Even after having lost everything when Gulf War broke out in Kuwait in 1991, for Rizwan Sajan, the Founder & Chairman of Danube Group, there was no lack of chutzpah when he moved to Dubai with ‘nothing in his pockets’ and a ‘dream’ in his eyes.
The rags to riches story of Rizwan is the stuff of Bollywood films, and coincidentally he is a movie buff.
Grit and determination
After having taken the decision of moving to Dubai, he took up work at “a hardware store for a monthly salary of Dh1,500 per month”, says Rizwan, whose company Danube Group posted revenue of Dh5.13 billion for 2015.
When probed about what prompted him to move to Dubai, he answers simply: “I always knew that Dubai is just the place for me and here we are after two decades, discussing exactly that.”
He adds: “Dubai is a great place. In fact, it is the best place for doing business. The city has been an epitome of investment, lucrative yields, tax-free living, strategic location, security, heaven for tourism and now Expo 2020, what else would you ask for if you are businessman.”
Amazing Dubai memories
Rizwan goes down memory lane and recounts: “I have a vivid memory of my first day in the UAE. Dubai was a different experience after my eight years stay in Kuwait. I remember my first interaction with a local immigration officer who spoke in Hindi and said, “Kaisa Hai Aap?” which translates to “How are you?”
“It was surreal and I was amazed at the popularity and recognition of Hindi in a distant land and more so because this was a rarity in other countries, including Kuwait.
“In the evening, I went for a stroll and believe me, I felt that I am in Mumbai rather than a Middle Eastern country. Next I took the famous Abra ride, I was all happy and that’s when I was convinced that this is the place where I would love to spend rest of my life.”
Rizwan vividly remembers how everything about the UAE and Dubai seemed like “the stuff from fairy tales”.
“There were so many surprising incidents within the first week and along the way that those memories still amaze me. This country made sure that I didn’t miss Mumbai.”
He narrates a few incidents from his initial days in Dubai. “First, during a monetary transaction, I heard someone say, “Kitna Paisa”; second, I was watching a cricket match with friends and it didn’t occur to me even for a moment that I was in a foreign country given the cricket fervor and frenzy; third, I realized that locals have a lot of respect for the Indian community which dates back centuries.
“Besides, I was and still am a huge fan of Arabic food, the inclination for which started in Kuwait, led to another journey in Dubai as this emirate has more variety.
“Weather also played its trick during my first week in Dubai, as it was the month of January and we all know winters in Dubai or for that matter in the UAE are a treat. So, all I recall are surprises and there were no disappointments.”
Life’s defining moments
Rizwan calls the period between 1991 and 1993, “the defining moments” of his life.
After spending about 10 months in the emirate, Rizwan used his savings and expertise of the building materials industry to start his own company, Danube. “I started with a small shop in Deira and my first employee was my wife, Sameera Sajan.”
Rizwan recalls an interesting incident. “Though the procedures and formalities were quite streamlined and smooth when I wanted to start my own company, I faced a difficulty in registering the name ‘Danube’ as a trade name. It hit a roadblock as the officials at the Dubai Economic Department refused to register it given its English origin. So, one of my friends suggested that I should try ‘Al Danube’ as the trade name and fortunately it was approved.
“I would like to admit that the business during the initial days wasn’t easy. There were established players and there was no easy way a new player could grab considerable market share, but it was not impossible. Somehow, we managed and today Danube is present in more than 50 locations in nine countries including the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Africa and India, and has procurement offices in China.”
Danube has an employee strength of almost 3,000.
Rizwan’s success, he insists, is thanks to his business strategy and ability to think differently. “I have always lived by the rule that whatever I do, I will do differently. I will try and create my own USP rather than competing with others.
“I remember my uncle once told me: ‘A lot of people live rich but very few die rich.’ My take from that was that in any business you need to be careful and realize that if you take one wrong step, all can be gone. He was my mentor and he was the one who taught me that 2+2 is 5 and not 4, after my dad passed away when I was only 16.”
Rizwan admits the business landscape in Dubai stands evolved today. It is much faster and technologically advanced as compared to few decades ago. “Today, there is no denying the fact that competition is severe, stakes are higher, cost of living has gone up, credit period has stretched, profit margins have reduced. So, it is not an easy outing for a new business. However, I have always said that in Dubai, no matter what, if you have the right product and offer it in a unique way, anyone can succeed.”
So, after having achieved the numero uno status as a building materials firm in the Middle East, what is the road ahead for him?
The man with a penchant for his wife’s cooking, films and music responds simply. “I missed spending quality time with my son, Adel, early on. However, things are better now and we are able to spend extra time together. We sit together, discuss things and even exchange some lifestyle tips.”
Author: Rizwan Sajan