Billionaire Dr Ravi Pillai’s story is awe-inspiring and worth telling many times over as his success story is one that every entrepreneur dreams of
Young Ravi Pillai left the land of coconut palms for the shores of date palms looking for riches in 1978, armed with the bitter experience of having to abandon his business back home.
His determination and faith in himself did not fail him. Forty years later, he is counted among the richest in the world and the largest employer in the Gulf.
“You have to trust yourself first,” says Dr Ravi Pillai, Chairman and CEO of RP Group of Companies, recounting his life’s journey from Kerala to the Gulf. “If there is a will there is a way. Without confidence we can’t win.”
Win he did and quite fabulously. His success story is one of every entrepreneur’s dream.
Dr Pillai, a self-made billionaire, is not the classical super-rich. There is no aura of a larger-than-life personality; he is simple and straight-forward, and warmth pervades his territory.
The office has no mahogany or oak, but it’s vast and contemporary. Behind his seat is a world map and in front is the beautiful Manama bay, giving the right setting for RP Group’s ‘Business Beyond Boundaries’ vision.
Time is money for every businessman and it must be doubly so for Dr Pillai, a hands-on tycoon.
Dr Pillai’s story is awe-inspiring and worth telling many times over and you must prod him to speak for he hesitates to talk about himself.
Born into a family of farmers in the Indian state of Kerala, he quickly realised agriculture is more hard work and less income and he could achieve his dreams only through business. At the tender age of 14, he started dabbling in small trading and soon after college graduated into proper construction business and became successful too, working for some of the state’s biggest firms. But unethical rivalry and workers’ strikes conspired to kill his nascent business.
Undeterred, Pillai landed in Saudi Arabia and engaged in the construction contracts business in Al Khobar. He commenced operations with 150 employees, took up defence-related construction contracts and also won orders for the Royal Air Terminal at Riyadh Airport. In the next five years, the company moved into industrial contracting, including oil and gas and petrochemical projects, growing in strength to 5,000 employees.
The rest is history, as the cliche goes. Dr Ravi Pillai today has assets worth over $3.6 billion, according to Forbes magazine. He is the third richest non-resident Indian in the Gulf and 35th on the list of wealthiest Indians. His RP Group of Companies, which includes NSH, has more than 100,000 employees, the biggest employer in the Gulf.
However, Dr Pillai doesn’t show much excitement over the greenback figures and is uncomfortable talking about them. He rather prefers to dwell on the group’s head count.
“We are one of the best employers in the region. Money is not everything and it’s important to have a good heart. My policy is don’t make money with someone’s tears, and always earn it the right way,” he says philosophically.
“Our 100,000-plus employees are my real wealth,” he continues. “If you have money, you can buy any car or equipment, but you can’t buy people and their trust. We need good, loyal, hardworking employees, only then we can succeed. I am fortunate to have such people and the company has grown because of them. I want to thank God and our people for our growth.”
No doubt, growth has been phenomenal over the years for RP Group. Having been a trusted infrastructure partner of the GCC region for four decades, the group has delivered projects worth over $30 billion. The group has executed projects such as Jubail Export Refinery Project, NCP Project, Barzan Project, Saudi Kayan Phenolics and many more. Currently, the group is involved in several major projects in the Middle East like the Clean Fuel Project (Kuwait), Alba Potline 6 (Bahrain), NRP-TR (Kuwait) and many more. There are today more than 20 companies under the RP Group umbrella, covering construction and infrastructure, real estate development, hotels and hospitality, healthcare and wellness, education, information technology, trading and retail.
So what does he attribute this phenomenal success to? “Our success is founded on the simple philosophy of trust and credibility. These two are very important things in business and we have been able to deliver on them to our clients.
“We are dealing with companies that are taking up projects worth billions of dollars. The projects must complete on time and they are looking for sub-contractors with reliability and credibility to work with. We are a good fit for them. We have been working for the same clients and with the same principles for the past four decades,” he adds.
“We honour our commitment to all our stakeholders and make a significant contribution to the communities and countries that we serve.”
Looking back to the initial days, he continues: “When we started business, the US oil price was $8.5. At that time Saudi Arabia was not much developed. It would take three hours to go from Al Khobar to Jubail. The country boomed when the oil price went up and several projects were launched. We won orders from major global contractors, who earlier used to bring workers from Korea and other parts of the world. I challenged them and proved to them that workers from India can make a good workforce.”
