The Twin Engines of Mega Success
As one among the couple of Malayalis who made it to the ultra-exclusive billionaires' club, industrialist Dr. B Ravi Pillai never hesitated to flaunt his soft corner for his home State Kerala and its people even as he grew into a global citizen, expanding the frontiers of his businesses that cover different continents. Now, as the $3.8-billion business empire of RP Group looks to expand further, this tycoon has his son Ganesh Ravi Pillai beside him, sharing the huge responsibility of running the global corporation. Here, in an exclusive interview with Destination Kerala, the father-son duo sits together and tells the story of their ever-growing business kingdom
For Padma Shri Dr. B Ravi Pillai, who rose from humble beginnings, building a successful business empire was never an unattainable goal given his skills, vision and steely resolve which helped to form the core of the entrepreneur in him. Dr. Pillai is indeed the second richest NRK (Non-Resident Keralite) in the UAE. But more than his fortune, he is admired for his kindness and attachment to his home State Kerala. He enjoys the love and respect of thousands of NRKs who are now able to support their families back home because of him. When he looks back at his 35-year-long professional life, he appears content, for he was able to build a global brand that is synonymous with trust. The 64-year-old God-fearing Dr. Pillai always roots his commitment in trust. As the helmsman of the RP Group, Dr. Pillai built that trust through diligence, toil and most of all, camaraderie with his employees. Even as he is known for his affinity for his people on the one side, he remains a headstrong ruler of his empire who is capable of reading the vibes of even the most qualified candidate who sits in front of him at his office. After leading the business from the front all these years, Dr. Pillai now has a ‘new partner’ which is the result of a conscious decision rather than something dictated by the board meeting. He was only following his inner calling when he decided to groom his son Ganesh Ravi Pillai as the future leader of the $3.8-billion business empire. Even for Ganesh, the ticket to his father’s RP Group was not an easy buy. Before joining as Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Group, Ganesh had a stint with the New York-based Citibank, his first major hands-on experience in the corporate world. But for the father-son duo, it was only a warm-up before Ganesh shouldered the really big responsibility. And this partnership had a sparkling take off in 2016 when Gulf Asia Contracting Company, the construction arm of the RP Group of Companies in the Middle East, entered the Guinness World Records for carrying out the longest concreting process in the industry. Fresh out of Citibank, Ganesh had the onus of leading the team which made this stupendous achievement possible. For Ganesh, it was nothing short of a collective achievement, one that was attained with the support of his colleagues and as a result of the determination to finish the job assigned to him on time, that too, in a professional manner. Perhaps it was the same traits that Ganesh inherited from his billionaire father which may have prompted Dr. Pillai to think that it was time the RP Group sought his services in shaping its future. Dr. Pillai enjoys the affection of countless Keralites in the Middle East and elsewhere for having given them livelihood under the Group, and Ganesh too, is fully aware of how his father’s hard work helped the Group in finding new opportunities for Kerala. Here, in an exclusive interview with Destination Kerala, Dr. Ravi Pillai and Ganesh Ravi Pillai speak about their colossal business and everything related to it. Dr. Ravi Pillai is the second richest NRK in the UAE. However, unlike many others, you are not highly visible. Who is the real Ravi Pillai? What is your foundation and what drives you? Dr. Ravi PIllai (Dr. RP): I always wanted to lead the life of a common man. The main reason for that is I learned the lessons of life and business from the common man. I am a firm believer and I always pray to God to enable me to do only good things in life. I wish to offer maximum help to the people around me. Yes, it has been my mantra all this while. We all are nothing but puppets in the hands of an almighty God. We all are working the way he wants. My policy in business and, of course, in life is not to harm anyone for whatever reason and not to make money out of the miseries of people. Businessmen who started in GCC are moving their money to other democratic and emerging markets. What are your plans in this regard? Dr. RP: Yes, that is true. Investment is flowing into South Asian countries like Thailand, Myanmar, Maldives and the Philippines primarily because they are emerging markets. In my opinion also, investments in these countries are very promising in terms of returns. RP Group is currently doing a large hospitality project in Maldives. Your fellow NRK businessmen have expanded their operations outside Kerala and to north Indian States. What is RP Group’s India play? Dr. RP: I have big business projects in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune. Besides, we are also doing a project which will be the largest-of-its-kind in India. I don’t want to divulge the details now. Probably, it will make headlines next year. RP Group’s India play will get a boost in the coming years. That decision mainly comes