Rule number one: money does not always beget money. Almost all the big business owners on the Forbes Middle East’s Top 10 Indian Owners list started small – rags to riches is the cliché usually used to describe their journey. The number one on this list, MA Yusuffali, Managing Director of LuLu Group International, sailed penniless to the Middle East on a boat in 1973 to work at his uncle’s distribution business. Today he is No. 913 on Forbes’ list of world billionaires with an estimated $2 billion (about Dh7.3 billion) fortune.

The chairman of the Landmark group, Micky (Mukesh) Jagtiani, also started out in 1973 with a single store stocking childcare products in Bahrain, a last-ditch effort to survive with the $6,000 that his family had left him. Today he’s 250 on the Forbes’ list and worth $5.9 billion.

The rest of the billionaires and millionaires on the list all came up in a similar manner. At number three, Bavaguthu Raghuram Shetty (better known as BR Shetty), CEO of NMC Healthcare and managing director and CEO of money transfer agency UAE Exchange, is 1,594 on the billionaires’ list with a fortune of $997 million. He worked in Abu Dhabi as a pharmaceutical salesman when he landed there in 1973 – seemingly the magic year for self-made business magnates in the Middle East. The rest on the list – Sunny Varkey, Gems Education chairman, at number four, real-estate giant Sobha Group chairman PNC Menon at number eight, or Harshad Ramniklal Mehta, diamantaire and chairman of Rosy Blue group, at number nine – all started in near-identitical situations.

In 1980 Sunny Varkey took over the school his parents started in Dubai, Our Own English High School, and expanded it to one of the largest operators of private schools in the world with a network of 124 schools over the Middle East, Africa, Europe, China, and India. Bill Clinton is the honorary chairman of his charity, the Varkey Gems Foundation, and he also has a consultancy that advises governments and non-profit organisations. He is estimated to be worth $1.4 billion today by Forbes Middle East. He is also said to have done everything from laying bricks for school buildings to driving the school bus initially.

PNC Menon’s life fits the rags-to-riches cliché: his father died when he was 10, he couldn’t afford to complete his college education and moved from his native Kerala in India to Oman with just Rs50 (about Dh3) in his pocket. Today his fortune is estimated to be around $1 billion.

Harshad R Mehta too dreamed big, possibly because he had to share a small one-room house with 11 other family members in Mumbai. That dream took shape when as a teenager he visited the palatial house of a prosperous relative. “Their lifestyle made me feel that if anyone wanted to have this kind of life, he had to have lots of money,” he said in an interview with Indian publication Chitralekha. “Had I not thought of becoming rich at that moment, I would not have become what I am today.” His Rosy Blue group is one of the largest polished diamond and finished jewellery manufacturing companies in the world.

What is it about these men that led them to add all those zeroes to their bank account?

If there is one thing to be learned from the lives of these successful men, it is that you won’t go anywhere with the wrong attitude. You also need a few abilities to make the most of your potential.

“Cliché or not, as they say there are no shortcuts to success,” says Yusuffali. “I am continuously learning. [The most important talent would be] recruiting and retaining good talent. It goes without saying that an honest and transparent approach is most essential.”

He advises against “trying to find quick fixes, shortcuts and jumping into new markets/business without proper due diligence. Never get into a business purely because someone else has made money.”

“Any decision becomes a mistake only after the results are known,” says BR Shetty. “Therefore, don’t worry about mistakes, but take precautions.”

Shetty’s list of to-dos is simple: “Your employees and associates depend on you. In the face of adversity, always stand by them.”

Don’t be afraid to stand up for your product. “You are the best salesperson for your product or service,” he says. “Never miss an opportunity to show off your product.”The confidence-boosting advice comes with a rider: “Success should never go to your head, always be down-to-earth.” BR Shetty has three tips for budding entrepreneurs. “Be sustainable and scalable,” he advises. “Stay true to your conscience. And most importantly, have confidence and faith in your dreams.”

This may be another cliché, but PNC Menon sets great store by it. “Be passionate about the domain you are entering so you can give it your best,” is his top tip. Micky Jagtiani agrees.

“Passion and hard work are both important for success,” he says, “[but first] believe in yourself.” Also do a reality check. “Make sure you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur as some people are better off being professionals in the field of their choice,” says Menon. “Make sure you understand the financial and capital requirements of any business you undertake. Focus totally on the quality of your product.”

