By Lubna Hamdan
After decades of success in the region’s construction and interiors market, Indian billionaire Rizwan Sajan, founder and chairman of Danube Group, is on a mission to take the Dubai property market by storm.
Rizwan Sajan likes to start his morning with a swim in the backyard pool of his Palm Jumeirah villa, before laying in his massive Jacuzzi to “freshen up”. In the garage of the multi-million dollar villa sits his lavish Rolls-Royce Phantom, ready to be taken for a ride.
“I think it’s a God gifted skill that I have. It’s God’s gift,” says the founder and chairman of the Danube Group, referring to his business talents.
“It’s like cricket. Whatever training you get for playing cricket, you cannot be successful unless you have God’s gift. It’s the same in the business world. Whatever training you get, your father could be a big businessman and send you to Oxford University, but if it’s not in you, you won’t make it,” he says.
Having transformed a small trading office in Deira to one of the region’s biggest suppliers of building materials, offering up to 25,000 products, it is safe to say Sajan has that gift.
His once small Dubai trading firm quickly became one of the region’s largest suppliers of building materials.
Two-and-a-half years ago, he stormed - literally stormed - into the property market with the launch of his first project, Dreamz by Danube; a residential townhouse community in Dubai that stretches over 700,000 square feet. Seven projects followed suit.
All this has helped record turnovers of $1.4bn per year and maintain 5-6 percent growth, despite an economic downturn that saw major construction players crash and burn.
But the 53-year-old has not always had it easy.
Born into a middle class family where resources were tight, Sajan dived into the business world aged just 12, selling everything from firecrackers to books and milk.
Decades later and with almost $2bn to his name, he is still in fight mode.
When he is not enjoying his villa on the Palm or driving his affluent car (he likes to drive the typically-chauffeured Phantom himself to get its full experience), Sajan simply does not stop.
“Oh yes, I’m a workaholic. Ten years ago, I used to work 16, 17 hours a day. I still work about 8 to 10 hours a day,” he says.
And his efforts have reaped the rewards.
The Danube Group, named after the Danube River in Europe where masses of building materials pass through, comprises a number of segments including Danube Home for home interior and décor solutions, which Sajan said is growing at a staggering rate of 40 percent a year.
Yet despite taking on a large share of both markets, the self-made billionaire wanted a bigger piece of the pie.
So along came Danube Properties, the chairman’s most thrilling venture yet.
Dressed in a sleek black suit and dark red tie when he meets Arabian Business, Sajan says property was always on the cards. It was a simple matter of striking at the right time.
“When the Dubai property market was in a boom, I was a little sceptical as to where it was going. It was going too fast. It was going absolutely berserk. And I was very scared to enter into a market that was going berserk. But after 2013, when the Expo2020 was announced, regulations and proper policies were coming into place. So I decided that yes, now is the right time,” he says.
“You see, Dubai is a very small place geographically and population wise. We’re talking about 4 million people only residing in Dubai. The economic department expects another 2 million people to come in in the next few years; at least 1 million people to come before the Expo2020. But today, if you look at the last 4 or 5 years, the number of property deliveries that are happening in Dubai are not more than 14-15,000 every year.
"Property prices and rents will go up. The market is a little bit down because of the market conditions in the region right now, but rents and property prices have gone up. The graph from 2012 to 2017 has been up. It hasn’t been down,” he says.
Since then, Sajan has wasted no time. In the last two-and-a-half years, he has launched eight projects through his property arm Danube Properties.
So far, it’s been working well for the construction magnate. Following the approach of starting a new project only after its predecessor has sold out, Sajan launched residential buildings in areas such as Business Bay, Al Furjan and Studio City. His X factor? ‘Affordable luxury’.
Average prices in Sajan’s projects cost about AED1,000 ($272) per square foot in areas such as Al Furjan and Studio City, while properties in Business Bay are about AED1,250 to AED1,400 per square foot.
“More than 80 to 85 percent of people in Dubai are still in the rental phase. And rents are very, very high; almost 10 per cent of the property price. So we decided to capture this market and cater to this market, where we convince people who are renting into buying their own apartment," he says.
"It was not easy, because people who stay in this phase are salaried people. For them, the issue was coming up with the money to buy. So we came up with the plan of small down payments; 10 percent down payment, plus 15 percent in the next 90 days and 75 percent that can be paid as 1 percent per month. That 1 percent really clicked in the market, because anybody who’s staying in this country for five or six years has small savings.
"And in the bargain, they’re owning their own property. If you start to take the risk today, two-and-a-half years later, your property will belong to you. You won’t pay any rent for the rest of your life,” he adds.
The fact that 65-70 percent of the building materials used in the projects is supplied by Sajan’s existing business paved a much easier way for the chairman, who says his company was not as affected by the crash in construction thanks to its approach of opening 48 large and small scale branches, offering up to 25,000 products, across all of the UAE.
And there is more to come. The magnate said he is launching five more showrooms in Oman and one in Kuwait by the end of this year.
Sajan says expansion is also on the cards for Danube Properties. With 50 percent of his latest residential building in Business Bay sold, Danube is scouting for new plots.
Eight projects into his journey in the property world, Sajan says one plot will remain irreplaceable: his Palm Jumeirah villa - his favourite investment, but perhaps his worst.
“I remember when I wanted to buy my Palm Jumeirah villa. Initially, the luxury signature villas were launched at AED5.3m ($1.4m). I could not buy the property during the launch, but after two months passed, I said to myself, I have to have that property. So I asked around and the agents started quoting me AED1.2m more. AED1.2m more for a property that was launched two months ago.
"But I called the agent and said, ‘Can you make it AED1m? I’m willing to pay AED1m extra’. He didn’t give me the AED1m price. So I couldn’t buy that property. And then prices started going up. I later bought the same property for AED22m,” he says, laughing.
“When the property market goes up, you will not realise how fast it goes. Right now, it’s at the lowest price. People think, ‘Oh, it will still go down’. I don’t think it will go lower than it has. Even if it does, it will be only 5 percent or 10 percent, but if it goes up, it will go up very, very high.
“My Palm Jumeirah villa was the first property deal that lost me money. You always remember when you lose money. You never forget.”
By the looks of it, Sajan is not planning on losing any more money, revealing he lives by the motto, “Some people live rich, but not everyone dies rich”.
We can take a wild guess as to which one of those people Sajan is going to be.