The world is the winner when business is not just about self but also about society, says Muhammad Yusuf
B S Abdur Rahman, Vice Chairman of Emirates Trading Agency LLC and Associated Construction and Investments Co. LLC (ETA-ASCON), the Dubai-based $2 billion industrial behemoth, is a multi-faceted personality, much like the diamonds he dealt with when he began his humble business in Sri Lanka, over half a century ago.
Diamond merchant, industrialist, educationist, philanthropist, shipping magnate, generous contributor and enthusiastic participant in many other business and social activities and not a day older than 80 going on 18, he is a Renaissance man whose outlook is Millennial. Meaning, while his values are classical, his thinking is forward looking.
Kilakarai, on the coast of Ramanathapuram district in Tamil Nadu, where Abdur Rahman (fondly known as ‘Sena Aana’) was born, is a town made famous in the region by his illustrious ancestor, Vallal Seethakathi.
The forbears of Sena Aana migrated to Kilakarai from Arabia in the 12th century. Kilakarai, which means ‘East Coast’ in Tamil, was a flourishing port to which merchants from the east and west came. A densely populated area, predominantly by Muslims, it owned its prosperity to them.
For centuries they traded with Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), dealing in pearls, gemstones and conches. Even today, many of them live in Sri Lanka or do business with the island. Sena Aana too began his career in Ceylon. Among the pearl traders of Kilakarai was Buhari Aalim. Abdur Rahman was his son.
Aalim was an expert in valuing precious stones and pearls. He would hold a gem between his right thumb and index finger and, looking at it against the sun, study the quality of the watermark within to judge the worth of the precious stone. He would be unfailingly correct.
Watching his father at work, the young Abdur Rahman was soon able to understand the nuances of the trade. This training and experience helped him to become one of the most successful merchants in the diamond trade in due course.
When Abdur Rahman first went to Colombo, he was fifteen years old. He had with him just Indian Rupees 149 (Dhs12). He worked as an errand boy for diamond merchants, carrying their diamonds and other gems from sellers to buyers and back. He was at the time staying with some traders from Kilakarai and neighbouring villages. They allowed him to stay with them without any payment, but he had, instead, to fetch tea for them from a nearby hotel, clean the rooms and perform other menial tasks.
A lesser person perhaps would have thrown in the towel. But Sena Aana was made of sterner stuff. Before long, he used his persuasive skills to obtain gemstones from another merchant and began trading in them. In time he became a successful gem trader. The base that Abdur Rahman built in Ceylon was to help him in all his future activities.
He began visiting Belgium, then as now, a centre of the gem trade, the USA, South America and set up business in Penang, Malaysia, Madras (now Chennai), Kolkata (then Calcutta), and then in Hong Kong. It was in Hong Kong that his business flourished. Incidentally, Abdur Rahman was the first person from Kilakarai to go to Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong he launched the Precious Trading Company in 1954. Later, his very special brainchild, the Amana Group of Hong Kong, was established. It was under its banner that the multi-national company ETA-ASCON came into existence. It was started in Dubai in 1973 as a partnership with a friend, Abdullah Al-Ghurair, Chairman of the Al Ghurair group of companies.
Started originally as civil construction contractors, ETA-ASCON has expanded into trading, elevator and electrical installations, real estate, mechanical engineering, building maintenance, car dealerships, and, most recently, shipping and aviation. It employs over 16,000 people, of whom 200 are in managerial positions, 5,000 are in administration and 11,000 are technicians. ETA-ASCON is today the flagship of Abdur Rahman’s vast industrial empire.
Says Syed M Salahuddin, ETA-ASCON MD: “I recall a quotation. ‘There are people who create things and there are people who watch created things. And there are those who wonder about what has been created.’ Sena Aana is all three. He creates, watches and wonders.”
Continues Salahuddin: “Not only was he the first man from Kilakarai to go to Hong Kong, but he was also the first South Indian to go to Belgium. That was in 1954 or 1955. All the gem traders were sitting in Ceylon and doing business. But he was different. He ventured out and went first to Belgium. I don’t know what made him come to Dubai. But whenever something comes to his mind, he acts. His intuition serves him well.”
It is Abdur Rahman’s firm belief that what people need is not help but self-help. He does not want people to cry for preferences, privileges or advantages, but to get their piece of the cake by active participation in the economic life of their countries.
To give practical shape to this conviction, the Seethakathi Trust was formed in India in 1967 under his leadership. It has promoted several schools for both boys and girls, built hospitals and assisted many institutions. The United Economic Forum was formed in 1979. Its aim is to develop the entrepreneurial instincts of people.