He concedes that during that time there was less competition and the market was more reasonable. Businesses also flourished before and after the Gulf War as oil prices went up and investments too increased.
Dr Pillai is a firm believer in diversification and his vision for growth transcends borders and sectors. “Businesses cannot grow without diversification after a certain stage. There will always be ups and downs. When you are diversified, if one business has a problem, the other will help. One should not put everything in one basket,” says the shrewd businessman.
But he is quick to add that it’s imperative to follow rules in business. “We can do any business as per government rules and it is important always to obey the laws. I am not a greedy businessman. We have a good name because of our honesty, commitment and credibility.”
He agrees the decline in oil prices has brought in new challenges. “But if one door closes, another opens and new opportunities are coming. I think for another five years, we have enough jobs, that is the present scenario.”
Dr Pillai’s present pet projects are hotels and hospitality. In the Indian tradition of ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’, where the guest has to be treated with the utmost respect, he aims to take Indian hospitality to the rest of the world with luxury hotels and promote medical tourism in India with new hospitals and holistic health and wellness resorts. The group already runs seven hotels and has plans for more.
RP Group is also building hotels, convention centres and malls in India. It is also studying plans to set up a petrochemical unit in the Gulf and has already started oil and petrochemicals trading. A university in Bahrain and a world-class vocational technical training institute are also on the drawing board.
A quiet achiever who has stayed out of the public eye for many years as he built his empire, Dr Pillai is a 24/7 hands-on businessman, jet-setting across the globe to meet clients, check projects and properties, visit workers in camps, recruit new employees, and give a helping hand to the needy.
“Business is not easy and many issues crop up from time to time. We have to be on call 24/7,” he says. “I have a very good management team working for me. They are my core asset and family.”
Dr Pillai prides in giving back to workers and their families. The company’s accommodations and catering facilities for its thousands of workers are known for their quality and hygiene. The canteens work 24 hours and try to cater to the tastes of many nationalities and communities.
“We provide the best food, working and living environment, health and safety, world-class accommodation and listen to the concerns of our employees – only if a worker is satisfied he can give the best for the company. And we make every effort to keep them happy,” avers Dr Pillai.
He meets his workers on site at least once a month and festivals and special occasions are celebrated with company staff.
He says with great delight that many of his workers’ children are now doctors and engineers and a good number of them are working for the company. “It gives me great satisfaction that we have been able to enhance the lives of people,” he adds.
Dr Pillai is virtually a workaholic. Up at the crack of dawn, he exercises, prays and reads newspapers before getting to work early, with his day ending at about 12 midnight.
Work is his passion, he says, indulging only occasionally in watching movies “just to divert the mind and relax”. And hobbies? He is a discreet watch collector but is reluctant to reveal details about his collection.
Apart from work, Dr Pillai devotes much time and effort in philanthropic activities. The group allocates 30 per cent of its profit to social causes, CSR activities and staff welfare.
“At RP Group, we believe that our businesses must touch the lives of people meaningfully. Our real strength comes from our commitment to the society,” he says.
Dr Pillai’s RP Foundation has helped thousands of poor couples to tie the knot through its mass marriage initiative. Apart from the wedding expenses, the foundation has also provided the couples with gifts to start their lives together. The foundation has also built homes for the poor, helped the needy with healthcare and education, and contributed towards relief efforts during natural calamities.
Dr Pillai and his wife Geetha have two children – Ganesh and Arathi. While Ganesh has started helping his father in the business following his studies, Arathi is currently doing her Masters in Medicine. Arathi’s wedding last year hit headlines globally for the grandeur of the event which was attended by about 60,000 guests.
“I have friends and clients in more than 50 countries across the globe, an association of about four decades. This was an occasion to invite them and show our hospitality. It was also an opportunity to showcase our rich culture and tradition to our global guests and help change their mindset,” says Dr Pillai, who donated about $1.55 million to charities on the occasion.
Dr Pillai, in his four-decade long innings, has won many awards from various governments and organisations. He is the recipient of the prestigious Padma Shri award and the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman from the Government of India and the Humanity Award from the Government of Kerala, India.
He has also been honoured by the Bahrain Government.
But the best accolade for him is the happy faces of his workers. “Their happiness is my greatest reward,” he adds. It is no secret that Dr Pillai’s ‘wealth for welfare’ policy has made him even richer.
– by Sree Bhat
Images: Jayath Teki and RPG collection
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