from the realisation that we cannot eternally depend on the Gulf countries. Even those countries are slowly shifting their focus from traditional business models. What do you have to say about the general investment climate in India? Dr. RP: I feel it is going to be a very difficult time in India for the next seven months mainly due to the upcoming union elections. Everything will remain virtually paralysed until the it is over. A change in the investment scenario will happen only after the next government takes charge. You have many interesting investments like Kingdom of Dreams in Noida and Wizcraft International Entertainment. How do you decide on making such investments? Dr. RP: RP Group has streamlined its investment processes and we have a research group which looks into the scope of every investment that we intend to make. So we take a decision only based on its findings. It has been two years since I have invested in Kingdom of Dreams and it was made after a similar study was conducted by our investment research wing. What are your commitments to invest in Kerala? How many Keralites could be employed in the next five years? Dr. RP: We are ready to invest in Kerala if we find good opportunities. Remember, RP Group has played a major role in providing employment to a large number of Keralites. I assure you that it is only going to increase in the coming years, especially under Ganesh’s leadership. Our businesses are booming and headcount growth will also see an increase of 10 to 15 per cent. We are launching new operations in Africa which will again throw open a lot of new opportunities for our people. My son is very much interested in the IT sector and I think he may also explore the prospects of investing in startups. I am trying to bring businessmen from other countries to invest in Kerala and India using my contacts. However, for doing that I should be 100 per cent confident about the opportunities available in our State. You are heading the council of Loka Kerala Sabha which brought NRKs under one umbrella. What have been the achievements and what are the possibilities offered by the forum? Dr. RP: At present, Loka Kerala Sabha is discussing the possibilities of starting three projects with the support of the State Government. We hope to set the ball rolling by next month (December). The State Government is studying the feasibility of the proposed projects. Thorough studies will be conducted because it is NRK money that is going to be channelled into these projects. Funds for these projects will be mobilised once we get the nod from the State Government. I have proposed four projects. One is an NRI City which will have an international school and hospital. The second is a chain of hospitals of international standards. A medical equipment manufacturing facility is the third one while the fourth one is a project for manufacturing titanium products. Another investment proposal which we discussed was an old-age home with most modern medical and housing facilities. I understand that the Chief Minister has taken keen a interest in that project. Most of your investments in Kerala were made as a result of your love for the home State. How long will you continue with these investments without considering RoI? Dr. RP: It is very difficult to make revenue from hospitality and healthcare sectors in Kerala. We are using our own money to run operations. We are not taking loans from banks mainly because that may lead to losses. We are able to run the business because RP Group has strong finances. If you ask me how long it will go like that, well, I cannot say. Whether it has any solution again depends on a set of things. Land prices are very high in Kerala, construction expenses are huge, salary expenses are again on the higher side and so are the prices of all other perishables in the business. On the other hand, tourists will always go to places which offer the best amenities and value for money. If we have to attract them to our properties we have to be competitive in the international markets. Satisfied customers bring us more business. I believe it is not just the hotel’s job to ensure their happiness. The travel trade and the State Government should put their heads together and figure out how we can achieve this collectively. That means through our joint efforts, starting from the taxi driver at the airport to all the people who facilitate tourism, everyone should be able to make our visitors happy. Then they will definitely come back. This is how I look at it. Ganesh has already entered the business and your daughter Dr. Arathi is heading Upasana Hospital, your initiative in the healthcare sector. So what does this succession means for the RP Group of Companies? Dr. RP: The RP Group has business interests in various places around the globe and we employ more than one lakh people. Our business is growing like never before. RP Group is into industrial construction, trading, hospitality, healthcare, education, construction of high-rise buildings, IT and real estate. We are going to invest more in India. Now we are present all over the Gulf and in countries like Japan, Australia, the UK and expanding further. My children joining the business will add to my strength and bolster my confidence. My son Ganesh has a very pleasing personality and is also highly focussed. I believe he will be able to do more than what I have done so far in my career. So is my daughter Dr. Arathi. With both of them