Knowing the right time to launch is also paramount. “I think that both as people and entrepreneurs there are some key things that hold us back from reaching our full potential,” says Micky Jagtiani, who lost everything – family and money – before he could fight back and work his way up to the top. “Don’t wait for the right moment, don’t make your dreams wait another day. Do it now.”

He should know. He dropped out of college in London, drove cabs and cleaned hotel rooms to survive, eventually moving back with his family in Bahrain in 1972. More misfortune followed. After his brother Mahesh succumbed to leukaemia, his father passed away within months. His mother died soon after. At 21 Micky was left penniless and an orphan. He wanted to return to India, but felt compelled to complete the task his brother had initiated – starting a shop for which he’d already paid the lease. With the $6,000 legacy that he’d been left by the family, he stocked the shop with baby care items and portentously named it Babyshop. He’s never looked back since.

Obviously, a team is necessary to translate your dreams into success. “You can’t achieve everything alone. Trust in people, share your vision, and work together,” says Micky.

MA Yusuffali pays a lot of attention to his core team, and it obviously has stood him in good stead. The attrition rate of key senior staff at LuLu is said to be just 1 per cent.

“I believe in delegating powers to my people,” he once said in an interview with NDTV Arabia. “They will be accountable and responsible. If I take everything in my hand, the institution cannot work, so I strongly believe in my people, my colleagues. They run the show, because they 
are responsible.”

The managing director of construction giant ETA Star Ascon group, Syed Salahuddin – joint number five on the list – feels that the right team is key. “The culture in our company is that every staffer owns the company,” he said in the same interview. “We are all one big family, and we all own it. We were the first company in the 1970s in the UAE to look on our employees as careerists. Before that everybody looked on their staff as temporary – here for two or three years before returning to their home country. We used to hire people just graduating from school and groom them in their jobs, and they have stayed on until their retirement. That’s loyalty for you. I created a family atmosphere, and rather than being called MD of the company I’d rather be called kaka, the big brother.”

The group makes a practice of employing families. “When a person retires, we see that a son or a daughter is employed in his place,” said Salahuddin. “We welcome families here. This may lead to a little inefficiency or nepotism in the short term, but I am more bothered about getting people who are concerned about the company. Inefficiency 
can be corrected, but concern cannot be bought.”

A fear of failure keeps many entrepreneurs from walking new paths. Which is why the list of billionaires remains short. “Success comes through rapidly fixing our mistakes rather than getting things right first time,” says Shetty.

“Learn to accept failure,” says Jagtiani. “It teaches you a lot more than success ever will.”

PNC Menon agrees. “You have to have the vision and the ability to see the unknown,” he says, about getting around failure. “And then to grasp the opportunity hiding in the corner.” He should know. His Sobha Group entered the UAE real-estate market just barely before the boom went into decline. Many of their plans had to be put on hold. Now, the Sobha Group is again on the forefront with its real-estate projects while bigger companies have bitten the dust.

Yusuffali began his foray into the retail sector in the UAE in 1995 when the Carrefour chain (then known as Continental) made its entry. “Even if there’s an economic crisis, people need to eat,” he said in an interview then. “That’s why we cater to the basic needs of the people, and not the luxury segment.”

It was also the reason his company was one of the few to expand during the global economic downturn.

“Static thinking does not work,” says PNC Menon. “Entrepreneurs need to have the ability to think dynamically in this ever-changing business and consumer environment.”

Construction magnate and chairman of the RP group based in Bahrain, Ravi Pillai came from a farming community in Kerala, India. “There were no businessmen in our family,” he said in an interview. “But even while I was young I found that farming yielded little returns.” So, Ravi decided to become an entrepreneur and provide jobs to others. And he did it while still in college by starting a local finance company with borrowed money. 
“I started a chit [savings] fund with Rs100,000, and made a monthly profit of Rs20,000,” he said. “But 
I didn’t use the money to splurge or enjoy; I reinvested it in my company.”

