Dubai: Everybody has the right to dream. Forget the rags-to-riches and rich-to-richer tales that are so popular. People like you and me — working-class professionals — have a right to aspirations, too.
If you are looking for a role model, there's no better example than Dinesh Kothari, a 69-year-old chartered accountant-turned-billionaire. His formula for success? Take a dream, add grit, stir in hard-work and wrap both up in focus and you'll find yourself getting to your visualised goal.
Kothari set foot in the UAE in 1974. The then 24-year-old was employed by a construction company and received a monthly salary of Dh1,500. “I decided to take up any offer that came my way. I needed the money,” said Kothari.
And so began his stint with Eastern Contracting, under Bukhatir Group Co. He worked for Abdul Rehman Bukhatir.
Now this move was unusual in itself. Between the 1940s and the late 1960s, only businessmen ventured onto the country's shores. Few professionals, barring those who worked in the oil rigs, came to work in this desert land.
Following the federation of UAE in 1971, the economy started to grow rapidly, creating a need for professionals. When Kothari came to the UAE, he was one of the rare chartered accountants in town.
His skill and knowledge had catapulted him to his company's top finance post: a year after taking the job, Kothari was appointed chief financial officer of the Bukhatir Company.
"Marwaris" originate from the Marwar Shekhawati Jaipur region of Rajasthan and Haryana. The community - mostly traders – tend to marry at a young age. Kothari was not an exception.
The good old days
Before he ventured abroad, Kothari — who belongs to a South Asian ethno-linguistic group called Marwari — married Neelam and moved to Bombay (now Mumbai). He was 23 at the time. ("Marwaris", who hail from the Marwar Shekhawati Jaipur region of Rajasthan and Haryana, are generally traders and known to marry young.)
“I had previously worked for ICICI Ltd before it became a bank," he recalled of his early days in Bombay. "[I was] earning a salary of Rs550 a month. It was a reputed organisation and the salary was huge.”
However, even then, he admits that living in the financial capital of India required some navigation. “Living in Mumbai for a salary of Rs550 is not easy. While Mumbai is a land of opportunities, life can be hard for a middle-class professional. And somewhere in my heart, I was yearning for a breakthrough – a change in my job.”
Kothari said ‘lady luck’ took heed of his dream. At a social gathering, some friends suggested job openings in Sharjah. He decided to apply - and just like that, his life changed forever.
He is chairman at Shugan Chandra Kothari Trust based in India and sits on the board of 12 other companies in India. In 1990 he started his first business in marbles and established the company Interstar Marbles Industries.
In 1998, he forayed into the education business and started the Delhi Private SCHOOL (CBSE) in Jodhpur.
In 2000, he made headlines in the UAE when he brought the reputed school franchise to the UAE with Delhi
Private School (CBSE) Sharjah and Delhi Private School (CBSE) Dubai.
Owing to the success of the two schools in the UAE, Kothari then founded three other schools — Victory Heights Primary School (British curricullum) Sports City in Dubai, New Delhi Private School-Sharjah and South View School and, more recently, in September 2018 another British curriculum secondary school in Rem Raam, Dubai called South View School.
In an interview with Gulf News, Kothari said the year 2020 will see the completion of another school in Ras Al Khaimah – Delhi Private School – Ras Al Khaimah.
According to Kothari, the total turnover of the education business he runs is close to Rs400 million in India and in the UAE his company records a turnover of over Dh250 million.
He owns a marble company that has a turnover of Dh10 million, but Kothari admits it is not as lucrative as his education empire.
Rise to fame
"Angst" is a word Kothari repeated a number of times during the interview. “You need to have an angst within you — and that drives you to do more.”
There was a time, this desire to 'do more' was missing in Kothari; his focus towards education was "quite not in place".
“I was playful. One day my grandfather had a sit down with me and put things into perspective. He asked me, 'Do you know where you are heading' and 'What do you want out of life? Is this how you want to lead your life?' "This (encounter) was a life-changing moment for me. His words hit me in the heart and I felt a pain surge in my body."
I was playful. One day my grand-father had a sit down with me and put things into perspective. He asked me, 'Do you know where you are heading' and 'What do you want out of life? Is this how you want to lead your life?' This (encounter) was a life-changing moment for me. His words hit me in the heart and I felt a pain surge in my body.
"I became serious about studies and went on to achieve academically. I repeat: We all need to have that angst to take us to our dreams. The day you feel contended with your life — that day – you have given up on yourself. I am a year short of 70 and am glad to say I still have my ambitions and goals,” said Kothari in a sit-down talk with Gulf News.
It's also this fire to do well that kept him going those early days back in 1974 when although he signed up as a charted accountant, his to-do list included many other chores. "My job involved visiting construction sites, paying workers’ wages, procuring cement, steel and getting it delivered on site," he recalled.
“This was not a job for a chartered accountant, but I did it. Having worked in a brand like ICICI — this was a bit of a let-down. But I did not lose heart. Because my boss was a really good man. He was a man with a vision and his company was growing leaps and bounds. I told myself I have taken up this challenge let me stick to it.”
