Business India ×
Overseas Indian

Published on: Sept. 9, 2020, 6 a.m.
The rise of Dhananjay Datar of Al-Adil Trading
  • Datar has come a long way from Amravati to Arabia

By Sekhar Seshan. Consulting Editor, Business India

The teenaged boy walked barefoot to his school in Amravati, Maharashtra, his uniform missing a couple of buttons which were replaced with a safety-pin. “The pin was also useful to remove the thorns that stuck in my feet every day,” recalls Dr Dhananjay M. Datar, now one of the most prosperous businessmen in the UAE as founder chairman and managing director of Al-Adil Trading. 

The business, which he set up in 1984 with a single small store in Dubai, has grown to 39 retail outlets in the UAE, GCC and India, as well as manufacturing and packaging units in all these countries. Datar, whose father was a sergeant in the Indian Air Force and subject to transfers, was sent to stay with his maternal grandmother in Amravati. 

She rejected her son-in-law’s offer to pay for young Dhananjay’s expenses, so had to go to a small school, wearing the single uniform which she washed and ironed every evening so that he could wear it again the next day. She could not afford to buy him a raincoat, so he used a jute bag for protection from the rain.

A light tea in the morning sufficed as breakfast and he carried just two bhakri rotis for lunch – a meal that was repeated at night, with the addition of some dal and a little yoghurt. The dal, he remembers, didn’t have any spices because his grandmother couldn’t afford to buy them. 

Working with his father

Life continued like this for four years, till his father retired and settled in Mumbai. The senior Datar then decided to support his air force pension by going to Dubai to work. He got a job as a store manager and worked there for almost seven years, then set up a tiny grocery business and called his son to join him.

“I had passed my HSC exam and started selling products like phenyl, instant mixes and ice-cream mixes from door to door in suburbs like Mulund, Thane and Kalyan after college,” Datar says. He jumped at the chance to work with his father, while his mother stayed back to look after his younger brother with his father’s pension.

His first four years were, however, tough with the business losing so much money that his mother had to sell all her jewellery, including her gold mangalsutra, as well as furniture and even kitchen equipment to raise money for them. His father also borrowed from his trader friends. In Dubai, the duo lived a frugal lifestyle till, at last, the business began to become profitable.

The following three years, however, saw an increase in volumes, and they managed to stock up groceries in bulk to meet the panic demand during the Gulf war. They could even invest in a couple of rented warehouses to store these commodities. There was no looking back after that, and young Datar managed to go back to Mumbai and reclaim her jewellery. “I hadn’t gone home all that time because I didn’t want to see her without her mangalsutra,” he says.

What the Datar duo did was out of character for traditional Maharashtrian Brahmins, who are known to be cautious and prefer a secure job to the uncertainties of business. “Yes, that mentality was prevalent in our family too,” Datar admits. “But my father first broke the tradition himself. When he decided to join the Indian Air Force in his youth, there was an uproar, with everyone trying to persuade him to opt for a clerical job instead because that was ‘more suitable for a Brahmin’. My father was, however, stubborn and didn’t listen to them. The military training might have made him adventurous. Otherwise he would not have daringly ventured into an unknown field at the age of his retirement.”

In his own case, he says, there was no question of choice. “I was so average in everything – including study – that my parents were expecting me to become at most a fitter or an electrician. I myself was not interested in a white-collar job. I had only one skill, salesmanship, and had dreamt of going to Dubai as a salesman to acquire instant wealth.” Starting a business hadn’t been on his agenda. “But business itself accidentally entered my life and led me to become an entrepreneur,” he says.

Striving for success

Datar, like his father earlier, had to get a local partner to do business in the UAE – something that is compulsory by law even in India, he points out. “My father also had a local partner when he started a small grocery shop and a retail company to operate it. Having had previously worked for a British company in Dubai.

When he sensed the opportunity in supplying groceries, spices and other foodstuff to the Indian community in Dubai, he searched for a local partner and started business,” he says. “But with these partners usually not playing any significant role in the business after the partnership agreement is completed, you only have to work hard and strive for success.”

And so the Al-Adil group was born, and thrived under his leadership to bring him to a position where it has earned him a special title conferred by the rulers of the Gulf nation: that of ‘Masala King’. The ‘king’ continues to rule, offering his customers a range of over 9,000 types of products, from premium pulses, spices, groceries and branded items to an assortment of non-food merchandise.

Last year, Datar bought his wife Vandana a special birthday present: a bespoke Rolls-Royce Phantom costing $2million, only 18 of which exist in the world. When Covid-19 left thousands of Indian tourists, and those who had lost their jobs due to the pandemic, stranded in the Gulf, he spent more than a million dirhams to repatriate over 3,800 of them, personally helping to organise their travel and paying at least 1,000 people for their food, tickets and Covid tests as well as providing them with food kits and making free quarantine arrangements.

More recently, he committed financial aid of Rs20 lakh to the families of those who died in the Air India Express crash at Kozhikode. “The pilot of the ill-fated aircraft was an ex-IAF officer, and I have a strong affinity with the Air Force because my father was in it,” he says.

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