His life could easily be made into a Bollywood biopic complete with near-death experiences, film stars, fireworks, private jets and Rolls-Royces, but the 'King of Spice', Indian retail billionaire Dr Dhananjay Datar, is not finished writing the script just yet
“We always open with a bang…” says Dr Dhananjay Datar, the chairman and managing director of Al Adil Trading.
“We call a Bollywood actress, we make a stage, there’s music, she dances, and thousands of people come.”
The Akola-born Indian billionaire best known as the ‘King of Spice’ isn’t describing the set of a glamorous Bollywood film. He’s talking about the grand opening of his latest supermarket.
Wait until you hear the story of his life: fireworks, near-death experiences, depression, private jets and Rolls-Royces. Indeed, Datar’s life is just as colourful as the 9,000 products he sells in his 41 stores across the GCC. He even likens it to a movie script, and we agree.
For starters, his first brush with mortality came when he was working late at his company’s warehouse and a spark fell on a container full of firecrackers. It caused a massive – albeit remarkable – explosion.
“I was caught in the fire, but one of my workers rushed towards me in time and saved my life,” Datar recounts.
Another near-death experience? A stint with depression. “I became a workaholic,” he says, “I began chasing the money.”
Luckily, he doesn’t have to worry about a lack of cash today. Datar has since been celebrating life (and store openings) with every chance he gets.
I was caught in the fire, but one of my workers rushed towards me in time and saved my life
In fact, to mark 25 years in business, he flew his entire team aboard a Royal Jet Airways Boeing 737, where he gifted his business partner and wife Vandana the key to a $2m bespoke Rolls-Royce Phantom, one of only 17 in the world.
While the retail magnate is today one of the UAE’s richest Indians, his first venture (just like the many twists in Bollywood films) came with ample drama.
In the first year of business, Datar’s trading company suffered a huge loss and was at a risk of shutting down.
“We were [beginners]. In a haste to expand the business, we provided goods to resellers and they didn’t pay the dues in time. We had no reserves to cover it, so we thought of winding up the business,” he says.
In a bid to save the company, Datar’s mother sold her gold jewellery (including her Mangalsutra, the necklace the groom ties around the bride’s neck to mark their marriage) to raise funding.
His mother’s sacrifice eventually saved the business, and taught Datar the art of customer service.
“I quickly realised the customers’ mind – that they prefer picking up the products on their own. I then modernised our shops to turn them into comfortable super stores,” he says.
“I [also] paid attention to the development of new products [and] implemented state-of-the art packaging technology and international quality norms to make the products clean and safe,” he adds.
Datar’s current challenge, however, is a slow retail sector in the UAE, with low oil prices between 2014 and 2016 having caused increasing supply and weakness in retail spending, according to a number of reports, including the 2018 retail overview from property services firm Core.
“Some economic researchers are predicting a sluggish growth ahead for the global markets, based on indicators like current trade conflicts between big powers, rising inflation, as well as a hike in interest rates. Some are even warning about a slowdown in global economy and a possible recession at the doorstep,” Datar says.
But he’s not worried at all.
“I [try to] adjust myself according to the situation [but], as of now, I don’t see any sluggish trend… Inflation might affect consumers’ decisions to purchase some luxury items temporarily, but there is no danger at all to the commodities and FMCG (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods) sectors,” Datar says.
Financially, we are very strong. I keep saving properly and I secure my company first
He may very well be right. Dubai’s retail sector is expected to grow 5.6 percent from $35bn in 2018 to $43.7bn by 2021, according to figures by Dubai Chamber, with the Expo 2020 also expected to attract 25 million visitors during the six-month event.
“I am a trader businessman and have learned from past experiences that there is nothing to worry [about]. Markets are always volatile and pass through ups and downs… Five years [ago]… everyone was worrying about the global depression and almost all the businesses and sectors were facing the brunt of recession. My business was no exception to it,” he says.
As with any feature film, his right hand woman came to the rescue.
