In 15 years, Rizwan Sajan has risen from a Dh1,500 per month job to spearhead a business that is worth $200,000. Sandhya Rajayer speaks to the chairman of Danube Group to learn of his definition of success.
A lot has changed about Dubai in the last 30 years. The vast sandy stretches have morphed into a Manhattan-like skyline, the corner grocery stores have turned into air-conditioned multi-brand format supermarkets, the city roads that once saw Cadillacs and camels crossing paths are now set to welcome the metro. But the one thing that remains unchanged is the power of this city to breathe life into dreams, to reveal to the human mind the shape and size of things to come even if at that time there is no evidence that
the dream will take shape in the way you want.
Rizwan Sajan was 28 when he came to Dubai in 1992 to take up a job in a hardware store on a salary of Dh1,500 per month. Barely 15 years from then he has propelled himself on the path to success with a speed and determination that is astonishing to record. Today he is Chairman, Danube Group, a $200,000 building material company that distributes over 10,000 products, has retail outlets in the UAE, Bahrain, Muscat and India, and three sourcing centres in China and employs 400 people. But all of this was not like a walk in the park. A part of it has been like a roller coaster ride, another stretch like a trial by fire. But through it all remained intact Rizwan’s sheer grit.
This is his story:
Rizwan’s father passed away in 1980 when he was 16 years old. As the eldest son he realised it was up to him to find ways to support his family. So he wrote to his uncle in Kuwait, who ran a building material business, saying he was looking for work and was there anything his uncle could offer him? The response was in the affirmative – but, wrote his uncle, he would have to wait for two years in order to reach the legal age to work. Rizwan interpreted the answer to be a tactic in polite evasion. So he squashed all hopes of going to Kuwait. Instead, he continued his studies and attended morning college for his commerce graduate degree at Somaiyya College in Vidyavihar (an eastern suburb of Mumbai, India) and worked part-time at Nathani Steel, a company also based in the same suburb, in the evenings.
And so it was that two years later, Rizwan was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter from his uncle in Kuwait enquiring if he was still interested in the job. Within a month, the job visa formalities were completed and he was on his way to a job in Kuwait. As he worked closely with his uncle, Rizwan began to understand the workings of the building material business inside out.
He was also sharp to build his personal assets, buy a car and over a span of 10 years, his reputation in the field turned rock solid.
He got married in 1987 and continued to work in Kuwait. But when the country was invaded by Saddam Hussain in August 1991, like several thousand other expats, Rizwan had to leave Kuwait overnight, and all that he had worked for and built up came to nought. He landed in Mumbai with about Rs150,000 in his pocket and felt as if he was back at the starting line.
Grasping at the tiniest straws of opportunity, Rizwan met up with a friend who owned a hardware business venture in Dubai. “I can still recall our meeting at the poolside restaurant (at Searock Hotel in Juhu, Mumbai) in vivid detail,” he says. “My friend asked me what kind of money I had been earning in Kuwait. About Dh15,000, inclusive of salary and commissions, I replied. ‘I can’t even think of paying you that much,’ he said. I wasn’t even dreaming of asking for that much, I responded. He offered me a job with a salary of Dh3,000 plus a 25 per cent commission on the sales. What did I have to lose? I didn’t have a job in hand anyway. I accepted the offer on the spot and he promised to send me the visa as soon as possible.”
A month later, there was no sign of the offer turning into reality. So he called his friend in Dubai only to be told that his business was lax and he could not afford to pay the salary promised earlier. “How much can you pay me?” Rizwan asked him point blank. ‘Dh1,500 plus 25 per cent commission,’ came the reply. Perhaps, Rizwan thought, it was the kind of offer that was very easy to refuse, which was why it was being offered to him. But Rizwan was desperate. He accepted the offer immediately. His only request was that he be provided accommodation and food. Fortunately for Rizwan, by the time he landed in Dubai in March 1992, the situation in Kuwait was back to normal and people had started returning to work. This meant that Rizwan’s business contacts were back in town as well and when word got round that he was in Dubai, they started placing orders with him for building material. Truckloads of cement, sanitary fittings, furniture .. all made their way from Rizwan’s new workplace to Kuwait. The friend who had offered him Dh1,500 quickly hiked his pay to the original sum of Dh3,000. With additional commissions, Rizwan began to earn about Dh8-10,000 per month.
But the whims of Lady Luck are known to none. So it was that just as he was beginning to taste success once more, his contacts in Kuwait went back to doing direct imports. Rizwan’s income stream started to dry up.
By this time Rizwan had fallen in love with Dubai. From the moment he had stepped off the plane, he had begun to feel at home. So he stood his ground in Dubai, convinced that it was worthwhile to hang in and keep trying. Eventually, it would all fall into place.
With exports to Kuwait having dried up, Rizwan was back to trading in small hardware. He realised that he had arrived at a crossroads as far as his career was concerned. He also realised that this was the moment to start thinking big. “So I suggested to my friend and employer that with my experience and contacts, we could expand the building material business and, say, trade in wood. This called for an investment of about a million dirhams. Not convinced about the returns on this risk, he refused.
“And thus it was that I parted ways with him,” Rizwan recalls.
