records an annual revenue of Dh1 billion per annum. His personal net worth is said to run in hundreds of thousands of dirhams.
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“My business peaked four years after establishing the company. My success can be attributed to some very simple but important values of having good integrity and intention. As a company policy, we don’t encourage short-term or medium-term business strategies. We think long-term.”
“The customer always comes first. I tell my staff if you want to make me happy, keep the customers happy. Quality service and product to the customer is most important to us. We have a customer base of 400,000 people. They are our regular people who shop only with us. They have been coming to our jewellery stores for as long as I can remember. This says something about our connection with the people.”
Merchant having a low debt to equity ratio has helped his company survive the market. “We have a ratio of 1:.4. This means I am borrowing less than 50 per cent of my capital, which is securing the company.”
The market today, says Merchant, can be tough. “[It is] challenging but not impossible to deal with. I have seen the worst during my childhood – everything looks achievable in comparison. From having nothing in my pocket to where I am now, anything is indeed possible.”
“Competition is good and it should be healthy. We have to always be prepared with alternative strategies to suit market needs.”
What is endearing to know at the end of it all is that success has made this man more humble than ever.
Merchant is involved in a number of philanthropic activities. What stands out, however, is his commitment to release prisoners from UAE jails. Since 2008, he has helped in the release of 15,000 inmates. He has spent Dh20 million for this, repaying their debts in the UAE and paying for their tickets back home.
“I am in touch with authorities across all the emirates. Everything is done as per the rules and regulations of the government. The screening is done by me and the jail authorities as to who is eligible for a new lease of life. Obviously someone with a clean track record and stuck in a financial distress makes the cut. My life changed for the better and I want other needy people to get a second chance.”