“I made a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) and made appropriate changes in my strategy. My wife, who has been an excellent finance director of our Al Adil Group, shared the responsibility, streamlined the budget and kept unnecessary expenditures under check. I concentrated on venturing new opportunities and new markets. We implemented a vigilant cost cutting exercise and limited ourselves to profit making transactions only,” he says.
The result? A whopping 400 percent growth in the group’s income. The recipe is simple: the company’s margins are increasing due to a squeeze in costs in terms of rental rates on their stores, and the prices they negotiate with suppliers.
“Now the market is down so we get very low rents. Rents are down almost 30 percent, so it is good and we negotiate with the landlords to go for longer leases so they give for less…” Datar says.
And what do you do when your profits are through the roof? You expand, of course.
The managing director recently opened a store in Silicon Oasis, and is preparing for the launch of another brand in Sharjah. In total, he has six more planned for this year, as he focuses on growing population centres such as Business Bay, Jumeirah Lake Towers and Dubai Marina.
Al Adil Trading Company, which currently operates in the UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia, is also set to expand to Kuwait over the next six months. Datar even has his eyes on Europe.
“We’ll go to Europe… maybe next year,” he says.
Despite a possible expansion beyond the GCC, an initial public offering (IPO) is off the table for Datar’s business. In fact, the retail tycoon tells us he is quite conservative when it comes to investing.
“Financially, we are very strong. I keep saving properly and I secure my company first. I always do the proper savings. I will take risks in my business, but I will never take a risk in my savings. Most people put their money in shares or equity markets, I’m not that person. I want 5 percent [return], but I want it fixed,” he says.
One likely reason Datar steers away from taking too many risks with Al Adil Group is his two sons Hrishikesh and Rohit, who are quickly coming up the ranks. The managing director claims he hasn’t forced any of his family members to join the business, but his sons say he’s a “very tough” boss nonetheless.
“[When] you work a nine to five job, you know your boss won’t be in your house before nine and won’t be there after five, right? You have that free time. Even if you come late, you can get out of the boss’s radar,” Hrishikesh says, as he joins his father at the headquarters of Arabian Business in Dubai.
“But, when your boss is living with you, work goes with you like a rain cloud over your head all the time,” he jokes, before adopting a more serious tone, “[But] we had free will, we could have been anything we wanted to be – a pilot, actor, anything – but we had a passion in the business… [our] business ethic grew because he pressured us and trusted us with the work and, because we don’t want to let him down, we work harder.”
Most people put their money in shares or equity markets, I’m not that person. I want 5 percent [return], but I want it fixed
Hrishikesh and Rohit don’t have to worry about heading the company just yet, however, as 56-year-old Datar rebuffs any plans to retire.
“There are many things I want to enjoy [but] I want to enjoy the working life. Sitting at your home alone…,” he says, shaking his head, “I want to be involved in the business.”
Whether Datar decides to retire or not, we reckon there is already plenty of material for a future Bollywood film on the life of the ‘King of Spice’. The opening scene? It could easily be the colourful launch of a new store, perhaps even in Europe.
Retail remains one of the main contributors to Dubai’s economy and one of the most attractive sectors for investment
The Dubai retail sector is projected to record a compound annual growth rate of 5.2 percent over the 2018-2023 period, supported by strong international visitor spend, robust demand fuelled by a high frequency of mega-sales and shopping festivals, and growing e-commerce activity, according to a new analysis by Dubai Chamber of Commerce.
Other key factors expected to fuel the growth of the sector in the medium term include the growing popularity of traditional and app-based delivery services, sector expansion ahead of Expo 2020 and an increasing number of tourists from China, Russia and other top source markets following recent decisions to ease visa restrictions.
According to the analysis, Dubai’s retail sector generated an estimated AED 142bn ($38.7bn) in sales during 2018, marking a growth rate of 6.8 percent. Furthermore, despite the implementation of VAT, many hypermarkets have managed to keep their prices competitive which have helped offset such costs. Meanwhile, smaller retailers, such as convenience stores, have continued attracting consumers by enhancing their customer service with extended opening hours and delivery services.
Dubai’s grocery retailers generated an estimated AED47.1bn ($12.8bn) in sales in 2018, the analysis reveals.For all the latest retail news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.