- Textile magnate Vasu Shroff came to Dubai on a ship in 1952
- Shroff established the first Regal Traders on October 31 1952
- The Indian High School Dubai was established in 1961 and Shroff was its first Hindi and Physical Education teacher
A century is a long time for history to build up and events to unfold. And Vasu Shroff’s family have lived in Dubai for two.
At a time when it was unheard of people leaving India to come and work in a foreign land, Shroff’s grandfather took the bold step to get out of his comfort zone to come and work in Dubai. That was in the 19th century.
In 1952, when Shroff’s father summoned him to come and join the family textile business - even though he was in college – he jumped at the idea. He was on a boat headed to Dubai a week later.
“My family has always been in the trading business. Having said that, the real success came only much later for all of us – mostly after the UAE became a federation. Before that life was hard in Dubai and saving every fil was critical.”
Today, Shroff is a respected name in the Indian community and chairman of a multi-billion dollar company. He is fondly regarded as the ‘youngest old man’ of the non-resident-Indians (NRIs) from the UAE. Shroff is chairman of the Regal Group of companies, heading the company’s subsidiaries – Regal Traders, mainly into textile industry; Regal International, a pioneer of sports technology; Regal Technologies, catering to the satellite market; and the Regal Group of Investments, a financial company based in Dubai. Regal Traders, the predominant business of the company has 12 branches across Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah.
Shroff admits success did not come quite so easily and that there were a fair share of struggles and sacrifices before he reached the top of the ladder.
He is one of the few expats credited with shaping Dubai into the city it has become. From piles of sand to modern skyscrapers, Shroff’s growth has paralleled that of Dubai's.
While the chairman may not have imagined his family textile business would expand into a multi-million dollar empire, Shroff’s multiple business ventures have secured him a place among the region’s top family businesses. He took advantage of bilateral trade between the UAE and India and went on to establish himself as the business magnate as we now know him to be. Regal Traders was set up by Shroff on October 31, 1952, on the banks of Dubai creek, to deal in wholesaling and identifying fine fabrics from Japan and India.
It may be a 66-year-old story, but the memory of Shroff's first steps in to Dubai are still fresh. We at Gulf News visit him to get a glimpse into his journey.
How it all started
Shroff came in a ship to Sharjah in 1952, as did most of his peers. “There were four ships - Dara, Dumra, Darasa and Dwaraka – making a voyage to Sharjah every week. Years later another ship Saldana was introduced. The ships carried cargo and passengers. I paid one dollar and 50 cents [for] my journey from Mumbai to Sharjah port. It was big money for me as my father and brothers did not have a thriving business so to speak. Plus, I was still in college and not earning a salary. Every fil mattered.”
“The ship sailed from Bombay (now Mumbai), to Karachi, Muscat and Sharjah. From here, the ships usually sailed to Basra, Iraq. I travelled in deck class and bought my ticked ten minutes before the journey began.”
Shroff joined as a salesman with a salary of Rs100 a month in his father’s shop in Meena Bazaar. “This went straight to my piggy bank as there were no venues to spend money back in the days. A movie ticket was a rupee and an abra ride came for an anna. Besides this there was no other entertainment.”
Dubai like a village in the 50s
Life in Dubai was like living in a village.
“The houses were not made of concrete. The rooms were tiny with old-style toilets. In 1952, water was scarce and there was no electricity. Water was delivered on donkeys to every household. These donkeys were brought especially from Egypt. I don’t know how we spent our time, but life was simple and easy. Today there are modern amenities and it comes with a fair share of stress. I miss the good old days [in] Dubai,” said Shroff.
The water was brackish with a high salt content. “I developed stones in my gallbladder. In fact, within a month of coming to Dubai I had to return home for medical treatment to fix the issue. It is quite unimaginable how people lived in Dubai without water, electricity and modern amenities.”
Business deals in the 50s
The textile business in Dubai ran from Bank of Baroda right up to Murshed Bazaar.
At Regal Traders, plain saris sold for Rs18, printed ones for Rs25. Nylex sarees were branded pieces and they sold like hot cakes. Eighty per cent of the saris were imported from Japan and rest from India. The Japanese saris in particular were said to be famous in India and those travelling home would carry a number of them for family members. The saris imported from India were bought by women living in Dubai and neighbouring cities. Festive occasions like Eid and Diwali particularly saw sales.
“Gradually we expanded our imports to Bangkok, Korea, Thailand and later diversified our business because the fashion trends were changing. Soon Dubai became a hot spot for textile buyers. In the 70s and 80s, when the population increased, Dubai was the hub for cloth shopping. We used to get visitors from Abu Dhabi, rest of the emirates and GCC countries as well."
Shroff recalled the late Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum welcomed businessmen to the UAE with open arms. He is said to have laid a special trust in the Indian Bhatia community who were predominantly traders and businessmen. Recalling an incident, he said: “I had a friend who worked as an advisor to British Bank. He was in Dubai to do a study on Indian businessmen in order to calculate the lending potential to them.”
“When he visited the shops he was in a complete fix. None of us employed auditors and financiers in our shops. There was no balance sheet, ledgers, to keep a record of income and expenses. Most of us maintained accounts in note books and they were hand-written in our native language for our convenience. So when this banker went with a concern to the late Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum to seek his advise on the lending criteria, the ruler said to blindly trust Indian businessmen as they could be trusted and knew their job well. “If you see a man in a black cap, white kurta (loose collarless shirt worn long) and dhoti (a garment worn by male Hindus, consisting of a piece of material tied around the waist and extending to cover most of the legs), lend him money. But if you someone in a suit, think twice. That was the trust he laid on Indians.”
Building a community in Dubai
Shroff along with a few other Indian expats started the first school for the community in Dubai with just nine students. He was the first teacher for the school and taught lessons in Hindi. Shroff also conducted Physical Education (PE) classes. “The school would begin at 7.30am and go on till 9.30am. After that I would attend to my shop. The first thing I did was clean the shop thoroughly to welcome visitors. Our timings were from 10am to 1pm and 4pm to 8pm.”
“I never hired anyone to clean my shop as it would cost four annas to do the job. So I cleaned my shop every day.”
Shroff was also appointed as one of the committee members to conduct a census for the city in 1953. “I was designated the Jumeirah area. At the end of the census, when we collated our reports, the population of Dubai stood at 61,000."
Mode of transportation
“People mostly walked. The city was small and people lived and worked close by. Donkeys and camels were a popular mode of transportation especially while travelling between cities. There were a handful of four-wheelers - one was owned by British Bank, Grey McKenzie, the British Political Agency, and rest by the rulers and some top businessmen.”
“The airport only came in 1961. The Royal Air Force (RAF) base camp was the commercial airport. The first airplane to land in Dubai was of the British Overseas Air Corporation (BOAC), now called British Airways. There was no landing strip. Planes landed on a flat strip between sand dunes.”
Regal Traders has been at the fore-front in steering initiatives for the welfare of the community, much before CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) became a buzz word among commercial enterprises.
It is no surprise that Shroff has been dressed with a number of titles during his years in Dubai, rewarding him for his philanthropic activities. He is chairman of the India Club, the Sindhi Gurudarbar Bur Dubai, former chairman of the Indian High School, ex vice-chairman of the Indian Association. He is also the committee member of the Hindu Cremation Ground.
The main Hindu temple in Meena Bazaar is managed by the Regal Group. The group also supports its establishments of two old-age homes, a hospital for the needy and a blood bank, as well as a 500-desk school for children with speech and hearing impairments in Devlali, India. A dozen temples in the Indian states of Gujarat and Maharashtra are also maintained by the Regal Group.