It was in 1896 that Sir Syed Ahmed Khan convened the first all India Muslim Educational Conference. Exactly a century later, in 1996, Abdur Rahman hosted in Chennai the first All India Muslim Women’s Education Conference. Sena Aana believes that to educate a woman is to educate a family. Says Arif B Rahman, Group Director-Finance of the ETA-ASCON group and Abdur Rahman’s son, “My father gives a lot of importance to women’s education. He always gives a lot of respect to educated people. His educational ideas were far ahead of their time when he started implementing them over forty years ago.”
He has set up girls schools like Crescent Matriculation Higher Secondary School for Girls, Chennai (500 students), Nagore Crescent Matriculation Higher Secondary School for Girls (300 students) and Madurai Crescent Matriculation School for Girls, Madurai (400 students), among others. The jewels in the crown are of course the B S Abdur Rahman Crescent Engineering College, Chennai (3,000 students) and the Thassim Beevi Abdul Kader College for Women, Kilakarai. Abdur Rahman can be called the Sir Syed of South India.
In recognition of Abdur Rahman’s contribution the cause of education, the Students’ Majlis of Aligarh Muslim University, India, honoured him with life membership. His acceptance speech is a fine example of his forward thinking. “We don’t know what skills may be needed in the years ahead,” he said. “That is why we must train our ablest young men and women in the fundamental fields of knowledge rather than in the hot specialist fields of the moment. We must also equip them to understand and cope with change.” Calling for “knowledge-based education and skill-based training,” he also spoke on the necessity of educating women living in small towns and villages.
Apart from numerous schools, colleges, hospitals and orphanages he runs individually, the number of institutions he helps is legion. Abdur Rahman’s emphasis on the education of women has seeped into the second generation. Says Arif Rahman: “Men have to change their outlook vis-à-vis women’s education. I think the I-T field is best suited for them since women will not have to move much outside their homes.” The younger Rahman also says that the challenge today is to match education and jobs.
Though his business is global today, Abdur Rahman’s heart is still in India, particularly his home State of Tamil Nadu. This is shown by the fact that he has christened three ships he owns as Gem of Madras, Gem of Tuticorin and Gem of Ennore (after three ports in Tamil Nadu).
Forward and backward integration of business and life is his driving principle. As one of his admirers says by way of illustration, “having started a construction business, he established a brick kiln as a subsidiary and bought lorries for the transport of the bricks and other construction material. To supply fuel for the lorries, he started a petrol bunk and then ran the entire gamut by becoming an insurance agent to insure the employees and the establishment!” For some people, doing business is not just a matter of money.
In others’ words
In a lifetime spent in the business world, B S Abdur Rahman has met and mingled with the best of its citizens. Some of them share their memories and opinions of him.
Abdullah Al-Ghurair, Chairman, ETA-ASCON: Abdur Rahman built his business on the strong foundation of trust, for which he is famous today. The bond of friendship between him and me is nothing else by God’s gift to us. We started working together in building construction in 1964 when we won a contract for Dhs6,50,000 to raise the Mashreq Bank building. Once we did not have the capability or the technical knowledge to lift 4,500 tonnes of bauxite. Today, the positive attitude of Abdur Rahman enables us to lift 12,000 million tonnes with ease.
Abdullah Hassan Al-Rostamani, Chairman,
I have known BSA Rahman for
over 40 years. I first met
Our relationship was very special. I remember the time Rahman saheb came to Dubai, shortly after started my own business in 1968. That was three years after my marriage and I invited him to my house. He said he would come for breakfast. He then asked me ‘Do you have an Indian cook?’ I said ‘Yes, I do. He is from Malabar but knows Tamil.’
The next morning, Abdur Rahman arrived at my villa sharp at 8 o’clock. Breakfast in the Arab world comprises eggs, bread, honey, fruits, particularly figs. Abdur Rahman looked at the spread and said, ‘Please call the cook!’
So I called my cook and he spoke to him in Tamil. He asked him, he later told me, whether he know to make a particular Indian dish with chillies in it. When the cook said, Yes, I know,’ he asked him to prepare it and also to ‘make some kadak tea.’ He enjoyed the preparation but I found it too hot. He then thanked me for the breakfast and left. That was Abdur Rahman, always informal with friends.
Majid Al Futtaim, Chairman, Majid Al
Mr Abdur Rahman is known to a lot
of my friends in
Juma Al Majid, Chariman, Juma Al Majid Group:
B S Abdur Rahman’s contribution to the business and social life in
Syed M Salahuddin, Managing Director, ETA-ASCON,
I told him I wanted a globe. Pleased with my request, he turned to my mother and said, ‘This fellow is asking for the whole world. He will definitely become a big man.’ Perhaps it is because of this wish of his that I am in the position I enjoy today.
Simplicity is a must in order to lead a purposeful life. Simplicity saves a person from unnecessary expenditure and distractions things that hamper him in working towards achieving his goal in life.