Indians have an in-built entrepreneurial spirit

Indians have an in-built entrepreneurial spirit

Ravi Mehrotra is a well-known Indian shipping magnate who has built a strong diversified empire from scratch in the Foresight group. He may have been based around the world over the years, from Iran to Europe, but has refused to part with his Indian passport to ensure his every achievement is counted as an Indian success story. 'India Global Business' takes a trip down memory lane with this self-made Global Indian.

How would you describe Foresight Group′s genesis and key milestones

I started my group Foresight in London in 1984 at quite a late stage in my career. I was 43 years old by that time. But I was the managing director of a shipping company working with the government of Iran and the government of India. I was seconded by the government of India to Iran. I was still running it when the Iranian revolution came in 1978. The Iranian government then requested India to lend my services to the development of Iranian shipping, which I did till 1983.

Then at the beginning at 1984, I felt that if I can do this for two governments, let me try it out myself. So I took a release from both sides and came to London and started Foresight.

It started as a normal little small company doing a little bit of shipping, broking and trying to find ways to grow. I landed in London with 24 years of experience but with empty pockets. As a managing director, you are well to do but that does not mean you can run a shipping company which requires millions of dollars.

So I had lot of goals, aims and experience but empty pockets.

What made you choose London as a base

Shipping is a very peculiar industry. It has to be started in a place which has a shipping culture. So if we start from the Far East on the map, it is Yokohama, Hong Kong, Singapore, Mumbai, Dubai, Greece, the UK, Norway and Denmark.

For me, the ideal choice would have been Dubai because it was the closest and easiest. But I am talking about 32 years ago, when Dubai still had black spot on its history as a place where smugglers began enterprises. So if I had started there, I would have had to deal with that baggage.

In Mumbai, the Indian bureaucracy at the time would not have helped matters and there was no venture capital. I would have been doomed to failure.

Singapore was a good option but a Chinese heritage was preferable back then; now it more cosmopolitan. Hong Kong had the same issue.

With Greece, Norway and Denmark, I had a language handicap so I was left with no other alternative but the UK. When I started looking, I felt God has sent me this choice because British shipping was dying and all the institutions were available but to use them you needed to have the right credentials.

Would you say an entrepreneurial spirit is something one is born with or can be cultivated

I would say both are possible. If it is in the family, your DNA would have a knack to handle things. Whereas in my case, my father was a professor of economics and mother was a housewife. I had no one in the family who was in business, so there was nothing in the DNA to tell me that I could be an entrepreneur. It is purely down to experience.

For me the Iranian Revolution was a boon in disguise. Ayatollah Khomeini was fighting with everyone in the world and I was the adviser who had to make sure the venture I was tasked with was a success. It was an education platform.

What made you choose the shipping industry, or did it chose you

I had to make a success of things and that also helped me to learn. You cannot succeed unless you know why. The know-how can be picked up anywhere but it is important to keep on analysing why you are doing a certain task. That gives you the strength to fight and compete with anyone.

I had never thought that a service class man like me can become an entrepreneur. I had to learn everything and create. I had to start something which I knew about and how it can be done. That is where my training in revolutionary Iran came in.

I started with shipping, which is very cyclical in nature. In fact, we are going through a shipping downturn since the financial crisis of 2008. It has not revived even today. To survive in such an industry, you need to have a really strong mind. That is where I got the direction to diversify my group for longer lasting success.

There are very few companies in the world in shipping which have survived 32 years, which we have managed to do. One way I was able to ensure that was to diversify my group in 1989 to oil drilling. Now with 26 years of experience in our pockets, we are one of the world's best known medium-sized drilling companies.

A fear of failure prevents some companies from diversifying but it is important. I took that plunge, lost some money but rolled up my sleeves and learnt from it. Then it became much easier to diversify further. We are in oil exploration, hospitality in China and shoe manufacturing and retail with Pavers England.

So shipping was necessary because I knew it well. I could stand my ground. But subsequent ones, you have to remove the fear of failure; you have to have a passion for whatever you are going for; without passion you cannot succeed in anything.

How would you say Europe fares as an investment destination

It is a developed region but the traditional industries do not suit the local population because they have moved into the third industrial revolution of computers and IT.

The existing institutions and facilities are there for anyone to grab. When I came to the UK, within less than five years UK shipping industry accepted me and even the Queen recognised me with a CBE because I almost re-established the shipping industry in the country.

It is for similar reasons that I took on the role of EICC [Europe India Chamber of Commerce] chair. I believe Indians have an in-built spirit of entrepreneurship, maybe because the nation was sitting on the Silk Route from China to Europe and India was the largest economy in the world in the 16-17th century.

If the right opportunities given, Indians are very resourceful. In Europe, basic industries are getting out of their interest and these institutions free to be grabbed and developed with hard work. I strongly feel the future of India's success will depend on developing existing industries in the country.

There is, of course, no short cut to working hard.

At a personal level, what would you describe as your most cherished achievements

That is a tough one. The biggest achievement I guess would be establishing a 100 per cent owned company in the UK and making success of it.

Then to diversify into oil drilling, which even today remains one of the few international oil drilling firms.

Another milestone I would recall is actually a failure. I was persuaded to start a five-star cruise service in India from Goa back in 2004. But I lost $36 million due to the lack of the right support. If it had worked out, we would have been first real five-star cruise shipping company in the East.

But my love for my country led me to create Pavers England, which is an internationally accepted brand today. They are world class shoes manufactured in India and China. It is a great matter of pride to have a truly Made in India brand and was India's first foreign direct investment (FDI) approval. Within the next 18 months, it will also become the best-selling brand of UAE.

At my age, I am 75 years old, making money is not what gives me the kicks. It is the achievement and creating something for future generations which gives me kicks.

How would you define your bond with India

I am a Global Indian. I will always remain Indian at heart. I have been offered many but I have not accepted any other citizenship. I still carry the Indian passport.

I am welcome anywhere in the world to go and establish a business. Having started with no capital, today we have crossed $2.5 billion. The group has achieved this success thanks to a most wonderful team. We have 2,000 people working in the Foresight Group and each one has contributed.

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