Gokulam Gopalan: Diversification as the DNA of Business Success
Fifty years ago, a 24-year-old man hailing from a village in North Kerala was in dire need of some money to buy a pair of formal attire for his new job in a pharmaceutical company in Chennai. As a graduate in Mathematics, he was much sought after in his village by small-time financiers to help in tallying the numbers. Taking a cue from it, he himself started a mini chit fund involving 10 members with a monthly installment of Rs. 60 each. It served his purpose but little did he know then that he had just sowed the seeds of what will, over the years, become a vast business empire.
A very familiar face even outside the business circles, Gokulam Gopalan, Chairman & MD of Gokulam Group of Companies, has unbelievably diverse business interests ranging from chit funds to hospitality to entertainment which includes film production and TV channels. During the course of this exclusive interview given to Athul Lal A G, Executive Editor, at one point he says that he would consider any proposal mooted by anyone if he found it investment worthy. This unflagging ‘count me in’ entrepreneurial spirit of the man who is in his mid-70s speaks volumes about the DNA of his business success. This consummate business tycoon is otherwise a ‘typical Malayali’ who is least pretentious. Here we present the veteran entrepreneur for our readers.
A M Gopalan, popularly known as Gokulam Gopalan, the Chairman & MD of Sree Gokulam Group of Companies, is celebrating his 50 years of entrepreneurship and the Golden Jubilee of Sree Gokulam Chit & Finance. The flagship venture of the Group, the Chit company has around 450 branches spread over 10 states. Besides, the Group has diversified its operations into hospitality, healthcare, education, logistics, food, manufacturing, retail, cinema and media entertainment, and realty. With over 11,000 employees, the annual turnover of the Group now comes to around Rs. 7000 crore.
In an exclusive chat with Destination Kerala at his office in The Gokulam Park Hotel in Kochi, the septuagenarian business tycoon spoke in detail about his entrepreneurial journey. The simplicity of his attire, typical rural Kozhikode accent and the warmth he exudes never give the impression of a billionaire businessman unless you see him coming out of his Audi SUV.
When I met him, Gopalan was about to attend a function being organised by an NGO to felicitate him for constructing two homes for the flood victims in Wayanad district. “I believe, for any business to succeed, the promoters must maintain commitment towards society, whatever the business may be. If there is a lack of concern for the community, one will never succeed,” said the veteran beginning the long conversation.
The year 2019 is going to be a turning point for Sree Gokulam Group since it is waiting for the final nod from the RBI to start an NBFC. “Upon receiving licence from RBI, Gokulam Finance will start with two products – gold loan and housing loan. The headquarters will be in Chennai. Initially, we will start operations in select cities and subsequently expand to all other places where we already have branches of the chit firm,” Gopalan said.
The Success Story
After his graduation, Gopalan wanted to study medical science but his family’s financial health was not sound enough to support in realising his dream of becoming a doctor. On the other hand, his father insisted that he should do post-graduation in Mathematics and pursue a career in teaching. However, Gopalan had some other plans. His passion for art made him think of trying his luck in cinema. A few weeks after he joined the PG course, Gopalan saw an advertisement of a job vacancy in a private company in Chennai which was into weighing machines business.
“The year was 1968. I was longing for an opportunity to visit Chennai because of my love for cinema. Though I did well in the interview, for some reason they didn’t offer me the job. Since it was my own decision to come to Chennai, my ego did not permit me to return home without accomplishing anything. Then I started doing small-time jobs like selling lottery tickets. One day, I happened to meet a doctor. Realising that I am a graduate, he recommended me for a job in a pharmaceutical company. I got the job but hardly had the money to buy a pair of formal clothing required for the new job. That was when I started a mini chit fund involving 10 members with a monthly installment of Rs. 60. The first month’s collection was my commission and I used it for the purpose,” he said.
