Sitting on a functional chair in a café in a gym, a chair a thousand sweat-soaked backsides have already occupied, Micky Jagtiani, the Gulf’s richest Indian, looks a little out of place. He’s tired, or he looks it, and the morning sun which pours in through panoramic windows — beyond which housewives plough up and down a rectangular pool in the hope of slowing time — lights him harshly.
Jagtiani, of course, is in this gym for no other reason than he has just bought it, it and all the other Fitness First franchises in the Middle East. He’s not here to try out the treadmills. He is here to make money, lots of it, which is something he does better than virtually anyone else.
With his Landmark Group, he’s the king of retail in the Gulf. He’s been here since 1992, when he set up his company with $3,000 and today he is the owner or regional owner of 23 major brands and more than 900 stores in 15 countries. He employs more than 31,000 people, all of whom played a part in generating a turnover of $3.2bn last year, and 25 percent growth. Personally he is believed to be worth in the region of $2.6bn.
Getting access to Jagtiani, unsurprisingly, is not easy. When I tell him, following the press conference, that I have been trying for two years, he seems genuinely amazed. “Two years, really? Wow. Such a long time,” he says, widening his eyes at the very idea. “To talk to me?”
Jagtiani is a complex man, you don’t need to meet him for long to work that out. Obviously enormously driven to constantly push the boundaries of his success by all the measures of capitalism, he will also talk, at the drop of a hat, of his desire to discover himself and to give it all up to devote himself to charity work in the slums of Chennai and Mumbai. If you give him the chance, he will tell you he has no love for money, at least not for anything it can do for him personally.
And then he will add he is looking to spend about $1bn of it in the coming twelve months, buying up other people’s companies.
One moment he is saying, when asked what he would like to do next year: “What I would really like to do is spend more time discovering myself, you know? Not just the business. Who am I? What is the meaning I have in life? These sorts of things, rather than just push, push, push, make more, more, more money.”
And, immediately afterwards, when asked when he thinks he will have made enough money, he roars with laughter. “Never,” he says, emphatically.
Micky Jagtiani’s story is a fascinating one. He was certainly not born into wealth, and anyone who has struggled in their twenties to make ends meet should be able to find some inspiration in the manner by which he rose to the top.
He says: “When I was 21, I used to clean hotel rooms in Earls Court, the cheapest part of London, eight people to a room. I also used to drive minicabs — don’t tell anyone, I didn’t have an official minicab licence.”
He was in London studying to become an accountant, something he loathed. He remains fond of London — he says he is still looking to buy companies there because he feels comfortable with the way life is conducted in the city — but, financially, times were hard for him back then. Money, however, was not the top of his list of worries.
“I was an orphan by the age of 26. My brother, one year older than me, at 23 passed away due to leukemia. Nine months later, my father died of a heart attack, six months later my mother had terminal cancer. And that was my entire family. You learn to be detached. You go through a very difficult experience,” he says.
It was an experience, he believes, that pushed him towards Buddhism, a religion, or set of beliefs, that helped him to make the most of adversity, and to turn it, as far as was possible, to his advantage.
“In Buddhism they say you only learn through hardships, and that your best friend in life is your hardship and sorrow. So when you get it, welcome it because it is going to teach you more about life than anything else. Money has no meaning to me. My ambition is to die without a penny to my name. I will give a lot to my family. A lot of it I will give to charity,” he says.