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MICKY JAGTIANI : Retail's Reclusive Billionaire


The chairman of the Dubai-based Landmark Group, which has about 1,000 stores in 10 countries, says he failed accounting school in London in his early 20s because it bored him. But when you are forced to act the part, Mr. Jagtiani says, you just do it.

“I think sometimes it’s just circumstances,” he says at Landmark’s headquarters in Jebel Ali. “Maybe there is some guiding force that takes you to that direction and sometimes fate, as they call it. It just happens that I was young, with two left feet, and anything that I would do would go wrong.

And I was always in the shadow of my brother. After he passed away, I just had to stand on my own feet. And I think that’s what made the ­difference.”

After failing his exams at North London Polytechnic, Mr. Jagtiani, 58, who grew up in Kuwait, drove taxis and cleaned offices to make ends meet. But the death of his only sibling, Areesh, from leukemia, jolted him into action. Mr. Jagtiani took US$3,000 (Dh11,000) – all the money he had – and opened his first children’s clothing and apparel store in Bahrain, called BabyShop.

Six months later, tragedy struck again. His father died of a heart attack. Then, nine months later, his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“By the time I was 25, I was an orphan,” Mr. Jagtiani says. “So, I had to do everything myself.”

And what he did was take his company and transform it from a 5,000 square foot shop in Bahrain into an international chain of stores and restaurants across the Middle East and India. In the UAE alone, the company operates more than 300 stores. Landmark now has an annual turnover of about $2.5 billion and more than 22,000 employees. Last year, Landmark’s sales grew 18 per cent, Mr. Jagtiani says, although the growth rate was slower than the 25 per cent seen in previous years. However, he says his company is in an excellent position to ride out the economic storm.

“We are mid-market, you see, and we are the only company in the Middle East which does our own product development and our own sourcing of fabrics and sizes and designing and what not,” he says. “So we have the 40 per cent edge over our competition in terms of pricing because everything we do is in-house.”

Mr. Jagtiani says the philosophy that has taken him this far has not changed, despite the global financial crisis. “I’ve been very aggressive and a risk taker,” he says. “We were one of the early entrants into the Saudi market, and today we are Saudi’s biggest retailers.”

This year, Landmark will open 140 stores, down from the 180 originally planned, including 15 outlets in Egypt and about 15 in India. The company is opening 22 restaurants, including a Chinese restaurant in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, he says. Mr. Jagtiani is also looking westward. Talks are in the works and he says Landmark will expand into Europe, probably the UK, in the next 18 to 24 months.

Sindhi Tattler Magazine“There’s a lot of easy picking in the UK,” he says, adding that share prices have dropped by as much as 80 per cent. “And we’ve been studying it for the last five years.” Mr. Jagtiani already has a 9 per cent stake in Debenhams, a British department store chain, and shares in New Look, a clothing chain, he says. Landmark is also looking for more acquisitions, but is holding off, for now.

“We feel the time is still not right. We could still wait longer. We expect the recession to last for three to four years. But I think in another two years, there will be some market bottoming out.”

In the next six months, Landmark will also be launching a clothing concept called Splash Iconic, headed by his daughter, Nisha, 24. It will make its debut at Deira City Centre and will be a younger version of Landmark’s clothing chain, Splash, which is managed by Mr. Jagtiani’s wife of 27 years, Renuka. His other daughter, Arti, works with Home Centre and his son, Rahul, is studying business at Georgetown University in the US.

Sindhi Tattler MagazineMr. Jagtiani says the company has not laid off staff due to the economic crisis, and he tries to give his employees performance updates to stave off any rumours of job cuts. Many of Landmark’s board of directors have been with the company since its humble roots, he says.

“Most of our directors are mostly hands on. They started by carrying the cartons.” Mr. Jagtiani leaves the day-to-day operations to the board and focuses his 12-hour days on guiding company strategy for growth, he says. However, he is not fully removed from the shop floor, routinely visiting Landmark’s outlets and trying to make time to sit and talk with his employees.

“We have these annual parties for our staff and I go there and I’ll dance with my warehouse workers and drivers,” he says.

Mr. Jagtiani’s real passion, however, is working with people outside the retail sphere. “My ambition is to one day retire and go into social work,” he says. “That’s my dream. And when I’m ready, I want to give away about a billion dollars to charity.”

Mr. Jagtiani is already giving about $2m of his own money annually to fund Life Trust, a charity he founded in 2000 to help children in the slums of India. Each year, he spends 10 to 15 days in the Dharavi slum, a cramped city of shacks in Mumbai featured in the movie Slumdog Millionaire, which has won eight Academy Awards and other international accolades.

His organisation, which has two offices in India and 15 employees, teaches the children English, Maths, and basic grooming and work skills using visual communication technology such as portable DVD players, he says. The programme also aims to teach the participants skills needed for the retail and hospitality industries. When Mr. Jagtiani embarks on these mini-missions, he takes a no-frills approach including using budget airlines.

“Why do I do that? Because that’s what social work is about. You’ve got to do it with low costs,” he says. “You know, the UN spends about 75 per cent on administration. My costs will be down to about 22 per cent administration. So I never take a salary, and I fund most of it myself. I travel economy and, sometimes, I’ll travel in third-class trains.”

It is a principle he also applies to his life. Most of the clothes he wears are from his own stores. And each year, he tries to give up one thing that he does not need. Like his business, Mr. Jagtiani hopes to expand Life Trust on a much larger scale – to about $100m per year.

“I enjoy it,” he says. “I think people should try to give back to society when they are successful and I’m trying to do that. I live on very little. I don’t have a private jet, or a yacht or anything like this. I live very simply and I’d like to give back.”

 

 

 

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