In 1975, Gopalan got a promotion and was about to be transferred. “By then, Sree Gokulam Chit Funds had become a reasonably big business. After office hours I used to work for my personal venture and it grew substantially. So I decided to quit the job and run the chit business on a full-time basis. I registered the company in 1975 and new branches were subsequently set up,” he added.
Entry to Tinsel town
Though the business began flourishing, Gopalan’s love for cinema didn’t in anyway wane. As a result, in 1976, he took the plunge by producing ‘Allari Vayasu’, a Telugu film, which was the directorial debut of Chandrasekhar, father of present-day superstar of Tamil, Vijay. “The film was well received but financially, it did not yield any substantial gains forme. So, I decided to focus more on my chit business,” he said. Now, Sree Gokulam Movies has become a major production house bringing out big-budget films like Kayankulam Kochunni, which bagged record collection of Rs. 100 crore-plus, and Pazhassi Raja, a period film.
Mega Launches in 2019
If things go as per plan, Sree Gokulam Group will foray into retail sector in Kerala market this year. Gokulam Galleria, a mall project in Kozhikode, is nearing completion and is expected to be commissioned in the first quarter of 2019-20. “Our plan is to position the mall as a fashion hub since the urban population of Kozhikode has awareness about and exposure to international fashion brands. Taking this into consideration, we have given a lot of thought while designing the structure and its interiors,” Gopalan said.
In fact, Gokulam Galleria is a mall-cum-hotel project. There will be a multiplex with five screens. “The seven-storey mall space will have a gross lease area of around two lakh sq.ft. The Food Court will have the space to accommodate 500-plus seats. The 73-key four star business hotel will have 14 suite rooms, four banquet halls and roof garden restaurant. Overall, there will be facility to park around 500 cars,” Gopalan informed.
Gokulam Park Hotels & Resorts, the hospitality arm of Sree Gokulam Group, has recently acquired MSR Hotel and Spa Bengaluru, which was earlier being operated as Movenpick Hotel and Spa Bengaluru Hotel. The acquisition marks the Group’s entry into the five star segment and the new property will be operated under the brand name Gokulam Grand Hotel and Spa.
“We have always maintained excellent service standards across all our properties and this has helped us gain customer loyalty in a big way. Now, tapping into the goodwill, we would like to expand the hospitality portfolio. Going forward, we will have three brands at three different price points – Gokulam Grand, Gokulam Park and Gokulam Residency,” Gopalan said.
A few weeks ago, the Group launched Gokulam Park Munnar, a four star leisure hotel at the scenic Chithirapuram valley. Gokulam Grand Resort & Spa, the upcoming five star property at Kumarakom spread over 10 acres of land, is expected to be operational later this year. The luxury resort will have individual cottages with private pools and facilities for MICE activities as well.
The other hotels promoted by the Group include Gokulam Park Chennai, Gokulam Park, Coimbatore; Gokulam Park Sabari – OMR, Chennai; Gokulam Park Hotel & Convention Centre, Kochi; Sree Gokulam Nalanda Resorts, Nileswaram; Sree Gokulam Sabari and Sree Gokulam Vanamala, Guruvayur; Sree Gokulam Residency, Thrissur and Hotel Gokulam Fort, Thalassery. Gokulam Park Doha, a four star hotel, is the Group’s first overseas hotel venture. Under the banner Gokulam Cruise Lines, the Group also operates luxury houseboat service at Kumarakom.
The hospitality division contributes around 15 per cent of the Group’s turnover and it aims at increasing this share to 25 per cent in the near future.“We have plans to expand operations to national and international levels. This can be greenfield projects or management contracts,” he said.
Gokulam Gopalan is also keen on investing in a heli-tourism project in Kerala. “I believe there is immense scope for such a tourism product in Kerala. Who will not want to enjoy and explore the beauty of Kerala from above?” he asks.
