By Jola Chudy
One of the most influential and respected financiers in the region, when Shailesh Dash urges CEOs, leaders and individuals to stay focused and hopeful for the future during a time of crisis, you know it's advice worth taking
The power of positive thinking. It’s a well-worn phrase advising us to stay the course and look at the bigger picture.
It’s perfectly sound advice of course, for all manner of sticky situations, but even the most optimistic amongst us may find it a little bit of a stretch during a time when entire nations, businesses, and individuals are being challenged as never before.
The world has temporarily shut up shop in a bid to stem the spread of Covid-19 and at time of writing, self-isolation at home is the new normal. It is a strange and unpredictable period in the history of the world and there’s a vague feeling that nobody really knows how it will all play out. Figuring that out requires a mix of pragmatism, realism and, if you’ll allow us the pun, a dash of optimism.
It also requires leaders to act more decisively and quickly than every before, because the only constant is change, says serial entrepreneur and financier Shailesh Dash. Challenges will come and go, but our legacy of how we dealt with them will remain.
“We have to deal with things in a very human way, whether with our stakeholders, clients or our own families. I don’t think there is a way to be prepared for this specific situation," says Dash.
"As a business owner, you prepare for different economic situations. You’re generally not prepared for biological conditions such as a pandemic. But now all of us have this experience and we have to make quick decisions that will have an impact on how we deal with our lives and how we deal with our businesses.”
Exuding calm, Dash smiles frequently and speaks in the relaxed, unhurried way of a man who is used to being listened to and heard.
A member of several boards, he was instrumental in Al Najah Education’s recent and much-publicised decision to be the first school group in the UAE to offer reduced school fees for term three.
“We have observed unusual and turbulent times. It would be wrong, as a business, not to do what we can to help our customers and to recognise their loyalty,” says Dash.
“Things are changing rapidly, and the onus is on every individual and every business to act in a positive way. With a 20 percent reduction in fees for parents, we can ensure our 350 drivers and helpers keep their jobs; shareholders will be the ones to lose at this time.”
Dash, who presides over a diversified group that includes healthcare, education and logistics, exudes curiosity for global events and how they affect those around him.
When he sat down with CEO Middle East, just a few days before social distancing and working from home was fully implemented, Covid-19 was the main topic of conversation, and he was keen to get ahead of the curve in terms of the most appropriate responses and actions.
A seasoned investor, knee-jerk reactions are not his style and he explains that the decision to reduce school fees has been in discussion for a few weeks, with both the board and the school consulted as to the most sustainable way to ensure that when the crisis is over, the business and its customers are in a position to recover and endure.
“At this time there is a lot of uncertainty, but when negative news seems to be the only news, a ‘this too shall pass’ approach is a much-needed attitude. It is easy to focus on our own challenges and forget the bigger picture. No one is exempt from this, and we have to work together to find solutions and survive.”
Dash should know; he himself launched a successful business in the period immediately following the financial crisis of 2008, at a time when the mood was one of caution and pessimism.
“Today, we have to get through, but leaders need to believe there will always be opportunities. Governments need to take precautions, rather than stop the economy. But it is hard to stop a virus until a vaccine is developed. We look forward to the medical industry finding a solution but at the same time we have to be careful that the economy doesn’t close down and that people – especially those living from paycheck to paycheck – have enough to survive.”
A veteran of the investment industry, Dash has more than two decades of experience and insight in navigating the ups and downs of global markets.
His experience is formidable; the Indian national and UAE resident has executed more than 14 IPOs, served on dozens of boards, and created the second largest private equity business in the MENA region.
Having founded several successful financial services companies including Al Masah, Regulus Capital and Future Capital, he has presided over more than $1 billion of investments, offering clients private equity advice in healthcare, education, and logistics, alongside services advising on real estate and wealth management. A trusted thought leader, he urges businesses to comply with government and medical directives while assessing their own internal challenges.
