SPI Group hosted Shaji Ul Mulk, Founder and Chairman of Mulk Holdings at its 23rd Emirates NBD Global Business Series session. In a bare-all, candid interview with Natasha D’Souza, he opened up about his ambitions, the initial struggles, setbacks, motivation, decision-making process, and what makes Mulk Holdings stand out as a family business. Check out the excerpts from the interview.
You hail from the royal family of Kurnool, India. How would you describe your growing up years? What does being a Nawab mean to you?
It’s true that I belong to the royal family of Kurnool and our forefathers had a lot of wealth and power. We also knew many royal families because of our association. But there was a lot of difference between the royal families of pre-1947 and post-1947. The country had changed, there were new rules and legislations and it was important that we understand that. I have been a witness to several riches-to-rags story, simply because the families didn’t adapt with the changing times.
However, my parents instilled the right set of values in us and have always kept us grounded. They have firmly maintained that it is neither our past nor our forefather’s wealth that defines us; it is who we are as an individual. Of course, we had our comforts but we were also never allowed to forget that who we will be wasn’t dependent on our past but our present and future.
Tell us something about your parents. How did they influence you as a child?
My father, Nawab Alaf Khan was a very charismatic person, a true Nawab whom we really looked up to. He followed his passion and played international football for India and we are immensely proud of that.
My mother had a lot of influence on me and my other siblings. Since, my father was mostly in Kolkata, playing professional football, she was the one who raised all of us and instilled the values that we grew up with. She has always encouraged us to move away from the past and be true to ourselves so that we can achieve what we are truly meant to achieve. Her words of wisdom have always followed us and carried our family forward.
You’re actually one of the very few people whom I know excels at everything – a jack-of-all-trades. You were great at sports, great in academics and are now, as your success story shows, great at business too. So where did that motivation come from? Were you different in your family to be able to excel at so many things?
I think it was the competitive spirit in me that drove me to excel whatever I took up. We always wanted to achieve the best – be it sports or academics; and we inherited that from our father who constantly espoused that if you do something, you’ll have to be the best. We were always hungry for accomplishments and rigorously worked towards that goal.
What was your dream as a young adult? What kind of a career did you visualize for yourself at that stage of life?
I always wanted to be a businessman. In my head, I was very clear that I was going to build my own business.
I have grown up hearing that my grandfather was a businessman – he turned into a businessman post-independence. My father was also involved in the family business; so, it was very clear for me that I’d become a businessman.
You came to the UAE as a pit-stop for the US. You wanted to study at a business school in the US and you walked away from that. What happened? What made you take that decision?
Yes, I came to the UAE to prepare myself for the business school in the United States. I passed my GMAT and TOEFL, got admitted to one of the best business schools in the country and had already paid my fees. Seven days before my flight, the university sent me a communication that stated that a university bus would take me around for a campus tour.
But a year had passed by since the time I landed in the UAE and I was involved in a business partnership with a British company, manufacturing ceiling tiles for them. It was a pretty confusing situation for me; so I turned towards my the-then captain Sunder Chainani for his advice and he asked me to choose between a businessman and the CEO of a large company. I chose to be a businessman; that’s when I instinctively knew that I wouldn’t go to the business school and decided to pursue the business that I had already set up in the UAE.
It has been a long journey from a small setup of ceiling tiles to this more than two billion dollars worth of Mulk Holdings. How would you describe your journey? What were the stepping-stones in the way to your success?
It’s a journey of three decades; we started in 1982 and this is 2016, which makes it more than 30 years. But if I go back to my life, I can clearly divide my journey into three specific parts.
The first part would constitute just me, a single guy who was extremely passionate about badminton and cricket, learning the ropes of business.
Then I got married and a couple of years later, my wife comes to me and says that she doesn’t want to be known as the cricketer’s wife and she believed that there was much more in me than just cricket. She wanted me to take up my business seriously and shift my focus from cricket to business.
That’s when things started getting real. I refocused my priorities, dug in my heels and got down to business. Back at the time, the business of ceiling tiles had a lot of potential. The market was big; demands were high and not much of quality suppliers. We started off as a small setup of just six, then we started creating partnerships, and since the company was growing at a rapid pace, we joined hands with a large local family. By then, the company of six had grown to a company of 1000 people. We became the largest sub-continental company for building facades, interior ceilings, manufacturing building products, etc.
However, I let go of all that success and my company because my dreams and ambitions were much more than what I was being allowed to do. That friction gave rise to Mulk Holdings in the year 1999 and we have been steadily growing ever since.
How would you describe yourself after you started receiving all the awards and accolades? How did success influence you on a personal level?
I realized I became more responsible towards my employees and for their families. It was not just I anymore. The business was growing at a global level and there were thousands of people involved and I felt responsible for each of them; I knew that both my success and failure would impact them tremendously.
No doubt, my success also brought fame and money with it but they are transient. At the end of the day it was, and still is, the people in my life that mattered, the dear old connections that I never let go off and the new bonds of friendship that I created along the way.
How do you perceive yourself as a leader to your employees? How do you relate to them? What kind of a leader would you like to be known as; what kind of legacy would you like to pass on to your people?
For me, my employees are my family. The growth and success that Mulk Holdings have achieved today is only because of these people, the team that is constantly with me.