After graduating Ravi could have joined the best of institutions to study business administration. But he chose to go to a local college, enrolling in evening classes so as to concentrate on his business. And when the construction business started booming in Kerala, he started a company in the sector. And when he had labour problems, he decided to move to Saudi Arabia and first accumulated capital through trading before launching into the construction business. Today his group is spread across 15 cities in seven countries. He ranks 1,026 on the Forbes Global list with a personal fortune of $2 billion, and is number 10 on the Top Indian Owners list.

Micky Jagtiani underwrites the LIFE Trust that funds the education of more than 100,000 children in schools in the slum areas in India, and is also the main benefactor for several orphanages. He has said that when he goes to India, he sleeps on the floor in these orphanages because it helps to keep him grounded.

MA Yusuffali is a well-respected philanthropist too. A “sizeable portion of the LuLu group’s profits” goes to various CSR activities and charitable initiatives both in the UAE and India, along with poverty eradication programmes in Africa and education in Palestine, as well as contributing to philanthropic organisation Dubai Cares.

“You can’t just make profit and keep [it for yourself],” he’s said. “Only if water [money] flows out, will more water come in.”

PNC Menon established Sobha Heritage and Sobha Academy in 2006 to provide education and social welfare to around 2,500 families in two villages in India – Vadakkenchery and Kizhakkenchery.

The Dodsal Group’s chairman Rajen Kilachand, number seven on the list, is responsible for the growth of the Dodsal Group from a $200 million company to a multibillion dollar organisation. “I believe a gifted life such as the one I have been blessed with needs to be lived with full observance to ‘dharma,’ which is Sanskrit for the karmic obligation of a human soul to participate morally and ethically on the path of duty, which brings wellness to humanity,” he said. “And so, I live this life to the fullest, whether it is crossing new frontiers in business, or path-breaking sociocultural initiatives; hosting annual kite festivals in Gujarat, India, to celebrate my family’s passion and my own expertise in this unique sport; producing short films and books; performing in theatre; supporting musical events around the world, including the New Orleans Jazz Festival; or indulging my interests in subjects as varied as astrophysics and international relations.” He was also the first Indian to extend generous support 
to Dubai Cares.

Even with their billions, these tycoons work 12- to 14-hour days. “By the grace of Almighty I have accomplished much more than I had ever dreamed, so materialistically I don’t have any so-called dreams left,” says Yusuffali, 59. “But yes I would love to see my LuLu brand expanding and opening new stores in all major locations in the Mena and Asia region. But by far, what I consider as my greatest achievement is the fact that I have been instrumental in giving employment to more than 45,000 people (past and present).”

Mehta has formally retired at 67, but is even more active now than when he was establishing his company. “I have moved out of an active role in business, which I leave to my son now, and have begun to focus completely on social activities,” he says. “My goal is to help good NGOs become strong and sustainable. I hope I can make a difference in the next two to three years and am able to look back with satisfaction.”

Even at 61, Jagtiani is always looking for new fields to expand into. It’s been less than a year since he launched a sports goods retail arm, SportsOne, but he is already looking ahead into the future. “I am very fortunate that so many of my dreams have become a reality,” he says. “But like everyone else, I believe I have realised only part of my potential, even though I have achieved more than most and worked hard and passionately to achieve it.”

After health care and money exchanges, Shetty, 72, is already working on his next dream: education. “I aim to set up a world-class medical school in the UAE. I believe that when the vision is of such magnitude, we shouldn’t be looking at the time taken. Instead, we should focus on delivering the best, no matter what it takes.”

At 65, PNC Menon says he’s still dreaming. “I began my business journey in my early 20s taking my first steps towards my ultimate dream of creating a global company that changes the way people perceive quality, operating worldwide in major international cities,” he says. “I am still working on my dream and whilst I have had success along the way, I am far from completely achieving it.”

MD, Lulu Group International

Secret of success

Though it may sound a cliché, honesty and quick decision-making coupled with a core team of loyal colleagues.

Work mantra

Look out for opportunities, invest in loyal and dedicated human resource who can be empowered to lead different visions and missions.

Is there a place for emotions in business?

Emotions do play a big role in whatever I do. Obviously, I would not make a business decision purely based on emotions, but when it comes to dealing with my staff and colleagues, yes emotions do come into play. I think that is what makes a good organisation a great place to work for or to do business with.

