Dubai: Firoz Goulam Merchant, founder-chairman of the Pure Gold jewellery group and a self-made Indian billionaire expatriate, has adjusted his life and business to the ‘new normal’ during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Merchant told Gulf News: “COVID-19 is a global disaster on a scale that several generations had not seen in this century. It has had the most far-reaching socio-economic repercussions and its full impact will continue to be felt worldwide for several years to come.”
As someone who had to drop out from school after grade 1 due to poverty, Merchant has imbibed most of his learnings from the “university of life” as he calls it. People, situations, interactions have been his teacher when he struggled to make ends meet upon his arrival in Dubai in the early 1980s. He claims he has built his gold and diamond business single-handedly.
“I think we are students, constantly learning from life’s experiences and I try to learn from a tea boy, office boy, employee, family members, every single day. So COVID-19 has been no different. A terrible virus that has devastated our lives, but has also taught us that human beings the world over are the same, our lives are fragile and it has taught us the value of being loyal, standing together, for each other as a community, making a team effort and seeing no shame in accepting that we need to scale down our lifestyles and look at what is truly genuine and dear to us, hold on to that and nurture true values in society. In the last few years, our materialism has grown so much that many people were living beyond their means, maxing out on credit cards, so much so that we had lost touch with who we really are. COVID-19 has been a harsh wake-up call for all of us.”
He lists some golden lessons he has learnt from the pandemic — lessons that he has implemented in his business and life and thinks everyone must respond to the situation and show their willingness to make these changes:
Do not be afraid to scale down business, Merchant says. “We had an idea of the kind of debacle we were in when the tourist numbers at our shops began falling from January this year. I did not think twice before closing down some of my shops across all the countries to scale down my operations. In the last few months, I had to be even more practical as gold sales had fallen. Of the 150 shops across 12 countries, I closed down 85 and am planning to close down many more,” he said
Rents for performing shops re-worked
“The remaining shops were consolidated and their rents re-negotiated. Where landlords did not cooperate, we had to simply shut down the operation. I told myself — people have lost their jobs, their livelihoods and means of sustenance and are fighting for survival. Spending power of consumers has reduced drastically, so buying jewellery is not going to feature on their to-do list for some time. So it was in our best interests to scale down our business.”
“Today, Pure Gold as a business owes zero loans to any bank,” claimed Merchant with pride. This was a very fundamental strategy for Merchant who has always believed that people must not live on borrowed means. “As soon as the crisis began, I called up my banks and paid out every dirham of outstanding amount. They were surprised, but I prefer this as today I can stand tall and say I do not owe any money to anyone. If you notice around you, the worst affected are those who have run up huge loans, living beyond their means and have zero savings. The wise who had kept away a sum for the rainy day have been able to manage better during these times. That is why I decided I had to neutralise my liabilities,” said Merchant.
Helping the community is a must
In 2008, Merchant launched the Forgotten Society Initiative to help thousands of prisoners with unpaid debts and fines. He not only paid off the fines, but also purchased air tickets for them to repatriate them. He said: “In whatever way I could, I have continued to help several prisoners of different nationalities and religion. These were people who were stuck in prison because they were unable to pay their fines. I paid off their fines, secured their release and provided them free air tickets so that they could get return to their home countries. I have been doing this since 2008 and I did not let the pandemic stop me.
I also could not bear to the see the plight of migrant workers in India, who have lost their jobs in the cities owing to the lockdown and were forced to return to their villages. These people had no means of livelihood. Every month we identify 2,500 such needy families in about 22 villages and send them food rations,” Merchant said.
Maintaining a routine
Do not let a crisis disturb your routine, Merchant advises. “Whatever be the situation, I go to bed at 10pm, get up by 3am, send out a message of encouragement to my employees and friends, wash, clean, change and go to the mosque, offer my morning prayers, spend time reflecting, then rest for a couple of hours before getting ready for office. I have maintained this routine throughout the pandemic. During movement restrictions, when I could not go to the mosque, I would offer ‘namaaz’ at home in the morning. My own communion with the Almighty has given me strength and the right perspective,” he added.
The litmus test
Considering this crisis as the litmus test for team work and team spirit, Merchant said : “I think all of us are in this crisis together and we need to evaluate the short term and long-term impact. The short-term impact is the health crisis, loss of jobs, displacement of families, the impact on hotels, tourism and aviation businesses. We need to be realistic, stick together as a community, follow the rules of the government to tide over the immediate situation. In the long term, there will be ripple effects on the economy worldwide. For that we must learn to slow down the pace of our lives, be mindful of our health and wellness, be realistic about our desires, scale down lifestyles and keep a small amount aside. We must never forget that this cosmic drama is being controlled by the Almighty. We are just players.”