Early days of Dubai
There was a time when Dubai was a town half-a-kilometre long and divided into two parts on both sides of the creek - Bur Dubai and Deira.
“Since there was no telephone, if you had to contact someone, you had to go personally. And while going, you could see the whole town on both sides of the road along the same half kilometre distance. You met almost everyone every day of the month,” says Dr Ram Buxani, Chairman, ITL Cosmos Group, whose office is still located in the down-town area. Dubai’s success story started here. Ram Buxani - not a Ph.D at the time - relocated to Dubai in those days, almost six decades ago in 1959.
From India to settling in Dubai
Ram Buxani was born in the city of Hyderabad. He was only five when the double tragedy of his father’s demise and India’s partition struck him. Along with his young mother Ishwaribai and four siblings, they left their home to move to Ahmedabad, then Chennai and finally settled in Vadodara, India. All in the short span of less than a year.
Ram experienced plenty of challenges as a child; working for INR 75 (AED 4.5 or SGDs 1.6) per month to make ends meet as a 15-year-old, having his older brother move to Hong Kong to earn money, his mother having to sell her jewellery to get his elder sister married and his grand-mother ruing her life living in a rented house in a country which was not her own. All this solidified his resolve to make a mark. “In life, challenges are inevitable. But when you face challenges, you change, and when you change, you grow. So, challenges are for growth.” says Dr Buxani.
He moved to Dubai after landing a job with ITL, Dubai responding to an advertisement, in a Mumbai daily. “The roots of the company go back to an establishment in Indonesia under the name of KAJ Chotirmall and Company, dating back to 1875, with offices in High Street, Singapore. In addition to a princely salary of INR 125 (AED 7.1 or SGDs 2.7), we were given separate money for expenses such as shaving cream, brush, after-shave lotion, an allowance to watch two movies in a month, barber charges, laundry, the works. I ended up saving a lot. Dr Buxani fondly recollects.
H.H. Sheikh Rasheed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum & ITL
In the days when all you needed to start a business was to rent a premises and paint a signboard, ITL, in 1958, became the first company to receive a decree by the late H.H. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, even preceding the issuance of decrees to local behemoths like the Dubai Electricity Company Ltd, National Bank of Dubai Ltd and the Dubai State Telephone Company Ltd.
Dr Buxani is very proud of what Dubai has achieved and lauds the vision of the Father of modern Dubai, H.H. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. His own destiny seems to be tied up with Dubai. He got a job in a company which almost did not continue to base in Dubai. And the growth of the only company he ever worked for, and now owns, started almost at the same time as Dubai’s did, in the 70s.
Setting up of ITL, Dubai was an afterthought. At the outset, the office was set up to sell the surplus stocks from other international operations. It was the then local manager Murij Manghnani who convinced the management to continue the operations at huge personal risk.
“ITL Cosmos Group mirrors Dubai. Like Dubai has imagination, we have imagination. Logic can take you from A to Z. To go beyond Z you need imagination. We have come from nothing to achieving a lot, just like Dubai,” says Dr Buxani.
Growth of ITL Cosmos Group
Dr Ram Buxani over the years bought shares in the company to increase his stake. Today, the company is co-owned by him and Murij Manghnani. ITL Cosmos Group, with its 10 companies, has a turnover of USD 300 million with interests in banking, real estate, consumer products, textiles, electronics, IT products, telecom, home appliances, photographic products and business equipment.
He is at ease with the pace with which his Group has grown and explains it with the help of an analogy of a passenger plane. “We know the aircraft we are. We are not an Airbus 380. We know our limits, our heights. We know the passengers we have to look after. I feel that it is better to maintain the height one is comfortable with instead of trying to overshoot and over do. Even today, as a 63-year-old group, we are non-fractured. Touchwood. There isn’t an organisation like ours in Dubai. My colleague and co-partner came here 63 years ago. We have maintained. We are continuing.”
Dr Buxani’s three daughters are well settled in Dubai, the US and the Caribbean, happily married and busy with their families. He shrugs off succession planning as something he does not lose sleep over.
Engaging with the Indian diaspora in Dubai
Dr Buxani had witnessed his mother’s breakdown when her cousin refused to lend her INR 2,000 for his elder sister Sati’s wedding in the 60s. This made an indelible impact on the young Dr Buxani. As soon as he could, he started supporting people with financial assistance and later even lent money without making an intensive effort to check the antecedents of the borrower. “In most cases, I can make out whether the requests are genuine or not,” he says.
From the time he was 16, he started social work prior to coming to Dubai. Over the years, he has only become more zealous. “Right from the beginning, I came here (Dubai) in 1959 and was involved in social work from 1961-62. Whenever I get the opportunity to contribute, I do” adds Dr Buxani.
Dr Buxani is the Rotary president and has remained the Chairman of Indian High School in Dubai; an institution which imparts education to over 16,000 students. He has been Chairman of India Club, Dubai twice. He has actively contributed to the development of the Overseas Indian Economic Forum, Sindhu Samaj. His efforts in supporting the Indusind Bank has led to a whopping 35 per cent of the capital flow from Dubai.
No wonder he is seen as a leader and guide among the Indian community in Dubai.
The question of Sindhiyat
A proud Sindhi, he is concerned at the gradual erosion of the Sindhi culture or Sindhiyat. He wonders and worries about what will the Sindhi community of the future look like? Will joint families continue to exist among Sindhis? Will their language itself continue to live or will it get diluted with the times?
He remembers the day when at a large gathering of Sindhis in Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who was the chief minister of the state at that time, had quipped on the visual lack of the traditional Sindhi costume among the crowd and the absence of Sindhi food in the menu. As a speaker in the same conference, he later acknowledged this shortcoming.
Efforts by Dr Buxani and leading organizations of Sindhi women such as the Sakhi Sammelan and other leading members of the Sindhi community have seen a revival of the Sindhi cultural movement in Dubai.
Dr Buxani feels that the biggest effort of seeking land for the Sindhis in divided India should have been done in 1948 or 1960 when Gujarat and Maharashtra were formed.