He may have made Number 7 in the Forbes list of Top 100 Indian leaders in the UAE, but success certainly hasn’t changed Rizwan Sajan, chairman and founder of the Danube Group. Yes, he’s wearing a sharp suit, pink silk tie and no doubt can see his reflection in his highly polished shoes. But follow him to the parking lot outside his Jebel Ali Free Zone office and there’s a new black Rolls Royce Phantom collecting dust.
It was a birthday gift from Rizwan’s brother Anees, Danube group managing director, two years ago. “I’ve hardly used it,” he admits. “It hasn’t clocked up more than 7,000 kilometres! How can I use it for the regular commute? Maybe swanky functions… otherwise, I prefer my Range Rover that I drive myself.”
No chauffer-driven luxury for the man who made his way up from the streets, where he found himself after losing his entire fortune during Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991.
“It’s very important that you remember where you started out,” says the genial Rizwan. “I began here in Dubai in 1991 with nothing in my pockets. And look at us now! So, if it is possible for me to do it, it is possible for anyone.” And while he may be neglecting that Roller, the same can’t be true of business. Last year the Danube group reported an annual turnover of Dh1.5 billion.
So, what’s his secret? “In any business if you want to grow, you need to delegate,” says Rizwan. “If you don’t learn to do that you will never be successful.”
It’s hard to believe that the Danube group – with 38 offices spread across the Middle East, India and China, with 1,800 employees, and a turnover that is expected to reach $1billion by the end of the year – was built on this simple bit of truism.
But Rizwan, 51, is deadly serious.
“Look at my table,” he exclaims. “It only has today’s official papers that I have to approve and return. Otherwise, nobody comes to me for any day-to-day activity. We have 20 departments, with 40 managers. Everybody’s been empowered to take their own decisions. Unless there is some strategic decision to be taken I don’t interfere. Even buying and selling – millions of dollars worth of goods are sold every day – are all done at my staff’s discretion.”
So, what’s the catch? “Well, the reports come to me,” he smiles. “Only if there is a discrepancy do I question them.”
So, there it is: Rizwan’s lesson on how to make a billion. Trust. Find the right people and then trust – and empower – them to do the work.
The only other important thing is training them. “Most of my staff have risen up from the ranks,” says Rizwan. “I have branch managers who have worked for us as forklift operators. There is a branch manager in a Qatar office, who started out as a storekeeper. Now he is the country manager of my Qatar operations.
“So, it is all due to the training they receive at every stage. We have to figure out if the person has the quality to become a manager, and if he’s hardworking and has integrity.”
Rizwan has even employed a person whose only job is to spot such talent within the organisation. “There is one guy, Sameer – his job is to go to different stores and offices, talk to the storekeepers and other staff and create a list of three or four people who he feels should move up the ladder,” says Rizwan.
“In our organisation a helper becomes a supervisor, from supervisor to assistant store sales person and so on. So, my managers have been through the grind. They can’t go wrong. They know every little thing about their department.
“Some of them might lack a formal education and a degree, but they are more important to me than any high-flying MBA in the market.”
Surprisingly, for a self-made man, Rizwan does not place too high a premium on loyalty. “It’s highly overrated,” he says. “You can’t expect a person to be 100 per cent loyal. What is important is if you give the person what he deserves and a little more, you can expect a certain amount of loyalty.
“That said, our attrition levels are very low, far below the industry standards.”
One thing Rizwan keeps emphasising is the need to take risks. “I started with no money in my pocket, but I always took, and still take, calculated risks,” he says.
He goes on to narrate the story of how he built up the Danube group to illustrate it. “We realised in the last five years that there is a huge demand for retail stores – a lot of people who had been renting earlier started owning their houses,” he says. “If you own a house you don’t mind spending on it. That’s when I realised there was a big scope for a retail building materials store. And that’s why we came up with the Buildmart concept in 2007. But by the time we opened the first store it was 2009, and the global market was not in the best shape. I was in two minds about it, but as I had already invested a lot of money in it we decided to go ahead in Ras Al Khaimah, and it proved to be very successful. And we have never stopped expanding since.”
Over the past five years, the business has transformed. “The new retail arm we’ve started, the property wing, the Cha Cha Chai tea chain… the journey keeps on going,” he says. “Five years ago we had 15 stores, we now have 40. We’re expanding year after year. We are planning a massive 40,000-sq ft store in Sharjah, another as big is coming up in Oman, and a 55,000-sq ft one in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Negotiations are on for one more store on Shaikh Zayed Road, and one in Qatar.”
Even as he is expanding, he continues to dream big. But dreams alone are not enough, he admits, you have to work at it. “I always knew I was going to be a businessman. It was more than a dream, it was a calling and I was able to recognise my talent and put it to good use. It’s not something everybody can do.”
He pauses, deliberates for a moment and then says definitely: “Apart from realising my dreams I also work on ideas that are brought to me by others. If someone comes to me with an idea and I like it, I implement it immediately.
