Danube Group vice-chairman Anis Sajan's journey from a Pant Nagar chawl in Mumbai to Emirates Hills in Dubai is a classic Bollywood-blockbuster journey Image Credit: Gulf News

Dubai: The story begins with a sombre scene at a chawl or low-cost tenement in Pant Nagar, part of the Ghatkopar suburb in India’s Mumbai. The head of a family of five has just passed on following a tragic accident. As visitors stream into the humble abode, one of 52 studio flats in the building Suryodya, the tributes they pay to the departed soul are rich.

A clerk at Nathani High Steel, a company located just one local train station away at Vidya Vihar, the man was well-respected in the community. His epileptic wife, elder son, 16 and daughter, 14, break into a sob every now and then as they grieve the loss. His third-born, an eight-year-old bundle of energy, however, flits in and out of the room, too young to fathom the gravity of the situation.

Anis Sajan's father Asker Ali Sajan, left, died at the age of 42 following a tragic accident. His mother Gulbanu (right), suffered from epilepsy and was in and out of hospital in his younger days Image Credit: Supplied
The chawl - Suryodya or Building No.38 - in Pant Nagar of Mumbai's Ghatkopar where Anis Sajan grew up. The chawl had 52 studio flats and the Sajans lived in one of them on the third floor. Image Credit: Supplied
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Anis Sajan's current residence in Emirates Hills, Dubai. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

As the little boy from the Pant Nagar chawl, now a 49-year-old business tycoon, walks down memory lane from his palatial home in Dubai’s upscale Emirates Hills, it’s a classic Bollywood-blockbuster journey. But no, this is no rags-to-riches narrative on reel. It’s the real life story of Anis Sajan, the unpretentious Danube Group vice-chairman, who has no qualms delving deep into his modest past.

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Anis Sajan with his wife Rubina and sons Azhar (extreme right) and Sahil (extreme left) at their Emirates Hills villa Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

A street car‘t’ named desire

Ever grateful to his elder brother Rizwan Sajan, Chairman of the Danube Group and his sister Shabnam Sajan for never making him feel the absence of their father Asker Ali Sajan, Anis says, “It was only much later in life that the profoundity of the loss dawned on me. The world could have so easily crumbled on me had it not been for my siblings. My brother was quick to step into my father’s shoes while my sister filled in for my ailing mum who was in and out of hospital.”

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Siblings back in time: Anis Sajan (front) with his elder brother Rizwan Sajan and Shabnam Sajan in their younger days Image Credit: Supplied
The trio today: Over the years, the bonding between the Sajan siblings - Rizwan, Shabnam and Anis - has only grown stronger. Image Credit: Supplied

As the teens shouldered adult responsibilities, there was always room for some out-of-the-box thinking. “Rizwan, who started working in the company where my father was, found himself selling novelty items on a bakda (cart or table) on the street below our building. The idea was to earn an additional income for the house. He sold everything from pocket combs and mirrors to plastic balls and bats,” says Anis.

A Class 6 student at Fatima High School at the time, Anis recalls he would often give his brother company in the evenings. On one such occasion, the local authorities, who were on their rounds, clamped down on them. “They took away everything we had. As my brother pleaded with them to return our things, I cried uncontrollably. But it was to no avail and that made me very sad.”

Lights, cops, action!

The experience, however, held him in good stead a couple of years later when he set up his own bakda below their building. He would put up the table after school – between 5pm and 9pm – and lay out greeting cards and serial lights for Diwali (Festival of Lights).

Each toran or string of Diwali lights that Anis Sajan sold as a school boy cost Rs30.

“There was one teething problem though. I needed to draw power for the lights, but we lived on the third floor. So I requested my friend’s father on the first floor to provide me with the electricity. I realised nothing came free, so I struck a deal with my friend’s father and said I would give him 10 per cent of my earnings. Each toran (string) of light, which I sourced from VT, cost Rs30. In no time, I was able to sell 50 per cent of my stock to our building residents themselves.”

When the policeman threatened to take away my lights, I told him about our family’s situation and begged him to allow me to earn some money. The strategy worked and as a token of gratitude, I gave him a box of lights.