We’ve always believed in two principles – Empower and Incentivize; and we do both. My people have a say in the company and they can come to me anytime (provided I’m at the office), as my doors are always open for them.
The main vision that I have for Mulk Holdings is that it should outlast next generations and me. I’d like to see it as a solid corporate governance company, people-driven and not ownership-driven, which means, regardless of my son or me, the company should grow on. As a leader, I want Mulk Holdings to be able to take care of the thousand of employees that work for me, and I’m very lucky that I’ve several other leaders in my team that believe in the same principle.
Looking at all your success now, I wonder, have you ever made a mistake of trusting the wrong people and has ended up hurting yourself and costing your business?
Actually yes. I think it is a natural progression of life and that’s how you gain experience. Three years after I started my business, I lost everything and went to zero. I wanted to expand my business; so I partnered with a person in Oman, who eventually turned out to be the wrong one, and invested everything I had to put up a new unit there.
I learnt an important lesson then – that my time is very important. I could have stayed in Oman, filed a case and remained there till the resolution of it all. But I took a call. I decided not to get too involved in it, just appointed a lawyer and came back to the UAE to restart my business. That’s when I realized that my time is my most expensive asset and I had no time to waste. It took me at least a couple of years more to get back on my feet and eventually earn back the capital I lost.
But yes, that was one of the few occasions when I regretted not going to Wharton. It kept tugging me that may be if I had gone to the business school I’d have avoided doing such a mistake, I’d have been able to identify the wrong decision and things would have been easier. But I didn’t dwell on it for long and went back to work.
You business was just growing when you got married. With the passage of time, both your business and your family started expanding. How did you balance it all? Did you ever feel the pressure, the need to sacrifice one to satisfy the other?
Honestly, I don’t believe in nor relate to the philosophy of sacrificing family life to build one’s business. I strongly believe that a man is truly successful when he is happy; and it is the perfect balance of family, work and passion that makes a man really content. A person might become a rich businessman at the cost of his/her family, but that is a huge cost and creates a big gap within the family; and that for me is not real success.
I used to wake up early in the morning, spend time with my kids and drop them to school on the way to work. I’m very proud to say that my children grew with me and I’ve been a regular part of their achievements and accomplishments. We are a strong knit group and don’t need anyone else when we’re together.
You wife, Mrs. Mulk, is also a part of your business. When did she join the business and how has been the experience of working together? Is it smooth sailing or are there points of friction?
My wife initially joined the Mulk Holdings start-up Alubond as a signing authority; so she used to check everything, do the paperwork perform admin duties and so on. Gradually, she liked the business, became more involved, joined Admin and has been working ever since.
Farah is methodical and analytical whereas I am spontaneous. So, rather than a friction we balance each other and take sensible decisions.
Tell us something about your son, Adnam. How did he join your family business?
When Adnam came back from his business management school in London, he was brimming with several ideas. So, he gave me two choices – either give him money to invest for a venture of his own or give him one of the smaller/smallest companies to work on. We gave him a small plastic and metal recycling unit and now that company gives a turnover of more than 700 percent. That is a huge turnaround for the company and for Mulk Holdings as a whole.
He is quite like his mother, cool, calculated and analytical. He takes his time to make the correct decision and that has worked amazingly well for him. He is an independent thinker; a thorough researcher and I have complete faith in his abilities and judgments.
Now that you’ve seen so much success and completed huge part of your business journey, what keeps you awake at night? As a self-made multi-billionaire, what keeps you moving?
I have always loved to create; this diverse empire of Mulk Holdings is a result of my love for creation of new businesses. So, I’d say that the excitement to create something new, to encroach new territories, to come up with a new idea and build on it and ultimately sell it is what keeps me awake.
There is a big difference between your traditional way of entrepreneurship and the new wave of entrepreneurs. Whereas you believed in investing and branching out of different sectors, modern entrepreneurs look out for that one idea that will make them click and achieve success. Do you think there’s still a chance for a modern entrepreneur to take the traditional route and be successful?
I would like to point out here that even when we started our aluminium cladding business with Alubond, it was a completely new concept in the UAE and no one in the Gulf had ever heard of that before. We were the only company in the market that manufactured and promoted that and hence, it was a new trend at that point of time. However, we didn’t have such advanced technology; it is the combination of advanced technology and trend that adds a level of complexity to today’s entrepreneurship.
However, that doesn’t mean we weren’t innovative. We were the first company to collaborate with an American scientist to create the first solar mirror on an aluminum panel. That changed the entire picture of harnessing solar energy and created the solar business for us. We not only understood technology but turned it for us into a successful commercial business module.
Technology has become much more innovative and cutting-edge today with concepts like 3D printing shaping the future of architecture. Where would you place Mulk Holdings in such a phenomena; how do you intend to respond to that?
A. At Mulk Holdings, we always believe that in order to progress we need to embrace technology and find out new advanced applications to stay ahead of the curve. Though we don’t utilize 3D printing, which is primarily a technology for the construction industry, we are planning to implement 3D from a different perspective. For example, currently, we are in talks with a Chinese investment company to help us develop readymade façade panels, including the cladding and walls at the factory, which we then transport to the site and construct the framework.