“For instance, the idea for opening the Cha Cha Chai store – a tea shop franchise – came from my marketing manager Chanchal Samantha. It has been quite successful. Now my son Adel, director of Danube Buildmart, has come up with a franchise of a very popular European apparel brand, and even though we’ve never ventured into that sector before, I’ve OK’d it because he presented a very convincing case.”
His most successful diversion has been his foray into real estate. “When I had an idea to start a property wing, we did a quick feasibility study, and we plunged in,” he says.
When he gets going, it’s difficult to stop this billionaire businessman. “I don’t think I can ever stop dreaming, or starting a new business venture.”
Rizwan’s advice to entrepreneurs is to keep churning out ideas and concentrate on their core competencies instead of focusing on the entire project. “I mostly have short-term goals, which I set out to achieve and move on,” he explains.
But even Rizwan can be cautious, as he proved by not getting into the property market during the boom in 2006. “Though the property business had been on my mind for the past 10 years, and most of my friends in business were into it, I decided to wait and watch.”
But he believes the time is now ripe to reap the benefits of the real estate market.
Even though his first real estate project Dreamz was a sell-out on announcement, Rizwan is still proceeding very cautiously. He has no plans to plunge right in, nor does he have any grandiose ideas of becoming the number one in the industry.
“The fundamentals of my property business are very strong,” he says. “I’ll do one project at a time, buy the land, sell the project and only then move forward. Selling will not be a problem for us, for I will always offer a property that is below the market price and give better value, with a luxury quotient that you don’t pay for.
“That’s why the first project, the $136m Dreamz by Danube, which consists of 171 three- and four-bedroom townhouses in the most sought after Al Furjan Community, sold like hot cakes within three hours of launching it! Even I didn’t expect that response.
“Our next project in Studio City with apartment buildings, which will be announced in November, will be at unbelievable prices and I am sure this will be sold out too.”
Probe him again for the secret of his success and the man offers a simple answer. “Hard work, and passion,” he grins. “Even if I am with my wife Samra – who’s a housewife – my mind is working out some problem at work! That’s my dedication.”
The other thing is talent, he insists, which is crucial to be an unique businessperson. “Like the famous Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar who has an inborn talent to play even the most difficult bowler, there are a few lucky businessmen like me who are blessed in every situation that confronts us,” he says. “We are able to work it out and manouevre it to our advantage.”
He admits that he is “not an MBA nor was I born with a silver spoon in my mouth. But in a day if I take 10 business decisions I will get at least eight right because of the inborn gift – the talent to do business – in me.”
His work mantra is just that: “Work, work, work! There are no shortcuts.”
Rizwan’s advice to budding entrepreneurs is to focus on their strengths. “If you are a salesman, look for something that has a market and you can sell. If you are an engineer, create something. Don’t attempt something you are not cut out for,” he says. He advises baby steps before taking the plunge. “Dubai is a very competitive market, it is not easy to survive here,” he says. “So I’d advise them to work for somebody, learn all about the business that they want to launch before starting on their own.”
Beyond all that, he urges taking a calculated risk, and even if you fail don’t be shy of going back to work for someone. For Rizwan, every day is a learning process.
“If you make a mistake, admit it and move on,” he says. “When I started my store in Bur Dubai I was sure it would do very well. But it just didn’t warrant such a large space, so we are closing it now.”
His last piece of advice he says is the most important: “Always deal with integrity.”
For Rizwan, work-life balance is as essential as business sense. “I get up by 7 am, swim for about half an hour, 15 minutes of yoga, am in my office by 10am. I switch off by 7pm,” he says.
“I usually have an official function to attend most evenings. Most weekend evenings we party. Fridays are my family day, spent with my wife. But I mostly sleep, so she complains it’s as good as not having me there! Saturdays I focus on my new ventures or review the businesses and take decisions.”
His friends in business say that part of the reason for Rizwan’s success is his very sociable nature. In spite of all the work he puts in, Rizwan maintains a huge circle of friends. “I am very sociable, though my friends’ circle has whittled down to around 50 over the years!” he says. “My wife is amazed I am able to keep going, even partying up to 3am and being in the office by 10am. I can, so I keep on, though I try to avoid parties on weekdays.”
He also has an altruistic streak in him. He runs the Danube Welfare Centre, which teaches English and basic etiquette to blue collar workers who want to get ahead. “It is doing well, we have trained almost 1,000 people so far,” he says. “We have tied up with the RTA, who also send their staff to learn at our centre. The idea is not only to teach them, but also to help them advance in their careers. We are looking at opening a centre in Abu Dhabi too.”
So what would he say is the most important part of success? He pauses to think. “I would say luck plays a very important part in my success. My wife has been my lucky charm. That’s why I try to keep her happy always! I would say I am very lucky – otherwise I wouldn’t be here in Dubai after I lost everything.”