This was barely 10 months after Rizwan had started working in Dubai and he had in his account a sum of Dh88,000 or so. His wife, Samira, was in India waiting to join him as soon as his business stabilised. “I told myself that there were two ways of looking at my situation. I could join one of the big companies that could use my expertise in the building material business or I could put my savings to good use and start my own business. Hopefully it would work, but if it didn’t, I would not have a problem getting a Dh5,000 job with a bigger company. Age was on my side, I was not even 30 at the time.”
After some hard thinking, Rizwan decided to start his own company – an indenting company – buying from a supplier, selling to a buyer and earning a commission on the transaction. However he had not reckoned with the strong resistance of big buyers. “I had a hard time for the first six months. My savings of Dh88,000 went into setting up initial capital, an office, a car and the expenses of day-to-day living even as there was no income.”
As luck would have it, Rizwan soon won the contract for supplying galvanised corrugated sheets to a company. His product was so good that it began to attract the attention of big traders who now agreed to buy from him. Things began to move slowly but steadily. To add momentum, Rizwan contacted some of his old supplier friends in Singapore and Romania. “I was frank with them. I told them that I did not have the money to pay for goods just yet but since they knew me, I hoped they would send me material on credit. I promised to pay as soon as the sale was concluded.” His good reputation was his greatest alibi. And so his business began to expand. Soon it was on a roll.
Today Danube runs the gamut of interior and exterior building material – scaffolding, steel and cement, ceramic flooring, bathroom and sanitary fittings, paints, wallpapers, glass, door fittings … He has partnered with some of the best names in the industry such as Kingplex, Halspan, Spano, Astroflame, Dorma, Nobili and many more.
Danube is now a wholesale and retail building material company with about 10 outlets within the UAE, two each in Bahrain and Muscat and in India. It has three branches also in China which act as their sourcing office. Rizwan opted for China as he found that “the (Chinese) government encourages investment and pulls out all the stops to create a conducive climate for economic development.”
(The reason for naming his company Danube Rizwan attributes to his many business trips to Romania. “I fell in love with the river Danube flowing through the country.”)
Obviously, on a journey in search of success as long as this, there are many milestones. Rizwan recalls one particular incident with a person who is now his biggest competitor. “In the initial days (of setting up my business), I had been chasing this person for an appointment, requesting for just a few minutes of his time. Finally one day he agreed to see me at 3 pm. Those days I used to work a split shift from 8 am to 2pm and 4 pm to midnight. I would go home have my lunch and take a nap before getting back to work at four.
“So the 3 o’clock appointment was a bit difficult for me and obviously I couldn’t request for a change in the time considering how difficult it had been to get an appointment in the first place! But I had dozed off in the afternoon for a bit and reached his office 10 minutes late. He just looked at his watch and said to me, ‘You are late for the appointment, you’ll have to take another one.’ I had no choice but to begin chasing him all over again for an appointment and this time I made sure I reached on time. I learned a lot of things from him but I also learnt the importance of punctuality,” Rizwan says.
Having enjoyed a ringside view of the building industry in Dubai for a long time, what does he have to say about the exponential growth of the industry? “I believe Dubai knows where it is headed. The growth is not temporary, it is here to stay.”
Obviously the building industry means more than bricks and mortar. They need to offer solutions for beautiful interiors. Danube’s House of Laminates in JAFZA, launched recently has plugged this gap. Customers usually walk in with the idea that laminates are old-fashioned and when they see the innovative designs and finishes on offer they are surprised into buying them.
“The challenge in the building industry today is to come up with innovations every day. The variety of wood, ebony, walnut, ash, for example, in place of the old staples of rose and teak are all customer driven.
“The average man does not settle for the ordinary, he wants something different even on a modest budget,” says Rizwan. “Even bathroom fittings have been subject to this demand for innovation and if earlier we talked of only a bathtub, we now have shower cubicles in different designs. The same goes for modular kitchens and different finishes for doors. The variety is truly amazing.”
The interiors of Rizwan and Samira’s home in the Dubai Marina have been totally designed by Samira. “I haven’t hammered in a single nail in my house,’ Rizwan says. Is there a glimmer of pride? Looks like it in his smiling eyes.
“Samira has always given me the freedom to focus a 100 per cent on my business. She has tackled all domestic issues with utmost ease throughout our married life of 19 years. Even when I was travelling almost six months a year in the initial stages of setting up the business, she didn’t mind it.”
Then he amends his statement. “I think I should say, there was a bit of cribbing, but not much,” he laughs.
Like all entrepreneurs who begin young did Rizwan too make a promise to himself that he would work hard and retire early? “I tell my wife this every morning,” he laughs again. “In fact I would often say to her that I would retire at 40. That was four years ago. Now I think I should change that to 50!”
Danube has been a part of almost all reputed projects in Dubai beginning with the Burj Al Arab, Media City and Knowledge Village. Among the current mega projects are the Burj Dubai, Down Town Dubai, Jumeirah Islands, International City, The Palm …
Rizwan’s definition of success in life is measured not by the savings in the bank account but the qualities that fill up an individual’s heart. A good human being is a successful human being, according to him.
“A lot of people have a lot of money but not all of them have the respect of their fellow human beings. That I think is the true mark of success. I live by the creed of live and let live – give every person the freedom to reach his goal. And this applies to my sales staff too as they don’t have to report on their daily sales calls. They have the freedom to chart their own course of action. Of course, if there is a shortfall in performance, we have to sit across the table and discuss how to change that.” Ultimately, what matters in life, he says, is whether you made a difference or not.