“We observe the media and what other businesses are doing. We are trying to keep our employees safe as possible through sanitizing and working from home. That’s important, but what is also very important is you still service clients and your staff. There has to be work, they have to be paid. This is important. We may all suffer, but we have to go through it together.”
Dash acknowledges that the situation is completely new, and reflects on his own experience of leaving the corporate world and embarking on an entrepreneurial path in 2008, a year also notable, as 2020 is now, for not exactly being the most economically encouraging of times.
“I am not a pessimistic person and have started businesses during the most challenging times. I believe that doom and gloom times can lead to opportunity. For example schools may be closed, but there is a huge opportunity for e-learning. Opportunities will always be there.”
What drives an extremely successful corporate financier to go it alone and set up his own business during a time when the world is still shaking off a financial crisis?
The answers, says Dash, was a search for meaning and satisfaction. Having spent decades in the finance industry working for others, he reached a point in his life when he no longer felt that he was learning anything new.
The sense of growing stagnation became persistent enough that the highly successful financier made a decision, turning his back on a guaranteed salary in search of something a little more thrilling: the unknown.
“I wanted the satisfaction of creating something, instead of implementing someone else’s vision.”
Modestly, he notes that this ambition wasn’t necessarily destined to translate into doing something better than his previous employer, and indeed he roundly credits the people he has worked for in the past with contributing to his success today.
“In my own way, even if I was only to build a small business, the happiness in doing so has the most value. Being part of a big organization is great, but I had some ideas and at age 40, I wanted to at least try and implement them. You have to at least try. I believe it has been a very rewarding experience in terms of job satisfaction, and when people speak well of our businesses, well, I feel very happy.”
Dash says he has been incredibly fortunate over the past few decades to have met mentors, advisors and individuals who have helped him to implement his vision.
“People in my world of finance, similarly to other industries, may share certain qualifications and education, but it is the experiences that ultimately differentiate,” he says.
“The people around us influence us and change us.” When I was starting out from an investment background, I initially thought of building upon what had come before.” Unfortunately – or perhaps ultimately for the good – 2009 wasn’t a particularly fortuitous year in which to be building on the established practices of the investment world. Instead, Dash was compelled to look at his industry in a completely fresh way, creating a business model that would attract the trust of investors while bringing something viable to the table.
“We ended up going into debts and bonds, and did hundreds of millions of dollars of that even though I hadn’t done that specifically for over a decade. Change is the only constant – you can’t have a fixed mindset on anything! You must look at how you can add value to your investors, and at that time investors wanted security but also to be able to access their funds whenever they wanted. And of course, still a good return!”
“People in this part of the world believe in this region, and are interested in developing tangible businesses. However, they don’t want to be hands-on. This is where we come in to manage, and how these businesses have evolved. Education and healthcare have done well historically in the region, but there are challenges. That is part of an economic cycle.”
Having established his empire here and in South-East Asia, he is eyeing up Europe for his next venture. Technology is a huge focus and one that interests him personally.
“You need to be ready, as an advisor to your investors. They are wealthy, intelligent and successful people and you have to respect that in your role as their advisor. We build eco-environments for entrepreneurs to build businesses to grow.”
Encouraging a nimble mindset in his company remains key, a vital component of growth. I think you learn to swim by being thrown in the deep end,” Dash says with a smile.
“Though of course when we are talking about investor funds, it isn’t quite like that! But it is important to give people all the training and support that they need, and then support them in an environment where they can bring fresh, new ways of thinking to the business.”
Despite the markets indicating a global recession and some of the worst figures in living memory, Dash remains upbeat about the bigger picture. He doesn’t believe that economic recovery is destined to be as painfully slow as many predict.
“Sentiments in the market are always momentary, they are a knee-jerk reaction. A longer-lasting effect is that many business models may change; trends such as e-business and online businesses will grow at a faster rate. Unfortunately there may be less human interaction, which is not my preferred way of doing business, but we have to accept change and deal with it humanely. Change is the only constant.”