From Rs 50 to a Forbes billionaire!

P N C Menon, chairman of the Rs 1,500-crore Sobha Developers Ltd, is one of the few dollar-billionaires in India. For the last two years, he has been listed in the Forbes list of billionaires (he is listed at number 754 in the last Forbes list of world’s billionaires).

Menon set up his empire in the Sultanate of Oman with just Rs 50 in hand. Through sheer hard work and some wise decisions, he has become one of the most successful businessmen from India. Today, his company has a presence in India, Dubai, and Oman.

Sobha Developers went public in November 2006. Today, more than 4,000 people are directly employed by Menon, in addition to the thousands more involved in the construction of his buildings.

As he diversifies his activities as a businessman, he is also in the process of developing the village he belongs to by adopting the 3,000-odd families which are below the poverty line.

At Vadakkancherry in Kerala, he has built a hermitage for old people and young widows, a school for children, and also a hospital for the villagers. He also runs the Sobha Tradesman Academy in Bangalore that trains people from economically backward villages in trades related to the construction industry.

In this interview taken at the Sobha Hermitage at Vadakkancherry, Menon speaks of how important it is for him to take care of his fellow beings.

Childhood in Kerala

I am from an agricultural family in Palghat in Kerala. As my father was into small business in Thrissur, I grew up there. I lost my father when I was 10 years old, and my grandparents were not educated enough to take care of his business. My mother also was ill. So, everything disappeared in a short period of time.

You can say I became an adult at the age of 10 or 12, and started taking decisions on my own from that age. It was a very unfortunate childhood; not a happy one at all.

I did not complete my graduation; I dropped out. If you ask me why, I don’t know. Probably I was in a hurry to be on my own. Like many children who come from a business background, working for somebody else was not there in my mind.

I started my own interior decoration business; small scale contract work of the interiors of houses and offices. It was nothing to write home about.

Chance meeting with an Arab

In 1976, I met this gentleman — Brig Gen Suleiman Al Adawy — in a hotel lobby in Kochi, quite accidentally. He had come to Kochi to buy a fishing boat. I had gone to the hotel for some other work. We happened to talk to each other, and after that, he said, “Ours is a new country. There are a lot of opportunities. Why don’t you come over to my place? We will do something together. Till then, I had not even heard of a place called Sultanate of Oman. (I went back home, took an atlas and located the place!)

In Oman, with Rs 50 in hand

I decided to accept his invitation. I took my passport and within two months, I was ready to fly to the Sultanate of Oman. I had only Rs 50 in my hand as, at that time, you were permitted to take only that much money with you.

But I was excited. There was no fear of uncertainty in my mind. I had always been sure of myself. I knew I would be able to do something there. I don’t know whether it is the right attitude, but I had that confidence in me. I may sound arrogant but I was confident because I had no role model.

Starting a business in Oman

We had many pre-conceived notions about the Arabs, like they are swimming in money, etc. But this man was only an officer in the army. He had no money to put in as capital to start a business. So, both of us went and borrowed 3,000 riyals from a bank as the initial capital and started our business.

We decided to do the interiors of buildings, a continuation of what I was doing in Kerala. It was an international market but I was only a street-side contractor. Street-side contractor means you had only a briefcase with you; not even a great office. I was like a fisherman, going to the sea to fish, going to the market to sell the catch and make a living. The beginning was very, very small.

Working hard and with confidence

It was tough initially, but I worked hard, really hard. Five things were against me: I was not professionally qualified. I did not have sufficient capital. I was in a new geographical location. I didn’t have sufficient contacts. And my communication skills were poor as I had studied in a Malayalam medium school.

So amidst all the negatives, it was like chasing dreams! Yet, even though I, my feet were firmly on the ground.

And although I had all the negatives stacked against me, my confidence level was very high. The ability to understand too was very high. I never settled for anything less than perfect.

Now I feel I had divine blessings.

Leader in the industry in Oman

I entered Oman in 1976, and in 1984, I was in the top 4. By 1986-87, my company, The Services and Trade Group of Companies, became a leader in the industry. Even now, I am the market leader there.

Remember, I was competing with European companies. Initially they looked at me as if I were a joker. But as I began to succeed, they started looking at me seriously.

Why, or how, I became the market leader was because I never transferred the money I made back to India. I invested all that in the expansion of the business.

I slowly built my enterprise in Oman. It was not easy building an enterprise; it was very, very difficult. It was like building it brick by brick, step by step. I was learning on the job with each passing day. Each step, you perfect it and go on to the next level.

‘Competing with myself’

I always compete with myself and in that competition I am a failure. There are two personalities here; the man with the requirement and the man who delivers. The man with the requirement demands a lot which the other man cannot deliver. That is why he is a failure.

I will be sixty this year-end (2008-end). Probably I may die without achieving what one part of me yearns for. There is always a gap in what you have achieved and what you plan to achieve.

From interiors to full structure

In 1986, I decided to be a full time builder. What I did was backward integration: from architecture to structural engineering to designs. We are probably the only backward integrated company of this size and type in the whole world.

From factory-building, we went to construct houses, and then to large commercial buildings. We also did private palaces in the Middle East.

I became a citizen of Oman a decade ago. From Oman, I moved to the United Arab Emirates.

Doing business in India

When I came to India to do business 14 years ago, it was to diversify the geographical spread. I chose Bangalore as our destination in India. I started Sobha Developers in my wife’s name. Because I had done even the palaces in the Middle East, I came with top-end knowledge. That was why we succeeded here too.

We have completed more than ten commercial projects on turnkey bases, covering 1.85 million sq ft. Forty residential projects have been completed and about 32 are in the process of completion.

Under contractual projects, we have built office buildings for Infosys, Timken, Taj, Mico, HP and Dell.

We went public in 2006. Now we are a Rs 1,500-crore company.

went to Oman to start a business with Rs 50 in my hand. Today, I am in the Forbes list of billionaires. In 2007, I was listed in the Forbes list. In the 2008 list also, I am there.

If you ask me how I felt, I would say, it was a very satisfying experience. Internationally, the tag has its advantages. If you do not have acceptance in the market place, you will not be able to continue as a businessman.

One has to admit that there are only 1,200 people in the world who are listed. So, it was a nice feeling.

The life of a billionaire

I live a good life and I don’t feel guilty about it. I have beautiful houses, beautiful cars and I have also ordered a private jet now.

However, after a point, money cannot be the motivating factor. Money is only a byproduct of success. Success for me is. . . well, if I am at step 10, then I see success at step 20. So, success is infinity for me; it never ends.

I come from a middle class family and I still have those middle class values.

Dreams of a billionaire

My first ambition is I want to prove that in India, we have a global Indian company in the real estate and construction industry. I want people from anywhere in the world to look at my buildings and say, what a building! What construction!

My target for this global Indian company is 2011. My dream volume: 10million sq ft of buildings, and 10 million sq ft of infrastructure. I am confident we will achieve that dream..

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