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 selling food packets door to door.
It is another thing that today, Sethi, just 43, rides a Rolls-Royce, lives in a plush signature Palm Jumeirah fronting the sea and runs a company with 300 staff in the 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 world-wide and in the UAE.
But flashback to 2005, to say life was a struggle was an understatement.
Childhood and starting work early at 16
Sethi’s father ran a small shop in the narrow lanes of older part of India’s capital city New Delhi. “We had a tiny shop in Chawri Bazar, close to the city’s Jama Majid.”
For the uninitiated, Chawri Bazaar is a specialized wholesale market of brass, copper and paper products. It has narrow lanes, electric lines hanging from low levelled buildings. Traffic is two-way in the narrow lanes and you can imagine the commotion and chaos on these streets. In fact, today, Chawri Bazaar is a very busy road as laborers with their laden backs, cars, rickshaws, scooters and walkers battle for passing through the lanes during peak hours. The Bazar has Jama Masjid on one end and Hauz Quazi on the other end.
Enough of the sights and sound of the Bazaar. As for the profile of shop owners, they are on the lower-end of the economic spectrum of the society.
Here Sethi’s father owned a tiny little shop with laboratory equipments and glass-ware.
At 16, Sethi –an ace sportsman at 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, this was more valuable than earning a salary.”
But he could not help reminiscing how good he was in sports and the uncanny connection of it with business. “I was really active in sports and won many awards for sports. If you are an active sports person – it teaches you to win and lose. In both fields you win and lose. That is why they always call it a sportsman spirit. I used to do volleyball, I used to play athletics. I was the fastest runner in my school. I was given the recognition of being the fastest runner,” said Sethi.
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By 18, Sethi was employed full time in his father’s shop. “After Grade 12, my friends were enrolling in college, I on the other hand started work at my father’s shop. What can I say, circumstances were such and my father could not afford to pay my college education.”
Take this: It is only in 2016 [three years ago] that Sethi completed his graduation from Harvard Business School, specializing 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 [Sethi] also had a desire to be bigger and have more success in life. “Life was getting what can I say 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 market place of New Delhi, I was not going to see much growth in business or even on a personal level. 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 was the turning point in 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 world-wide.”
The following year he came down with his wife once gain for the exhibition. “This time we tried to save on hotel cost and stayed with a relative. We took the opportunity to feel the market and explore Dubai. What can I say, 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 and turn a multi-millionaire?
Few I guess.
Say hello to Sethi.
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 [Sethi] saved Dh50,000 and put all that money into procuring a license and office space in Dubai.
“The license alone cost me Dh50,000. Now I had to look for 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. Even now it is,” said Sethi.
Living within the means
“We never dined at a 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 a function in her nursery and she needed a new pair shoes. A good one cost Dh60. At that time a dirham fetched Rs 11. This meant the shoe priced Dh60 cost Rs. 700 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 Vitton shop and buy any pair of shoes.
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 spend on 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 cost of living was rising.
Making an oath
“The day I left them in 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
At first the idea was to run my father’s line of business here – glass-ware and laboratory equipment. But soon Sethi realised there was enough and more competition in these sectors. Food was a 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 after sending my family back to India, I worked 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 graduate with no college education. So it did not matter where they had studied from. It was about their love for the job.”
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 location it is great. Imagine, three quarters of countries in the world are within eight hours of proximity.”
“Initially when I was working in India, I envisioned myself working in Africa, never thought I would end up in Dubai and make a success it is destiny.”
In December 2005, after sending his family home to India, Sethi gave full attention to his business. He started selling food commodities. And how. “I used to carry food sample in a black roller bag and knock at every door to sell my products. I knocked on every door of Bur Dubai, Karama asking them 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 key, confidence in your job is key. 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 in UAE food is imported from overseas. Can you believe when the economic slump happened in 2008 in the UAE, my 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. And so we import sugar from there to UAE and Africa. From India, Thailand, Pakistan we import rice for UAE and Africa markets. Like this we have targeted countries for import and export.
Challenges of the business
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The number game is key. Also seasons, crop time, keeping a tab of all this is critical.
“I am learning every day. I also have consultants advising me this every day. Our business is doing well. I also have a 200,000 square feet of warehouse in DIP.”
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.”