- Anis Sajan

Just when Anis thought he had tasted sweet success, the authorities came calling again. But this time, he was prepared. “I had become street-smart – quite literally. When the policeman threatened to take away my lights, I told him about our family’s situation and begged him to allow me to earn some money. The strategy worked and as a token of gratitude, I gave him a box of lights.”

Emboldened by his raw marketing and earnest communication skills, Anis now wanted to make the bakda a more permanent business. In any case, Diwali sales were short-lived, so he began to source electrical switches, sockets and tube lights from a neighbourhood factory. He bought himself a cycle for Rs100 and visited traders at their doorsteps to cater to their orders.

“A friend who was closely watching me said I should begin to think big, beyond the cycle -- life would change for me.”

And change it did.

Leaving on a jet plane

By the time Anis was 19, Rizwan had moved to Kuwait. “He wanted me to join him at the company where he was working. I flew down on January 2, 1990. It was the first flight of my life. I went against my wishes and missed the comfort of my home and friends in Mumbai. I sorely missed playing cricket and flying kites. I kept telling my brother that I wanted to go back. He understood my plight and just as we were trying to figure out what we could do, we found ourselves in the midst of a war as Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990.”

(From right) Anis Sajan with brother Rizwan Sajan, sister-in-law Sameera Sajan and Jacob Moses, the Sajan brothers' boss, in Kuwait Image Credit: Supplied
Anis Sajan marking his 19th birthday in Kuwait in 1990. Also seen in the picture is Rizwan Sajan's wife Sameera Sajan Image Credit: Supplied

The next two months were spent in a tizzy. “But even so, my brother’s enterprising spirit won us the day. We had to fight for our survival and Rizwan and I started selling oil for cars. The one memory that has stuck in my mind from those days is an interaction I had with an Iraqi soldier to whom we wsere selling oil. When we were asked for the price, I blurted out and said it was 5 Kuwaiti dinars for a can. The man in uniform gave me one long look and said, ‘Young man, you are now in Iraq'."

Anis’ stint in the foreign land, however, came to an end when he along with Rizwan and his family were evacuated to Mumbai on an Indian Air Force plane in October. And all was well that ended well.

Anis Sajan: Salesman of the Year

Anis says the biggest blessing of his life awaited him in Mumbai upon his return. “I got a job as a salesman with Eureka Forbes, a multinational company that provides water purifiers, among other products. At the job interview, I was promised a salary of Rs1,500, and for every purifier I would sell, I could get a commission of Rs200. It sounded like a great deal to me because I believed that there was no limit to my making money with such an arrangement.”

The upscale, sea-facing Worli in Mumbai was the first area where Anis Sajan was assigned to sell water purifiers for Eureka Forbes Image Credit: For representational purpose only

As luck would have it, Anis was assigned Mumbai’s upmarket Worli area to make his sales. His first visit was to a multi-storey building called Panchratna. Having obtained entry, he struck a deal at the very first flat he visited. “A nice lady opened the door and allowed me in as I explained my purpose of the visit. I convinced her of the need for a water purifier and managed to clinch my first sale. I couldn’t believe I had done it so easily,” he recalls.

'Art of rejection'

But life is an unsparing teacher. When Anis went on his rounds with the same gusto on Day 2 and the rest of the week, he was in for a rude surprise. “I must have rung at least a hundred doorbells. While some residents never answered them, others banged the door on my face. In a few buildings, the watchmen would not even let me past the gate. ”

I must have rung at least a hundred doorbells. While some residents never answered them, others banged the door on my face. In a few buildings, the watchmen would not even let me past the gate.

- Anis Sajan

The experience was invaluable. As Anis points out, it taught him the “art of rejection”. He learnt early on that a salesman had to be a tough cookie and he needed to up his game.

Armed now with a smart tie and some tricks up his sleeve, he began to sweet-talk the janitors at the posh buildings of Worli. Although a non-smoker himself, he made it a point to carry cigarettes with him so he could offer them to the watchmen. A conversation over a smoke was an instant ice-breaker.

