A Quarterly Newsletter from the UAE and Oman member firms of the PKF International Ltd.

VOL 15, Issue 03 July 2013

Interview

Mohan Valrani came to Dubai in 1966 and was instrumental in setting the foundation of the Al Shirawi Group, one of the largest conglomerates in the United Arab Emirates, in 1971. As Founding Partner and Senior Vice Chairman of the Group, Mohan has guided the Al Shirawi Group from strength to strength through his vision, foresight and dedication.

Apart from his business activities Mohan is also at the forefront of social activities with respect to the Indian community.  He has been the founding Chairman and member of the Board of Trustees of the India Club.

He is also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Indian High School and was the Chairman of the School from 2008 to 2012 and is presently the Chairman of the Development Board of the School. He is also associated with many charitable organizations.

Q.  From Baroda to Hong Kong and Dubai – talk us through the journey and the crests and troughs along the way.

A.   The “Rites for Passage” for a youth passing into adulthood are pretty much the same all over the world and much the same today as they have always been.  For young men who have had a cossetted upbringing some of the shocks of the transition are rather severe but that was not my case at all. I had learned on my father’s knee that commercial ambition is a healthy and commendable pursuit and he had taught me the importance of standing on my own two feet.  The path into the world of business therefore seemed to me the natural course to follow and Hong Kong, where my family already had some business connections, seemed to me a good place to start. It was the opportunity to develop my uncle’s business that brought me to Dubai, to open a branch of his Hong Kong interests.  For a young man arriving in Dubai today it is hard to envision what it was in the 1960’s.  The terms “hardship post” was so apt it might have been invented for Dubai in those days. It certainly was not far off the mark! The infrastructure was undeveloped and everything made more difficult by a lax work ethic but the challenges were very exciting and it has been very fulfilling for me to have been witness to, and be part of, the enormous success story that Dubai has become. Looking back, the young me who left  Cochin all those years ago is hardly recognisable today but I think, at heart, the same spirit of adventure drives me today and my life is still infused with the same plans and dreams of new fields to conquer.

Q.  “Catch them young” was your father’s favorite catch phrase.  What is your preferred business   mantra?

A:   My father was a very sagacious man with a deep, natural understanding of human nature and if I had always followed his advice my career would have been less marked by trials and tribulations. However, learning from one’s own mistakes is not such a bad thing and one of the lessons I have learned and often repeat to myself is “stick to basics”. Dreamers inevitably wake up and it is the watchful thinker who carries away most of the prizes.

Q.  The name Mohan Valrani is synonymous with the Al Shirawi Group. What values has Mohan Valrani the family man and entrepreneur passed on to his flagship business venture and the group business?

A.   In the Al Shirawi Group we have developed a management culture which is quite unlike the modern business model where “committees” and ‘think tanks” are formed to consider almost every significant matter. I have always stressed the importance of taking important decisions incisively, avoiding procrastination which committees tend to engender, and accepting individual responsibility. It has been my experience that good managers given clear responsibility rise to the occasion and generally get things right. As a consequence our response to business situations is very prompt giving us lots of opportunities which might otherwise be missed. Our senior managers have grown in this culture and have developed the confidence to make decisions on their own, backed by collegiate support at the Board level.  We sometimes get things wrong but not through dragging our feet.

Q.  Not many are aware of your multiple, international award-winning work in the printing industry. Talk us through the mental and professional transition from your comfort zone to other untried industries where you have made your mark?

A.   When Abdulla Al Shirawi and I set out in business together we both acknowledged the need to be diverse – to have more than one string to one’s bow. The fortunes of Dubai have been like a roller-coaster, full of ups and downs, and Dubai has re-invented itself many times over the years to meet altered circumstances in its markets. Traditionally, no matter what the current fad, Dubai is a trading post – this has always proven to be true in the past and I believe it holds true for the future. Trading is at the core of our Group business and has always been the principal consideration in our quest for diversity.  Dubai is now very prosperous, with a very promising outlook, but one must remember that it has never been very stable and diversity in trading activity is therefore a great stabilizer.

Q.   Rashid Pediatric Therapy Center Dubai under the Patronage of HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein nominated you as a “noble” recipient to receive an award from the Government of Russia for the “excellent community services and keen interest in helping the humanitarian services in the United Arab Emirates”. That was a singular honor.  How does corporate or individual social responsibility fit into your business matrix?

A.   I have been blessed throughout my life with robust health and sharp faculties and I have the strongest sympathy for those who have not been able to face life with these same advantages. I cherish my association with disabled and handicapped children. My own attitude to life is nourished and strengthened by the courage and resilience I see in these young people and my admiration for the people who care for them is boundless. I am very proud to be associated with them and they know they can count on me as their friend.

Q.  It is impossible to talk to Mr. Mohan Valrani without talking about the Indian High School or the Indian Club. How important has the success of these two stalwart Dubai based institutions to you? What does education and being an educator mean to you?

A.   There are two separate questions here with different answers.  I have written extensively elsewhere, and on many occasions, about the formation and early years of the India Club. Let me say briefly that after we planted the seeds it grew naturally in the fertile soil of necessity.  The Indian expatriates in Dubai were mostly here on bachelor status and there were no leisure facilities, as there are today, and no sense of community at all. It is very gratifying to see what it has become and the essential role it plays in reaching out to other communities and establishing common bonds.

The Indian High School has been, and remains, what I consider to be the single most significant venture of my life. I am a devout believer in the importance of a broad education for young people. At the Indian High School we have developed a curriculum of great scope and depth and our results which, thanks to a remarkable group of dedicated teachers and staff, has drawn widespread acclaim.

But that is only part of the story. Our approach to education is, if I might be forgiven the word, ayurvedic and the results are less easy to measure. We set out to develop the whole person, to equip our students with a strong code of ethics and moral values which will enable them to become worthy and contributing members of the adult world. I know it sounds a bit pious to say so but I think the world lacks real, in-depth educational facilities and we have set out to produce them with the most successful outcome.

Q.  What is your advice to budding entrepreneurs and investors in this region?

A.   The days are largely gone when, on a shoestring budget, successful ventures could be built from ambition, an appetite for taking risk and hard work. Of course, people will always come with bright and innovative ideas which can be turned into successful business ventures but the basic business builder today needs a wider range of resources.  To develop good ideas a sound business education is probably the best starting point with a broad understanding of the processes of capital formation and an array of formal management skills.  Of course, nothing can substitute a good nose for sniffing out opportunities and I shall be waving my flag for those who dare.