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Firoz Merchant: The man with the golden touch

Often going hungry as a child, Firoz Merchant left school at 11 and started a business from nothing. Now a billionaire, the founder of Pure Gold Jewellers tells Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary how he’s not forgotten his roots

  • Firoz Merchant
    "There’s no shortcut to success. Only hard work and determination can help you realise your dreams," says FiroImage Credit: Dennis B Mallari/ANM
  • Firoz Merchant
    Firoz never mixes his personal life with his professional life.Image Credit: Supplied picture
Friday

His career is as dazzling as the jewellery his company sells. But Firoz Merchant, who with his $1 billion (Dh3.67million) net worth is ranked 26th of the 50 richest Indians in the Gulf, had to claw his way out of poverty to reach the top. The self-made billionaire and chairman of Pure Gold Jewellers dropped out of school at 11 because his father couldn’t afford the fees. He shared a cramped bedroom with eight siblings in the busy Bhendi Bazaar area of Mumbai.

Yet Firoz, 54, is grateful for those early years because they taught him the most important lessons in life. “I learnt not to give up whatever the challenges,” he says. “More importantly, I realised that there is no shortcut to success. Only hard work and determination can help you realise your dreams.’’  That’s why the youngest son in the family was happy to work at his late father Gulam Hussain’s fledgling real estate business after leaving school.

“I used to run errands and maintain basic accounts for my father,’’ Firoz explains. “That taught me how to manage people, deal with business partners and to be honest and transparent in all dealings. When my father would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say ‘businessman’. I didn’t know what I wanted to trade in at the time, just that I wanted to carve out my own destiny. “I had basic reading and writing skills, but I learnt to be street smart living in Mumbai.

It’s not difficult to earn a little money there if you are enterprising, and I would earn around Rs50 to Rs100 (Dh3 to Dh6) a month running errands for neighbours. We often had to skip a meal as it was difficult for my father to make ends meet. But I don’t ever remember despairing about it. “My father always told us, ‘This phase is temporary and it will pass’. I believed him because I had an ambition of doing something really big.”

Over the years his family’s fortunes improved, and when Firoz married he had enough savings to take a two-week honeymoon to Dubai with his wife Rozina in 1986. Walking around the Gold Souq in Deira, he realised this was the trade for him and vowed to learn everything he could about it. “I had a strong gut feeling that I would do well in Dubai,’’ he says. “And I was determined to make it even if it meant working 24/7.’’

Back in Mumbai, Firoz spent all his free time picking up valuable tips in the gold trading hub of the city, and in 1989, at the age of 30, returned to Dubai and set up a business with zero capital. He traded in gold bars but didn’t have enough money to buy them, so he’d find small-time merchants who didn’t have any contacts with wholesalers and arrange transactions, taking a small commission.

He made a small profit - just Dh5 a bar - and, living frugally, managed to save. By 1991 he had enough money to set up a gold trading business and opened his first retail jewellery store in 1998. Now Pure Gold Group has 125 outlets in ten countries and is valued at more than $1 billion. “I do not know how it happened,” he says. “All I know is that I had this desire to succeed in what I had set out doing and somehow I’ve achieved my dreams.”

Despite his vast fortune, Firoz has never lost sight of his humble beginnings nor his humanitarian responsibilities. In 2011 he launched a rescue and repatriation programme for prisoners of all nationalities who had been arrested under insolvency laws. Working closely with the government and various charities, he helped about 1,200 people in the first year, paying up to Dh25,000 debts for each. Last year he helped 1,500 prisoners and this year he has already helped in the release of around 600 prisoners, spending a total of Dh3.5 million to settle their dues.

“I do not bail out hard-core criminals, but only those who have ended up in jail due to financial issues,” he explains. “I cannot forget that around two decades ago I was struggling without any money or help to set up a business. I grew up with pain and sorrow and vowed that if I became successful in life I would do something to help people. I don’t want others to be in the position that I was.”

Firoz also works with the governments of the Maldives, the Philippines, India and Sri Lanka, donating money to help villages affected by natural disasters. Over the years he has allocated around Dh200,000 for relief work in each of these countries.

Work

When my wife Rozina and I visited the Gold Souq in Deira I was fascinated by the beautiful ornaments, the traders and the transactions taking place – something happened within me. I had no idea about the business, but at that moment I knew this was what I wanted to do. For the rest of the holiday I forgot about sightseeing and went to the Gold Souq every morning with my bride to watch and learn the business. I did a bit of research in Mumbai and returned to Dubai in 1989. Initially I lived close to the Gold Souq, renting a bed space.

I had no money to invest in the business, but my roommate, who was a salesman in the Gold Souq, introduced me to a few traders. Slowly I built up contacts and found that trading in 100g gold bars would be a good place to start. Those days the wholesale price of a 100g bar was Dh2,200. I would quote Dh2,205 to a small-time retailer who did not have direct access to the wholesaler, but because I did not have the money to purchase a bar, I would get the wholesaler to send the gold along with his office boy to the retailer’s store.