Anis Sajan worked for 11 months at Eureka Forbes in Mumbai. According to him, it was this stint at the company that made him a hardcore salesman. Image Credit: Supplied
Anis Sajan credits his success today to his family and the lessons he learnt right from his childhood days Image Credit: Supplied

“With this new strategy, I managed to get access to the buildings. One day, I sold as many as 12 purifiers. I had started from the topmost (24th) floor of a building and worked my way down. I kept at it from 10am to 7pm.”

A star is born

There was no looking back since. When his jurisdiction changed to Bandra from Worli, Anis says he had the privilege of selling a water purifier to Bollywood superstar Sanjay Dutt too. “I was outside his building trying to convince the watchman to let me in when the actor happened to step out and call me in. It didn’t take much persuasion to get him to buy a water purifier.”

Sanjay Dutt
Bollywood superstar Sanjay Dutt was Anis Sajan's first celebrity customer in Mumbai Image Credit: File photo

Having netted a celebrity customer, Anis became a star in his own right at the company. The ultimate feather in the cap, however, was added when he managed to sell 15 pieces to one customer after agreeing to cater to a customer who had made a telephonic enquiry. “Usually with such customers, the sale is recorded under the corporate account, not the individual’s sales account. So no one in the company was willing to cater to those who called the office. But I got lucky with this customer who made an enquiry for one piece, but placed 14 other orders. While the first order went to the corporate account, the rest came to my individual account. So I made a killing.”

The impact of this killer sale earned Anis much respect. Subsequently, the receptionist at the firm would give him all the leads. “As a token of appreciation, I remember buying her some chocolate and flowers,” he says.

Anis credits Eureka Forbes for making him the hard-core salesman that he is. “My rounds of Worli and Bandra toughened me and the 11 months I spent with the firm provided me with solid training.”

Yeh hai Dubai, meri jaan

By now, Rizwan had moved to Dubai where he was running an indenting business. The big brother wanted to Anis to join him. “Sensing my reluctance, he assured me that I would like Dubai. So I took a plane and landed here on November 12, 1992.”

Dubai Airport 1980s and 1990s
Anis Sajan arrived in Dubai on November 12, 1992 Image Credit: File photo

Anis says his very first impression of Dubai was good as the immigration officer at Dubai International Airport spoke to him in Hindi. “Kaise hai (How are you)? Those two words were enough to make me feel at home. And no one knows me better than my brother who then took me straight to Kamat restaurant in Bur Dubai from the airport. When I looked at the many Indians around in the restaurant, I felt even more comfortable.”

Brothers in arms: Anis Sajan says he is ever grateful to his brother and mentor Rizwan Sajan. Image Credit: Supplied

So far so good, the task of figuring out what he could do in Dubai remained. Anis recalls: “Rizwan asked me if I had anything in mind. I was candid and said I wanted to start something on my own. He was very understanding and suggested that I go around the markets and gather some ideas. I took his advice and with confidence, even approached several traders. I concluded from my rounds that there was a market for toilet jet sprays (shattaf). When I told my brother as much, he was convinced and set up a company – Vigour Trading - through which we ordered a container of sprays from Taiwan.”

The response to the jet sprays was way beyond what Anis expected and the company made brisk sales, adding more products to the menu over the next four years. In 1996, a new sponsor necessitated a change in the name of the company. “We had zeroed in on a few titles. Al Danube, which was one of them, was approved by the authorities.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Danube Group: At a glance
Danube Group is a Dubai-based diversified business conglomerate.
Interests: Building materials, home décor and real estate development.
Established: In 1993 by founder and chairman Rizwan Sajan.
Annual turnover: $1.3 billion (Dh5 billion) in 2019.
Group’s flagship company: Danube Building Materials FZCO. Supplies quality building materials in GCC. Provides over 25,000 products in stock and in-house services across the Middle East region and India.
Head offices: In JAFZA with logistics facilities across the region which amounts to 5 million square feet and includes kiln drying facility, factory and warehouses of the group.
Danube Properties: Has a portfolio 6,194 units in 14 projects, worth Dh4.5 billion. It has delivered seven out of the 14 projects in six years.
Employees: 4,500 plus people working across strategic locations across GCC and India.

Part 2 of Anis Sajan's story to follow tomorrow:

Going strong - Indian businessman in Dubai marks 25 th wedding anniversary with ‘Match No.39’