Even before I completed my education, I was sure that the corporate carousel was not for me. Immediately after completing my post graduation in Economics from the Panjab University, I decided to start my own enterprise in July 1978. I had thought of exporting carpets, inspired by my friend's family business. So, after picking up some tips from him, I registered my company as Mughal Carpets. I borrowed Rs 5,000 from my parents to complete the paperwork and to source samples from Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, an area famous for carpets. I also opened a bank account in the company name and began operating from my family home in Amritsar.
The next task was to figure out my target market. I had read that there was a huge demand for carpets in Germany, so I started writing to traders and middlemen, having taken their contact details from export trade magazines. In September 1978, I decided to visit the country and borrowed another Rs 11,000 from my father. In those days, you required a permit from the Reserve Bank of India to travel abroad and the authorities were very strict about issuing licences. Since my permit was being delayed inexplicably, I took a chance and tried to meet a senior official without a prior appointment. My perseverance and straight talk convinced him, and I was issued a travel permit.
During my trip, one of the contacts I had picked off a trade magazine came to my aid. A person of Indian origin settled in Germany, he took me around. It was difficult for a startup with no track record to generate any business, but my contact was probably impressed by my determination. So he helped me get an order for Indian carpets worth Deutsche Mark7,000 (Rs 28,000), the then German currency.
The quality of carpets ensured that we started getting regular orders. To handle the workload, I hired five people, including a part-time steno-typist, who would come for two hours in morning. I would dictate the letters to prospective clients and retailers and mail these, along with the photos of our products. The one thing I got right was hiring a local agent in Germany, which helped me get a lot of business. My competitors, on the other hand, approached the clients directly without any local representation. We became a huge hit, and in the first year of operations, managed a turnover of around Rs 15 lakh. I took home around Rs 500 per month as salary, which was a lot of money at the time. The rest was channelled back into the business.
However, it was the pre-liberalisation era and we did not have the advantage of computers or ISD facility. We had to use telex and book a call well in advance, which used to be an expensive affair. The first few years were tough, but we plodded on, and in 1986, we moved into our own office, built on company-owned land at Mehrauli, Delhi.
The following year, we expanded the business, foraying into leather articles like bags and accessories. In January 1987, we changed the company's name to Bhartiya International to reflect the new business segment. Since we faced a paucity of funds to fuel the growth, we decided to raise funds from the market by going public. In October 1994, we successfully listed our company and managed to raise around Rs 6 crore. This helped us grow in the leather accessories market in a big way. The company now supplies products to more than 60 global brands, such as Hugo Boss, Zara, Levi's, Mango, Guess, Wrangler, All Saints and Marco Polo.
In 2006, we decided to foray into the realty business, and Bhartiya Urban was born. We started with Bangalore, not only because I had grown fond of the city after my visits since 1996, but also because it proved an ideal location for my dream project, Bhartiya City, a modern integrated urban township. We bought 125 acres for around Rs 250 crore, raising an additional Rs 700 crore through a consortium of banks. The project envisions a built-up area of over 17 million sq ft with a mix of residences in various formats, commercial spaces, a financial district and five hotels, a hospital and a few schools. Though it will take another eight or nine years, the initial interest is overwhelming—within 18 days of launching the Nikoo Homes brand in November 2012, we sold 800 homes.
Another business vertical, Bhartiya International SEZ, was set up in May 2008 with the mandate to develop industrial parks. This came about as a result of a joint agreement between Bhartiya International and the Andhra Pradesh government to set up a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) for leather and leather products at Tada in Nellore. Today, we have 10 offices worldwide, including those in Delhi, Chennai, Hong Kong and Milan, staffed by around 3,000 people. The current annual group turnover is around Rs 1,000 crore.
We continue to think big and aim to expand the real estate business to the top five cities, setting up 1 lakh homes in the next five years. Besides, having achieved the distinction of being one of the largest leather apparel manufacturers in the world, we hope to create an in-house global accessory brand.