Hundreds of neatly dressed school children sit in a semi-circle attentively listening to their teacher as she tells them a story. Next door, young widows and retirees are quietly reading or studying, and further down the road patients wait to see the doctor at their local hospital. Nestled in the heart of the lush green paddy fields of the Palakkad district in Kerala, this scene is unlike any other in the area — its running costs are fully funded by the Indian businessman, PNC Menon.
The Dubai-based entrepreneur, who made his millions building palaces for the Gulf’s ruling families, is as passionate about his philanthropic causes as he is about his business, Sobha Group of Companies. But rather than donate to existing charities, he founded and fully funds the Sri Kurumba Trust, a CSR project that aims to improve the lives of 11,000 people in the Keralite villages of Vadakkenchery and Kizhakkenchery. The initiative currently educates 741 students, provides a home for nineteen senior citizens and eighteen young widows and their 28 children and treats an average of 85 patients at day.
“I was widowed with two children in my arms and I came here not knowing where my life would go,” says Sandhaya, the first ‘adopted’ widow at Sobha Hermitage.
“I was given two options; either live in Sobha Hermitage where I could be educated and my children would attend school or go back home to my family and be paid a monthly salary. I chose to come here because I wanted to be educated to be able to stand on my own two feet,” she says via a translator, adding that her recently acquired qualifications have enabled her to begin teaching and earn a salary at Sobha Academy.
Sitting in his plush villa in Dubai’s Emirates Hills, surrounding by the gleaming glass and metal structures with which the emirate has become synonymous, Menon’s message is still the same. “When you reach a certain point in time, money cannot make any difference in terms of luxuries. I don’t think I need another house in my life.
“God gives opportunities for some people to make money while others do not make any. When an opportunity is given to you, you should not take it for granted. I don’t think sharing is an obligation, I don’t think it’s a charity. We owe it to society,” he says, adding that he will eventually give 50 percent of his fortune away to fund charity projects in India and Oman.
While there is no doubt that Menon’s philanthropic projects occupy a large proportion of his time, he remains equally committed to building his estimated $600m empire. There are plans for two multi-million-dollar real estate developments in Dubai, a new three-star hotel company to launch, a new furniture company with global ambitions and Menon will also lend a helping hand to his son Ravi’s business, Bangalore-based Sobha Developers, which he set up in 1995 to cater to India’s rapidly growing middle class and their appetite for luxury homes.
“Work is important to me. Today, I am 64 years old and so long as I have my health, I have no retirement plans,” he says. “I work long hours and I enjoy every bit of it. My telephone is kept nearby and my calculator is part of my body,” he laughs, referring to the pocket calculator he pulls out at regular intervals throughout his interview.
Menon has come a long way since he boarded a boat from his home in Kerala to Oman following a chance meeting with Sulaiman Al Adawi, a captain in the army of the Gulf state, nearly four decades ago. Together the pair borrowed OMR3,000 to set up an interior decoration firm, Services & Trade Group. The company started off small; winning small interiors contracts for shop fit-outs before taking on larger projects, which eventually led to it constructing several royal palaces across the Gulf region.
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