Recently, the Group forayed into retail business in the UAE in collaboration with Al Madeena Group and now runs two hypermarkets in Dubai. It has also invested in an educational venture in the UAE, which runs the Dovecote Green Primary School, an English curriculum school in Dubai. Study World Education Holding, the Group’s educational investment arm, has plans to start schools in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi as well. In 2015, Sree Gokulam Group entered into the construction sector in Dubai by acquiring Golden Readymix, which supplies readymix concrete.
Also, Gopalan acquired the Thiruvananthapuram-based GG Hospital two years ago and it has now become one of the fastest growing multi-specialty healthcare facilities in South Kerala. Sree Gokulam Food and Beverages, another subsidiary of the Group, manufactures and supplies packaged drinking water under the brand Holy Aqua across Kerala as well as in Chennai and Coimbatore. In between, the Group ventured into tea manufacturing after setting up a factory at Valsaravakkom in Chennai.
In a unique move, Gokulam Gopalan launched Flowers TV in 2015, which has emerged as one of the top general entertainment channels in Malayalam language in a short span of time. In December 2018, a Malayalam news channel ‘24’ was added to the portfolio.
“So, what is the rationale behind your Group’s diversification?” I asked. “It is not about expanding my business empire. I have been successful in the business, thanks to Almighty. I believe now it’s time to support good initiatives. People come to me and discuss ideas. If I find it interesting, I will support them. While launching Flowers TV, I was very particular that we should unearth the local talents and give them an opportunity to showcase their skills. The difference is now there for you to see. If you are an entrepreneur and suppose you sought my help for launching a business idea, I will extend all support provided you prove the capability to do so. That’s how the diversification happened and now, Sree Gokulam Group has around three dozen companies under it,” he explained the dynamics of growth.
Having decades of entrepreneurial experience, Gopalan believes that Kerala now enjoys a perfect climate for investment. “Unlike in the past, when we struggled to make things happen, now we have political leaders who are aware of the need to rope in mega investment projects for the State to grow,” he added.
At the same time, Gopalan, who owns Sree Gokulam Medical College and Research Foundation, is not happy with what’s happening in the State’s higher education sector, particularly the inconsistent policies being pursued by successive governments vis-à-vis the self-financing educational institutions. “We decided to venture into the medical education sector when former Chief Minister A K Antony came forward with his 50-50 policy. The logic behind his move was that when six medical colleges would be set up in the private sector, it would tantamount to establishing three medical colleges in the government sector, that too, without any financial obligation to the State. Now the situation has gone upside down. There seems to be a general consensus among political parties to not promote private investments in the higher education sector. No other State has such a problem. Anyway, since we have already established it, we will continue to run our medical college,” he informed.
A known philanthropist, Gopalan gives back to society in a big way through various channels. At Sree Gokulam Medical College, he has set up a separate block for rehabilitating senior citizens who are destitute. About 160 elderly persons are at the centre now. He also provides monthly pension to 200 people belonging to weaker sections of society.
Given his popularity, one political party approached Gopalan to persuade him to contest as their candidate from the Vatakara Assembly constituency. “But I said no. I feel whoever maybe the elected representative, he or she should be present there in the constituency itself and work for the benefit of the public. It is not possible for me and hence, I politely declined the offer. Even now, without being a politician, I am active in social work. The only difference is, social worker won’t become an MLA or MP,” he chuckles.
Looking back, Gopalan believes that honesty and timely resolution of issues which affect work are the key things that helped him grow. “In the early stages of business, proper time management and hard work really paid off. You can imagine how risky a business like chit fund is. The risk factor increases manifolds when you do business by employing hundreds of people and through a number of branches. However, right from the beginning, I made sure that payments to the customers wouldn’t be delayed. In the early days, there were occasions when I had to even borrow and pay the clients. Even then, I had the inner feeling that the business would flourish someday if I was able to enjoy the customers’ trust,” he concluded.
And, he has proved himself through his life for all the entrepreneurs out there to emulate.