A year into the job, however; Kothari realised this is not a job he wanted to be doing.
“The money was less although compared to India I was earning more. But I was not happy with my job. So I told Mr Bukhatir I wanted to quit my job and go back home. He said he was working on new projects and there were many opportunities for growth in the job.
"A year into my job I was made the chief financial officer of the company. I have to thank Mr Bukhatir for this. He recognised my potential and knew I deserved better. He also saw my grit, determination and hard-work and decided to reward me in the best possible way. It was a blessing for me indeed.
“I was excited. But in two years’ time the new projects were successfully completed and I was back to twiddling my thumbs.”
“Once again I told Mr Bukhatir I wanted to quit my job as perhaps he did not need me anymore. See - this was the angst in me. It was the burning desire for more. The day you stop having that, you stop growing altogether.”
Kothari said his boss replied to his angst in a calm manner. “He said, 'be patient'.”
"On March 8, 1978, Bukhatir moved me to the parent company in a new role as the chief executive officer.
“I was 28 years old and I could not have asked for more. The group had 10-15 companies with close to 3,000 employees. I was managing them. Mr Bukhatir is a great boss and leader. He gave me the freedom to expand the company the way I wanted to. It was a great time in my life. I was young, had a nice family. I was driving a Mercedes 450 and, back in the day, it was something. My children were doing well in the school here. During my stint with Mr Bukhatir I had the privilege of doing one of India’s largest private industry acquisition transactions. It was close to [a] $2-billion transaction."
Still, he said, something was missing.
“It was very exciting. But the angst kept cropping up. Somewhere in my heart, when my life was going well, I was not happy. I kept thinking to myself: have I done enough and given enough to the society which made me who I am?"
"I also noticed my children were increasingly becoming disconnected with their roots in India. It is a common feeling when you live here in the UAE. As parents you either accept it or you don’t. I did not want to accept it. And so for the third and final time I told Mr Bukhatir I wanted to quit my job and head back to India so my children [could] connect with their extended families.
“I gave him a one-year notice – something unheard of in the UAE. The company had grown massively. From 3,000 employees when I started as its chief executive, in 1987 when I left the company there were 10,000 people working.
"I had created a financial stability for my family and me as well. My salary and bonus together fetched me an annual pay of a million dirhams. It was huge. I could afford to buy a house in India, educate my children and more. So I was not worried [about] leaving. I had nothing to lose.”
"There is not a day I do not remember Mr Bukhatir. How many people you know worked in a company for a salary as low as Dh1,500 a month and left it while earning Dh80,000 plus?
"It happened to me only because I had a great leader in my boss who saw the potential of his staff."
It's a lesson, he said, he's carried with him.
“I apply his people management and staff management skills even today. I am proud to say that across my schools we barely have a one per cent turnover of staff.”
In 1998, eleven years after quitting his job in the UAE, Kothari started the Delhi Private School (CBSE) in Jodhpur – his home-town. “As I said, I wanted to give back to the society and this was it. I did not want to do anything related to my religion as a way of giving back to the society. There were other critical elements that needed to be tackled and education I thought was one of the key.”
“DPS – Jodhpur, for the record, is a completely non-profit school with 5,000 students. It is a fee paying school but I do not pocket any of the profit we make from the school. I stay as the trustee of the school. The school belongs to the students and the society,” said Kothari.
During the time the school was launched and became a success, Kothari was doing some consulting business in the UAE. “After leaving in 1987 I did not completely disconnect myself from the UAE. I had a small practice going. After all I had spent 13 years in the UAE and once you set foot here in the country, it is difficult to leave it and let go. This place is magical and I was feeling the effects of it on me.”
Seeing the success of his debut in education in Jodhpur, he decided to bring the DPS brand to the UAE as well and set up his first school – Delhi Private School (CBSE) Sharjah in 2000. There has been no looking back for this man.
Today the serial entrepreneur has up to 17,000 students who've benefitted from his educational proclivities. “It has been very satisfying. Yes education is a business today. But education is also a passion, one that is not necessarily driven by money alone.
"I am happy when my students are happy, my staff are happy, the parents are happy. I could make a lot of money if I wanted to. But that will not give me a good night’s sleep.”
“If you are a middle-class person, you have to have an angst. There are times when people don’t treat you well. There is no point retaliating at that time. You have to take it as a challenge. When I was young and working in Mumbai, somebody told my wife (and we were just married) that only poor people live in a coastal suburb of Mumbai located at its north-western end.
"They lived in Malabar Hills an upscale urban area of South Mumbai where real estate prices are its costliest. That day I told my wife we will be their neighbour soon. That was the angst inside. And I did realise that dream of owning a house in Malabar Hills.
“So dream. It is so good to dream. Everyone must dream. Be open to change and grab an opportunity when it comes by. I also listen to my gut feeling. It is your soul talking to you and it wants the best for you.”