Dubai: Shabbir Merchant was an 18-year-old boy with a dream to succeed when he set foot for the first time in the UAE in 1976.
Today, at 61, he only has gratitude for all the blessings bestowed upon him and his family by the country.
Needless to say that hard-work, dedication and a grand ambition ensured that Merchant inched closer to his dream.
Today, Merchant is a multi-millionaire. From a tough childhood that saw him living hand to mouth, Merchant worked hard to achieve the success he has today.
Early life and how he turned his life around
Merchant was born in December 1958 in Karachi, Pakistan. His late father, Yousuf Merchant, migrated from the city of Bombay (now called Mumbai) to Karachi in 1947, when India and Pakistan were divided.
“I remember my father telling me how tough life was those days. He moved to Pakistan with no money in hand. Life was not easy. I am his sixth child of a total 10. So responsibility was taught to me at a very early age. My siblings and I watched our father work hard for a living and so we learnt to do just that.
Merchant said his father started a business in Lahore with a partner in the signage industry. Gradually, he became a pioneer in Pakistan, selling neon sign boards.
Merchant is a chip off the old block.
He started Champion Neon, a business in the signage industry way back in 1989.
Learning to value money
“Growing up, life was hard for me. My family was big with my parents and 10 siblings. Money was a struggle. We could not always buy new clothes when we wanted or drive a luxury car. There was no way of eating outside in a restaurant with friends. It was always simple home-cooked meals,” he told Gulf News.
“My father was strict about money, he was a disciplined man and he taught us the value of it. His values are ingrained in me.”
Merchant recalled his schooling days. “My school was located at quite a distance from our house. I had to take two buses to reach school. Traffic was also heavy and I was on my own. One day, I used my bus fare to buy a Peshawari ice cream. What can I say? I was tempted and there is nothing wrong with that right? Most children love ice creams. But I did not realise that by indulging in the ice cream I have used up the bus fare and there is no way I could head home. So I walked back home and reached home late at night. My family was extremely worried for my safety. Remember there was no mobile back in the days.”
He said, this was perhaps the turning point in his life as he vowed to never be in a tight financial situation again.
Moving to Dubai
Merchant received his early learning from his father. He would go with his father and see how he ran his business as often as possible. “I loved to watch him go about his business. Soon I was in love with all that he did. The whole signage industry fascinated me.”
“In 1976, my older brother, Hanif Merchant called me to Dubai to help him in his signage company. Under his guidance and support I further equipped my skill in the industry. My brother was instrumental in teaching me the fundamentals of working in the UAE market. Dubai was a growing economy and there was so much potential then. Just like the city grew, I grew alongside. It has been a great joy ride here,” he said.
No skyscrapers in Dubai but abundant positive energy
Merchant recalled there were no skyscrapers, luxury cars, big hoardings, signage boards in the city. But he knew there was something big coming. “Dubai has a great energy. I sensed it right from the start. The potential for growth in the city was evident right from the start.”
In 1983, Merchant got married and he continued his career in the signage industry. His oldest brother, Yamin Merchant, who was based in the US invited him [Merchant] to relocate there and start a convenience store. But he would hear nothing of it. “My heart was set in Dubai and Dubai it was for me to realise my dream of being successful.”
In 1989, Merchant started Champion Neon with a tiny office space of 800 square feet in Deira. Gradually as the economy grew, so did his business. Today, all processes such as signage structural works, painting processes, powder coating, laser cutting and assembling high resolution printing are all done in-house. Merchant has acquired a 65,000-square-foot facility in Dubai Investment Park (DIP).
Early days of business hard
The 61-year-old millionaire recalled how the early days of business were hard. “There were so many obstacles, I never imagined I would come this far.”
But, Merchant has never relied on bank loans or financial entities to propel his business. “All profits generated and revenues earned have been self-created.”
“I have never borrowed. I don’t believe in delaying anyone’s payments.”
No external financial help to propel the business
Merchant’s current turnover of business is Dh25 million to Dh30 million. “If you compare me to other millionaires in the country, I am perhaps small in comparison. But I am very proud of my achievement. All what I have achieved has been my effort and my sons who help me in running my business. Together we have propelled the business and taking it to higher. We have taken no external help for this. My brothers supported me a lot when I started my business and for this I will be ever grateful,” he said.
“My work timings were long. I used to spend a lot of time in the market, visiting new shops with signage requirements. My wife was a tremendous support as well. She took great care of my daughter and sons when work would get busy. I could not have accomplished anything without her help. She used to accompany me late nights when I would do rounds of the city to check the best placement for signage boards. Also I would drive around the city to see all the boards placed of my clients. I wanted to rectify any complaints or faults on the boards before the client would report it to me. And my wife was beside me everytime,” said Merchant.
Merchant said client feedback and support was extremely important to him since the day he started the business. “I always say customers are the backbone of any business. If the customers aren’t happy, you cannot succeed no matter how good you may be. Surinder Singh Kandhari, Owner of Al Dobowi group, was my very first customer, and till today I can proudly say that we cater to all their signage and branding requirements across the region. RoohAfzah Hamdard Pakistan is another example of my early clients who we still serve.”
Champion Neon today
Today, the company completes 30 years in business. Champion Neon has grown along with the city of Dubai. The company has branches across all emirates in the UAE. We cater to clients across all industries such as automotive, retail, food & beverage, hospitality, construction, corporates, banks etc. And with a dedicated workforce of over 150 employees from Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Phillipines, Africa.
With state-of-the-art infrastructure and ISO-certified quality standards, Champion Neon has become one of the leading signage & branding solution provider across the region.
His older son, Shoaib is managing the sales & marketing of the business along with business development to help expand the business further. Merchant’s younger son, Shazil is heading the Champion Digital - catering to all fixed and rental digital signage solutions such as LED screens, LCD displays and Interactive technologies.
From a 800-sqft facility to a massive one
"We’ve moved our headquarters and production facility to Dubai Investments Park (DIP) which is extremely close to the EXPO 2020 site. We have very high hopes for the year to come and have a lot of faith in [Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, and ruler of the Emirate of Dubai] His Highness Sheikh Mohammed [Bin Rashid Al Maktoum]'s vision for Dubai. It is indeed a land of opportunities and a place which we proudly call home," said Merchant.
Government authorities such as RTA, Dubai Municipality, DED, Dubai Police, Dubai Customs have a very significant role in delivering the best level of services which have allowed ease in trade and has made Dubai one of the smartest cities in the world
Being actively involved in various cultural entities such as Pakistan Business Council (Founding Member), Pakistan Association in Dubai (Founding Member), Pakistan Professional Wing (Member) & World Memon Organisation (Trustee) has allowed me to give back to the community in multiple ways. Their ongoing efforts in uniting the Pakistani community in UAE is truly remarkable.
Dubai has transformed from a plain desert to one of the most modern cities of the world today offering a luxurious lifestyle, great infrastructure and tourism," said Merchant.