Dubai: "There are no elevators to success, you must take the staircase," says Amit Sethi.
Who better than this multi-millionaire businessman in Dubai to say this, considering he once walked from Deira to Bur Dubai to sell food packets door to door. It is another thing that today, Sethi, just 43, rides a Rolls-Royce, lives in a plush signature, sea-front Palm Jumeirah villa and runs a company with 300 staff in UAE and world-wide.
He is managing director of Asia & Africa General Trading, a company dealing in import and export of food commodities. Sethi owns and runs the company with his wife. Together they manage offices in the UAE and beyond.
But back in 2005, to say that life was a struggle for this enterprising man would be an understatement.
Childhood and starting work early at 16
Sethi’s father ran a small shop in the narrow lanes of Old Delhi. “We had a tiny shop in Chawri Bazar, close to the Jama Majid.”
For the uninitiated, Chawri Bazaar is a specialised wholesale market for brass, copper and paper products. It has narrow lanes, electrical cables hanging from low-height buildings. Traffic is two-way in the narrow lanes and you can imagine the commotion and chaos on those streets. In fact, today, Chawri Bazaar is a very busy road as labourers with their laden backs, cars, rickshaws, scooters and walkers jostle for right of way through the lanes during peak hours. The bazaar has Jama Masjid at one end and Hauz Quazi at the other end.
As for the profile of the shop owners at Chawri Bazaar, they are at the lower end of the economic spectrum of the society. Sethi’s father owned a tiny little shop in Chawri Bazaar where he sold laboratory equipment and glassware.
At 16, Sethi – an ace sportsman in his school – was put on the job to man his father’s store during school holidays and weekends. “Basically, I started working at the age of 16. It is another thing that I was not paid for my job. But my father was my mentor, guide and taught me everything about business. Looking back, that was more valuable than earning a salary.”
But he could not help reminiscing how good he was in sports and the uncanny connection it had with his family business. “I was really active in sports and won many awards. Sports teaches you to win and lose -- just like business does. That is why they always call it 'sportsman spirit'. I used to play volleyball and participate in athletics. I was the fastest runner in my school," Sethi said.
By 18, Sethi was employed full-time in his father’s shop. “After Grade 12, while my friends were enrolling in college, I started working full-time at my father’s shop. What can I say, circumstances were such and my father could not afford to pay for my college education.”
It was only in 2016 that Sethi completed his graduation from Harvard Business School, specialising in management and business.
Worth the wait you could say.
Coming to Dubai for the first time
In 2003, Sethi heard about an exhibition in Dubai for lab equipments. It picked his curiosity. He also had a desire to be bigger and have more success in life. “Life was getting a tad too dull and boring for me. It was the same thing every day and all along I knew in that tiny little shop in a crowded marketplace of Delhi, that I was not going to see much growth in business or even at a personal level there. I wanted more.”
Sethi wanted to explore the exhibition in order to get a feel of the international market for his father’s business. “And so he collected some money and registered for the exhibition.”
“It was a five-day exhibition and perhaps the turning point of my life. I remember, at the exhibition, when I told people I was from Chawri Bazaar, they thought I was from another planet. But my knowledge expanded. There were people from different walks of life selling their products. I got to know about several hundreds and thousands of products worldwide.”
The following year, he came down with his wife once gain for the same exhibition. “This time, we tried to save on hotel cost and stayed with a relative. We took the opportunity to feel the market here and explore Dubai. We fell in love with this city.”
Now how many people do you know who come to Dubai for an event/exhibition with little in hand, only to make the city their home andemerge a multi-millionaire?
Few I guess.
Sethi had made up his mind during his second visit to Dubai that he wanted to start a business here. And so in 2005, he saved Dh50,000 and put all that money into obtaining a trade licence in Dubai.
“The licence alone cost me Dh50,000. Now I had to look for an office space and a house. I borrowed a little from my father. Every penny mattered. So I took up a sharing accommodation with another family in Bur Dubai.”
Sethi was married with a four-year old daughter at the time. “I brought them to live with me. It was the month of July and in the heat we went looking for homes. In 2005, finding a cheap accommodation in Bur Dubai was tough. The rents were soaring and Bur Dubai and Karama were two most popular places for Indians to live in. Even now it is,” said Sethi.