Your role models

I hail from a traditional business family and I learnt my initial business skills from my grandfather. It is he who taught me the value of honesty, humility and leadership qualities.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

One does miss out on family and social time due to the hectic schedules, but over the years I have always made it a point to spend as much time as possible with my family. Of course, my wife has been completely in charge of the home front and that has been a big support. Now I sometimes try to combine my business trips with my family vacations.

Describe yourself in a sentence

A simple and humble guy who came in search of new opportunities to the UAE and achieved a few successes thanks to hard work, dedication and a loyal team.

Does luck play a part in your success?

Of course luck surely has played its role in whatever I have achieved. I think luck is nothing but the blessings of the Almighty, without which no one can achieve anything in life.

Chairman, Landmark Group

Secret of success

Strong belief in people, an ability to share my dream and have them believe it.

Work mantra

Carefully listen, constantly adapt, always deliver.

Is there a place for emotions in business?

Yes. Business is about people and life. So how can it be only about the head, and not the heart?

Your role models

Gautam Buddha for life, and Sam Walton in retail – they have both inspired me greatly.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

In the last year, I have cut down on my work schedule, although I go to the office daily. My family is very important to me. I spend a lot of time at home with my wife, my kids and am now a grandfather, a role I am starting to enjoy. I love watching movies, especially inspirational ones, and must watch a movie every day.

Does luck play a part in your success?

Yes, a great part, but one cannot measure these things.

CEO, NMC Healthcare

Secret of success

I believe perseverance and tenacity have led me on the path to success. My optimism about the future and a service-oriented approach towards the society have made me what I am today.

Work mantra

Put every particle of your being into the effort, and the result will take care of itself. It is this belief that has kept me going. And for me, nothing is greater than the joy of giving back to society.

Is there a place for emotions in business?

Starting your own business requires the utmost commitment and perhaps even sacrifices from you and your close family members. Therefore, it is a very emotional decision as well.

Who are your role models?

I deeply admire Indian politician Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for their work ethics and service mindedness. I am inspired by the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan for his vision and his teachings that have created a miracle called the UAE.

The leadership of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, is motivating, and his efforts to transform Dubai into the best city in the world for living, are truly commendable. His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, with his visionary leadership has positively influenced me.

Their leadership has transformed a desert land into an ocean of opportunity by providing a stable, secure, safe and business-friendly environment to millions of residents from 200 countries, making the UAE the most cosmopolitan country in the world today.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I enjoy doing what I do every day, so it does not really seem to tire me. When I am not at work, I love to spend time with my family. My wife has been very understanding; she encourages and supports me in all my endeavours.

Describe yourself in a sentence

I would like to be remembered as a good man, who did his utmost to make a positive difference in people’s lives. I strive to accomplish it every day.

Does luck play a part in your success?

Yes, luck does play an important role in everyone’s life. But luck is just the cherry on the cake. It works for those who are ready to work hard with dedication, loyalty and integrity. For luck to work in your favour, always dream big.

Chairman, Sobha Group

Secret of success

That’s easy. My uncompromising focus on quality.

Work mantra

Passionately working every day to deliver quality without shortcuts.

Is there place for emotions in business?

Doing business is all about emotions; businesses thrive on them. Passion is an emotion. Our motto is Passion at Work.

Your role models

I set very high expectations for myself and many times I feel that I fall short of my own expectations. Therefore, comparing myself to someone else is out of the question.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

When you love what you do this isn’t an issue. But outside work I like spending time with my family. I enjoy spending time with my grandchildren. I rely on early morning gym sessions to ensure I stay healthy, and that I have a productive day in the office.

Describe yourself in a sentence

I am an extremely detail-oriented person with an uncompromising eye for quality.

Does luck play a part in your success?

Luck plays an important part in one’s success. However, making the most of every opportunity that luck brings you only comes through hard work.

Chairman, Rosy Blue Group

Secret of success

Do lots of homework before you start anything. Well-prepared is half the battle won.

Work mantra

Do not start anything until you understand it well and prepare for it. When things go wrong, which they sometimes do, don’t blame anyone else.

Who are your role models?

Myself and my hard work.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

By giving quality time to both family and business.

Describe yourself in a sentence

I am excited when I take on challenges.

Does luck play a part in your success?

Yes, maybe 10 per cent. I think we must credit circumstances and other people too in our success to a small extent.