With each transaction I made a commission of Dh5. I worked very hard and used to sell around ten bars a day, earning around Dh50 a day. I lived frugally – my monthly expenses came to around Dh200 – and within a couple of months I was able to save Dh2,000. With this I opened my first account at Oman Bank, which was later renamed Mashreq.

Now I had my bank account I could give suppliers post-dated cheques as security and soon began selling at least 20 to 30 bars a day. My profits increased and I began to save more. I then got my wife and two children – Karim and Amreen – over and, in December 1991, set up the first Pure Gold office trading in gold bars at Murshid Bazaar on Naif Road, Dubai. I opened my first Pure Gold retail showroom in 1998 and today we have more than 125 retail outlets in ten countries.

We’ve also established two jewellery manufacturing factories in India and one in China. I have about 35 shops in India alone and employ around 3,500 people internationally. I plan to expand to around 25 countries and have at least 450 stores and a presence in around 200 duty-free stores around the world in the next five years. I like my employees to feel they are working for themselves and expect 100 per cent dedication and loyalty from them. I have always operated very ethically and that is how I expect my employees to conduct their transactions.

Transparency and honesty are two factors I feel are vital for our success. We are above-board in all our dealings with customers, which is very important in this business. I think if you are ethical, hardworking and transparent, positive results will follow. I never mix my personal life with my professional life. At the office I am the chairman of the group. My son, Karim, 27, is the CEO of Pure Gold Jewellers, my daughter Amreen, 26, looks after the diamond section and my son-in-law Amran Iqbal is the director of the La Moda sunglasses section.

All of them address me as chairman while in the office and we have a perfectly healthy professional relationship. I do not allow them to address me as ‘Dad.’ I consider them as part of the organisation and they have specific responsibilities. However, I make it a point not to carry any work home. Once we leave the office we do not discuss work matters. I value two things – punctuality and keeping personal life separate from professional life.

Play

As a child I have seen some really tough times. I was one of nine children in the family – six boys and three girls. I was the seventh child and we lived in a tiny house. My father Gulam Hussain, who died in 1995 at the age of 75, was a real estate broker, a man of ethics and extremely principled. My mother Malekbai was a housewife. The real estate business was not always doing well and we led a hand-to-mouth existence. I was about 11 years old when I began accompanying my father to meetings, watching him closely as he negotiated prices, interacted with his clients and closed deals.

Although they were tough times, my father was never willing to compromise on his principles and business ethics. He used to tell me, ‘Son never be shy to accept a challenge. Failures are temporary phases in life. Have a dream and focus on it and you will succeed’. My father was the university of my life. He taught me about hard work, enterprise and optimism. I remember him telling me, ‘Never focus on short-term gains. Look at the larger picture. Always have a long-term vision. Think about all the consequences a decision you make today is likely to have later.’

He was very understanding when I told him I wanted to go to Dubai and start trading in gold. Although he felt it was a huge risk to take as it was a new field for me, he was willing to support me as best as he could. ‘My son, I have nothing more than my blessings to give you. I hope you will do your best. Always remember never to betray your homeland and your host country. Never take shortcuts in life and be honest, sincere and loyal to your host country, honour the law of the land and the systems.

If things do not work out, the doors of my home are open. We will welcome you with open arms’, he said, bidding me farewell. He was very happy for me and proud of my success. From my mother, who died last year, I learnt the values of humanism. She had so many mouths to feed and if she was left with one piece of bread for herself at the end of the day she would happily give it to a hungry person at our door. She always taught me to put myself in another person’s shoes and understand the pain and struggle other people went through.

Once all my brothers started working – in real estate and other businesses – our financial situation improved and we moved to a bigger house in Bandra – a nicer suburb of Mumbai. It was there that I fell in love with Rozina, who lived in the neighbourhood. She had completed high school and we both shared the same family values. She has been my unflinching supporter and confidante. These days I’m very particular about my health. Five days a week I am at the gym in the Burj Al Arab doing cardio, weights, etc.

I wake up at 4.30am for morning prayers and then spend time with my family. I reach the office by 10am after a light breakfast. I work hard until 4pm and then head to the gym in the evening before going back home. At the weekend or whenever I have the time, I love riding horses. I think the horse is a very noble and graceful animal and riding de-stresses me.

Dream

I feel deeds are more important to me than business transactions. I dream of creating a system where I can help genuine people who are in trouble. The happiness and contentment one gets in bringing a smile to a person’s face or in helping a person who’s in trouble can never be compensated with money. I did not get an opportunity to have a good education, but I realise its value. Today one needs to keep abreast of new technologies to be on a level playing field with others in the sector.

I trusted my instincts and relied on the lessons my parents taught me. But both Rozina and I were very keen to give the best education to our children, who both graduated from good universities and are assets to my business. Three people have played vital roles in my life – my parents and my wife. My parents provided me with a firm grounding in life and taught me to respect fellow men and my wife has been a pillar of support through good times and bad.

I feel two things are very important to be successful in life. The first is principles that govern your life and the second is your health, which can be achieved only through strict discipline. You can lose money and get it all back, but once you lose health it’s extremely difficult to reclaim. I came here with just the clothes on my back. This country gave me love, respect, wealth and the wherewithal to realise my dreams. I dream of being able to repay the country with good deeds and kindness.

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