Dubai was in its formative years of development when young Sunny Varkey came to live here in April 1970 - nearly 31 years ago - from Mumbai, where he was studying in J.M.J. Catholic Boarding School. Preparations for the sheikhdoms to come together under a federation in 1971 had started, and the pace of economic, social and structural development had increased in 1969 with the discovery of oil.

Varkey joined St. Mary's Catholic High School, considered the best school at the time, run by Father Esuvias. It had students from various nationalities and taught the British curriculum. "I loved school but I disliked studying," admits Varkey, with a twinkle in his eye. "After I passed my O levels, my parents decided to send me to the UK to complete my A levels at Bembridge College in the Isle of Wight. Many students from the UAE used to go there to complete their studies, as there was no higher education available in Dubai at the time."

Varkey's parents, Mariamma and K.S. Varkey, came to Dubai in 1959, at a time when there was no electricity, water or school. They started coaching Arab students in Bur Dubai in the intricacies of the English language for a tuition fee of Rs25 (Indian currency was legal tender then) a month. It was a tutorial college which had no name, but was known by word of mouth simply as 'Varkey's school'. Armed with Arabic-English and Persian-English dictionaries, they managed to make themselves understood to their students.

This was the forerunner to Our Own English High School, which opened in 1968 on a plot of land in Bastakia near the Indian Consulate.

"I remember," says Varkey, "my mother used to sit in the front room. There was always a ring of drivers and conductors around her, and parents would wait patiently to get her attention.

"By the time I returned from England in 1977, there were 400 students in the school, but it was still quite chaotic." On occasions, when a driver was absent, Varkey would drive the school bus. He seemed to have made quite an impression, for parents would comment on this 'new and nice English-speaking driver'!

Varkey was tempted to join the management of the school, but knew his way of running things was different from that of his parents, so he decided to keep away. Instead, he joined the Al Shamal branch (in Deira) of Standard Chartered Bank. His father worked with the British Bank and had always wanted his son to join the banking profession, so he was very pleased.

Fakhrudeen, Varkey's bank manager, remarked at the alacrity of his new employee, "No sooner had work been given to him than it was done." Often he would have to do the school run to replace a driver, which would mean that he had to get up at 5.30am, drive the bus and reach the bank by 8.15am. Fakhrudeen was very understanding, says Varkey, and allowed him to come in late on such occasions.

One day, after he had worked with the bank for a year, Varkey was preparing some accounts and saw, quite by accident, that his manager, who had worked with the bank for 22 years, earned a salary of Dh6,000 a month. He was shocked, and calculated that even with subsequent payrises for maybe ten years, he would never be able to earn even Dh10,000 a month. He decided right away to quit and start his own business.

Since his return from the UK, Varkey had been studying the market and, in 1978, found there was no company that offered various kinds of maintenance services under one roof. So he set up Chicago Maintenance Company. The word 'Chicago' was used because "the western tinge to the name would make it easier to attract European expats", he explains. It became more famous when the Chicago Beach Hotel opened.

Later that year, Varkey opened J.M.J. Trading, named after the Catholic boarding school he went to in India. By 1982, he was part owner of the Dubai Plaza Hotel (now Rydges Plaza Hotel) and was involved in the affairs of at least another six companies.

The Dubai Plaza, which he and his partner, Ashwini Sharma, opened in 1980, was quite unlike any other hotel in Dubai at the time - it had less rooms and more eating outlets. "Today," says Varkey, "most of the hotels have several eating outlets, but that was not the norm then. The Plaza became a meeting place for people in the evenings and did very well because it was different."

One evening in the early '80s, Varkey came home to find both his parents very depressed. Reason: they had received yet another letter from Dubai Municipality (they had received several letters before) telling them to construct a purpose-built building for Our Own English High School or close it down. They did not feel they could cope and had decided to close. Varkey stepped in and said if they allowed him to take over the running of the school, without any interference from them, he would build the premises.

His parents agreed, and Varkey swung into action. Qassim Sultan, director of Dubai Municipality, became the patron of the school. Land was found in Karama and Our Own English High School started having classes in portacabins in its new premises. Varkey had to take a huge loan for the purpose. Several of the other schools under the Varkey Group - Cambridge High School, Modern High School and Kindergarten Starters - all started from the same premises.

Varkey looks back at the mid-1970s, when students from Deira creek would cross the waterway by abra to attend Our Own English High School. It was a journey which occasionally ended in hurried disembarkation, with several students falling into the water!

While teaching English in school, the staff encountered students who came from different areas of India where English was taught at different levels. Complications arose when students coming from schools where the medium of instruction was in the vernacular had to be taught in the same class as those who came from schools where English was the medium of instruction. However, Varkey explains students could not be denied admission to the school on such grounds, as they had nowhere to go. "We turned no child away, and tried to work within the boundaries available to us, at the time, to give them the best education."

He attributes his enormous success to faith in God and sheer hard work. "I make decisions on the spot," he says. "When I go home with a problem I dwell on it for maybe 15 or 20 minutes, decide on a solution and implement it immediately. After the deed is done, I don't regret my decision, whether it is right or wrong. A businessman must accept gains and losses with equanimity," he adds.

"In those days, as today, Dubai was a place where when you saw an opportunity, and if you had the courage, you took it," continues Varkey. "Professionals would find it difficult to grow like entrepreneurs because risks had to be taken all the time. Dubai developed because the late ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, had a vision and followed his dream. When he built Port Rashid and the Dry Docks people could not understand what he was doing and why. Today, they are a testimony to his far-sightedness and have put Dubai on the global map."

There were no debentures or donations which helped to finance the schools and Sunny admits that the first investment in the school was Dh7 million. Today, 20 years later, Dubai has grown into a metropolis - the Varkey Group's growth is remarkable. "What I am today