In a candid chat with Real Life Heroes – by Manvi, Dubai based Indian billionaire, a dynamic leader heading the Al Adil Trading groups, Dr. Dhananjay Datar talks about self-reliance, honesty and hard work. From selling phenyl and instant mixes door-to-door in Mumbai’s suburbs to establishing a chain of 44 spacious super stores spread across the Gulf, two spice factories, two flour mills and an import-export company, the King of Spice, Dr. Datar’s story is a perfect example of unbounded determination.
Tell me about your beginnings, your early life and childhood.
I was born in a small religious town named Shegaon in the Varhad region of Maharashtra. My father worked at the Indian Air Force (IAF) as a Corporal. I spent a couple of initial years with my parents at Patiala and Mumbai but was later sent to live with my maternal grandparents. There I took my primary education from a zilla parishad school. Poverty taught me frugality, simplicity and instilled in me a spirit to struggle against all odds.
All my school life, I remained an average student, could hardly secure sufficient marks to get promoted to higher standards. I was fond of playing many games, but it didn’t transform into acquiring any sports skill. Besides, average performance in extra-curricular was of no good either. But the passion for ‘selling stuff’ unexpectedly culminated in me. I used to sell tamarinds to homemakers and schoolchildren for some time. I would sell phenyl and instant mixes door to door in the Mumbai suburbs in my college days.
You moved to Dubai at the age of 20. How did this transition happen? Was your father based out of Dubai?
After retiring from IAF, my father, Mahadev Datar, joined Air India and served there for a couple of years. Later he got an opportunity to work for a British company in UAE and moved to Dubai. At a tender age, I credulously dreamt of instant fortune and wealth. Hence, I was eager to go to Dubai for any job which would offer me a handsome salary. But the wheels of fortune are strange to understand. Instead of me, my father got the opportunity to set up a small grocery shop in a rented space to cater to the daily needs of the Indian community settled in UAE. When the shop started fetching a good response, he sought my assistance and called me to help him. I lost no second, left for Dubai and joined him. This is how the transition happened.
To be able to build your business to this level, I am sure you must have struggled a lot. Would you like to talk about some of your toughest personal and professional challenges?
In the very first year, our business suffered a huge loss. In haste to expand it, we provided goods to resellers, and they didn’t pay the dues on time. With no reserves to cover, we thought of winding up the business. But my mother, Shashikala, a woman of invincible confidence, sold her jewellery and raised the money. She told us, “Time changes. Do not take the foot back, which you have put it forward.” This incident transformed and inspired me to take entrepreneurship seriously and with determination. I started devoting 16 hours a day to it and ate whatever was available.
Even personally, I have not got on the other side of the shore unscathed. I have nearly escaped death four times, been a patient of mental depression too. The last time, I prayed to God to give me a second chance and promised no negligence on health grounds because it is the most precious wealth in life.
What is it about your business that is different and unique?
I always follow the Mantra of ‘Hard work-Determination-Honesty-Customer Service-Courtesy’. This has turned me from a small shopkeeper into the Masala King of Dubai. To succeed in business and to progress consistently, you have to change, improve and innovate – be it your products or services. For instance, we have launched different types of special Atta (wheat flour). Each type is made from a diverse variety of wheat grown and preferred by that particular region’s customers. Twenty-five years ago, we ran our shops in the same old style where the customers ask for products, and the salesperson on the counter delivers them. Over time, I understood a customer’s mind – that they prefer picking up the products on their own. Then I modernized our shops into comfortable superstores. Likewise, I paid attention to the development of new products, implemented state-of-the-art packaging technology and international quality norms to make the products hygienic and safe.
How difficult or easy was it for you to establish your business in a middle-eastern market? Would you like to talk about some key business lessons?
It was not difficult at all to establish or expand our business here in UAE. This great country is a global business hub and gateway to essential markets on different continents. The access is easy, and the most critical aspect is that this land’s policies and laws are friendlier and encouraging for every class of entrepreneurs.
You have 44 stores today. To what do you owe your success?
I owe my success to my parents and to all those people who gave me business advise from time to time.
I am grateful to my father, who carved a skilled businessman out of me. When he retired and handed the business over to me, I added a couple of shops with bank loans. At that time, a small hotelier taught me the technique of saving and the power of multiplication. He had a habit of drawing two notes of 100 dirhams from his daily earnings and keeping them in two separate boxes. At the end of the month, he would use the savings from one box to meet the business expenditure and the other part for reinvestment. I followed his example and started saving 500 Dirham daily from my income, continued this practice for years and kept on opening new stores from the savings alone, which resulted in a chain of 44 stores across the Gulf countries today. I also added two hi-tech spice factories, two modern flour mills, and an import-export company in due course of time. Thus, we created the company Al Adil Trading from a tiny grocery shop, which turned into an international business group.
Can you talk about one moment in your life when you felt humbled by achieving so much or coming so far? Do you ever regret anything?
I got my first award for business excellence in 2003. It was quite a surprise for me. Throughout my life, I had never got any prize or even an appreciation gift for anything. I was average in–academics, sports, extracurricular activities. Besides, I had joined the profession of a shopkeeper for which a prize was beyond imagination. By God’s grace, I was able to turn my small business into a thriving retail company.
Once, Dubai Duty-Free prepared a list of their best suppliers based on excellence, performance, consistency and commitment to business – and a total of 52 suppliers were shortlisted. Our Al Adil Trading Company achieved the best ranking in the list for which I was honoured with an award and a memento at the hands of HH Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum.
When the awards were being conferred, the crowd was sparse behind me in the auditorium, making me nervous. Finally, when my name was announced, I convinced myself that the best performance award is always conferred at the end of any function. I climbed the stage enthusiastically and received the award with pride. When I looked, the auditorium was fully occupied, and the crowd was clapping and cheering for me. I still enjoy my life and business with the same positive thought – ‘Better late than never.’
I am a content man, grateful to God for all that I have achieved. So, I don’t have any regrets.
How is your daily routine like? Where do you take your daily motivation from?
I wake up early in the morning and pray to God. Then I do some Yoga exercise with my wife. The stretching and breathing exercises help me stay fit. In the evening, I spend time with my family and meditate before going to bed. I try to maintain a healthy body-soul balance and work-life balance.
What legacy would you wish to pass on to your children?
My mother made me a compassionate philanthropist, and my father an honest and wise entrepreneur. I succeeded in life and business under their tutelage and imbibed courage, self-confidence, perseverance, humility and commitment in me. I want to pass on the same legacy to my children.
Why Dubai? Why not set up 44 stores in India? Do you ever look to expand beyond GCC region?
Had my father established his business in India first, I indeed would have expanded it. But I got opportunities for expansion in the GCC region rapidly and opened 44 superstores in various gulf countries. In future, we will surely expand our chain of stores beyond the GCC region.