Living within means
“We never dined at any fancy restaurant. Food was always prepared at home. My wife and daughter lived with me. It was expensive. We put my daughter in a nursery. There was once a function in her nursery and she needed a new pair of shoes. A good one cost Dh60. At that time, a dirham fetched Rs11. So Dh60 was around Rs700, which was a huge amount of money for me. I refused to buy the shoes for her. I simply could not afford it. So she [my daughter] skipped the event at school. My wife was upset with me that day, but I had to work the budget. It was hard.”
Today, Sethi’s daughter  can walk into a Louis Vuitton shop and buy any pair of shoes she wants!
Sethi recalled taking the Abra almost every day to commute between Deira and Bur Dubai. “My house was 15 minutes away from the Abra stop. I would walk home. The taxi far was Dh13, which was the cost of my shaving foam for a month. I had to save that money.”
As for entertainment, Sethi said BurJuman was their favourite haunt. “It was next to my house and we wanted to go somewhere where we would not have to spend on a taxi. Every Friday afternoon we would end up in BurJuman with our daughter.
This went on for six months and Sethi started cracking up. “I could not afford keeping my family with me. It was just too expensive. So six months after they came to Dubai to live with me, I sent them back.” It was December 2005.
This was the time when Dubai was booming, rents were high and cost of living was rising.
Taking an oath
“The day I left them at the airport, I told myself I would get them back soon with me and I would do something really big with my life. It was a personal challenge,” said Sethi.
Working hard to make his business a success
Initially, the idea was to run his father’s line of business here – glassware and laboratory equipment. But soon Sethi realised there was enough competition already in those sectors. Food was big business in the UAE and Sethi decided to tread the unknown path and dive into a line of business he had never done in his life – import and export of food commodities.
“Trust me, after sending my family back to India, I worked for 18 hours a day, learning the business, building the network. It was a one-man show, with me doing everything on my own. Gradually, as the business started picking up I started hiring people to help me in my business.”
“When I was taking on people, I was not looking for a high level of qualification. I was looking for people with dedication and determination. Remember, I was just a high-school passout with no college education. So it did not matter where the job-seekers had studied. It was about their love for the job -- that was what mattered.”
Advantages of running a business in Dubai
“The ease of doing business is definitely here in Dubai. It is a hub for markets in the East and West. So, from a logistics point of view and in terms of location, Dubai is a great place. Imagine, three quarters of countries in the world are within eight hours of flight.”
“Initially, while I was working in India, I imagined myself working in Africa. Never thought I would end up in Dubai and make it a success. It's destiny.”
In December 2005, after sending his family back home to India, Sethi gave full attention to his business. He started selling food commodities. And how. “I used to carry food samples in a black roller bag and knock on every door to sell my products. I knocked on every door in Bur Dubai and Karama, asking people if they wanted sugar, rice, lentils, pulses? It was hard work,” said Sethi.
“Every day was a struggle. But when things are down, you need to be more resilient. Patience is the key, confidence in your job matters. Never give up if you are sure of what you are doing. It will come to you. And as I said before, know this -- there are no elevators to success, only the staircase.”
“Food was in big demand and I realised that in UAE, foodstuff was imported from overseas. Can you believe it, when the global economic slump happened in 2008, business peaked!”
“This is because, people need to eat. They need to survive,” he said.
Sethi began importing food commodities like sugar, rice etc. “Basically, we import from countries where food is produced and export to countries that need it. For example, Brazil is a major exporter of sugar. So we import sugar from there to UAE and Africa. From India, Thailand, Pakistan we import rice for the UAE and Africa markets. Like this, we have targeted countries for import and export.
The number game is the key, Sethi said. Also seasons, crop time, keeping a tab on all that is critical.
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“I am learning every day. I also have consultants advising me every day. Our business is doing well. I also have a 200,000 square feet warehouse in Dubai Investment Park.”
In 2009, Sethi’s business started kicking off. There has been no looking back since. “Dubai is the safest place for families to live and work. The leadership is amazing too,” Sethi said.