handling responsibilities, I am sure the business is going to grow by leaps and bounds. You have 30-odd years of experience in business. Now at the crossroads of succession, how are you grooming your son Ganesh to take over the business? Dr. RP: I am a person who came up from the grass-roots level. But Ganesh is different. He has received quality education of international standards and hence, we cannot technically say that he is a greenhorn. He has already got sufficient international exposure which even I don’t have at this age. Most importantly, I think he is going to benefit from the kind of circle of friends he has nurtured after his MBA course. He has a lot of experience. As a person adept in technical aspects related to business and having the right connections, I think he can easily handle the business. So essentially, he doesn’t necessarily require my training. He has a lot of original ideas. How do you foresee your business under Ganesh? What do you expect from him? Dr. RP: I do have great expectations about Ganesh. RP Group under his leadership is poised for huge growth. I say it because I know he is a good decision-maker, very shrewd and determined. Now it has been one year since he joined the business and currently, he is looking after the businesses in Dubai and Bahrain, mainly segments like construction and IT. I hope he will bring about substantial changes in the company. He did his MBA from one of the premier institutes in the world. Now with Dr. Arathi and her husband Dr. Aditya taking over, how do you see the healthcare business expanding? Are they planning any new projects? Dr. RP: We hope to go for large expansions on the healthcare front. We will definitely not settle for just one hospital. At present, we are studying the possibilities in the health sector of Kerala. Our vision is to develop a very large healthcare brand in Kerala. Though you are not a person who is visibly ostentatious, the wedding of your daughter Dr. Arathi was a glitzy affair. Why was that? Dr. RP: You know I have hundreds of friends both outside and within India and many of them are holding very important positions. Hence, it was necessary and I could not have compromised on that. Can you tell us about your ventures in the education sector? Dr. RP: My wife Geetha is running the New Millennium School in Bahrain and we have a nursing college in Kerala. If the NRI City project proposal is approved, then we may set up an international school in Kerala also. (To Ganesh) Have you been influenced by your father in any way? What have you learned from him so far? Ganesh Ravi Pillai (GRP): There are certain things which I have imbibed from my father and his business. The first thing is trust. The second aspect is his commitment to work. If he has committed to a certain work, he always sees to it that it is completed as promised. In the process he may end up making loss or profit. But for him, keeping his word is more important than anything else. Also, he puts a lot of effort into his work. There are times when he has completed projects before the stipulated time. Another habit of his which has interested me is his punctuality. Be it a meeting or any other event, he will be there well before it begins. These are some of his habits which have influenced me to a great extent. RP Group is a company which my father has built brick by brick. Being his son, I have been able to watch his style of functioning very closely, and undoubtedly, it is going to help me and the company in the future. More than a professional approach, a personal touch to aspects concerning the company will help yield better results. That is how I have seen my father doing it over the years. As for the training I have received from my father, I would say that he has always advised me to consult, read more and travel. He constantly underscores the importance of learning more about the things that we handle. When he entrusts me with a task, he ensures that I learn every aspect of it. He insists that I follow that kind of a discipline while undertaking tasks, be they big or small. The understanding I have is to never involve in any business without acquiring the right knowledge about it. I am fully involved in all the businesses that I am looking after now. It is only natural that one takes some time to understand and learn about them in detail. That way I have had great learning experiences. What are your plans for the future of RP Group? GRP: My father has shown me through examples how to treat each and every colleague in the company as our own family member. In the process of growing up I have seen how he has maintained good relations with the employees of the company. I will retain that ‘sense of family’ in the future, too. My efforts will be concentrated towards taking the business forward the same way my father did. Could you share with us your experience in RP Tech, the IT venture? What are your future plans for it? GRP: We are in the domain of SAP (System Applications and Processing). Our core strength is in providing end-to-end solutions in SAP. As the CEO of RP Tech, I am currently involved in strategic decision making. Under the guidance of my father, I am now focussed on upscaling RP Tech to the next level. There are plans to expand the verticals of RP Tech. Besides SAP, we have laid our hands on mobility, IoT and Big Data. We are already in the growth phase and my goal is to take the company to the next level. I am very excited about it.