When conviction meets steely resolve, success follows. D.V. Malhotra’s uncompromising integrity and unwavering stance has held him in good stead over the years and enabled him to make great strides in life. As Managing Director of Al Zahem & Malhotra Group, he has steered the group to success and prosperity, overcoming numerous challenges along the way.
The Malhotra family has roots that run deep in Kuwait, having moved here from the markets of Basra in Iraq to start their own restaurant in Mirqab in the 1940s. “I came to Kuwait the very next day after I had appeared for my Bachelor of Commerce degree finals. We were running a family business here, so it was easy for me to integrate.”
But for the young, commerce graduate, full of fresh ideas, the family’s way of doing business in Kuwait fell short of expectations. A year after getting married, he moved back to India with his wife and spent four years there, first in New Delhi and then in Dhanbad, Bihar, where he worked in the coal industry. “It was a good and hard struggle. I learned a lot working alongside various Indian merchant communities and groups there.”
When his family needed him back in Kuwait, Malhotra rose to the occasion and returned here. In a demonstration of his headstrong nature and as a precondition for his return, he insisted on implementing a plan for re-organization of the family’s business.
The business in its present avatar was formed in 1980 in compliance with the law in Kuwait that restricted foreigners from conducting independent business activities. “The law stipulated that any business needed a 51 percent Kuwaiti partnership. We could take on a namesake partner, but in that case, you cannot have growth because nobody will sign your liability papers. I was intent on growing the company, so I put forth a very straightforward proposal to the family and our long-time family friends, the Zahem family.”
His ideas were discouraged on the onset and his terms of being given a management share and his demand of zero-interference were thought to be too outrageous to comply with. But Malhotra’s adamant nature prevailed, and the company was established on 31 May, 1980 with all his conditions agreed upon.
Malhotra transformed the company from a family business to run it as a public entity in its systems and operations. He created multiple facilities in-house, from transportation, customs clearance, import, to sales, marketing, distribution, and logistics. Malhotra opted to train his own managers from within the organization and promote them as department heads. “Today we are a very hefty dividend distributing company. Nobody wants to quit or leave.”
While the 1980s were a period of exponential boom, all advances were halted with the Iraqi invasion of 1990. As life became uncertain and resources grew scarce in the country, Indian workers looked to the merchants and businessmen for help when the embassy could provide little assistance. As Indian community leaders set up relief camps, Malhotra was among those who supplied food staples and basic utility items. “We didn’t shirk away from our responsibilities”, he recalled.
After the first 20 days, “We realized that we couldn’t save anything, we thought it was more prudent to leave than to die. If I am alive, I might be able to rebuild. We had a lot of goods in port in preparation for the September opening. So, on August 2, when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait a lot of our shipments were held up at customs and we incurred huge losses. During the invasion everything was lost and whatever was in the warehouse was looted,” he shared.
On his return to Kuwait after the liberation, Malhotra owed his suppliers millions of dollars for the goods that had been stuck at the port. While he was urged by some to appeal to the suppliers to write off the debt, the only way to do so would be to declare bankruptcy. But not one to take the easy way out, Malhotra, to the displeasure of many around him, sought to take the longer and more arduous route instead and agreed to pay back all that he owed. “I refused to declare bankruptcy because my name is my goodwill. I believe in following the right path, making a sincere effort and taking care of the people I am involved with. So, I came to an arrangement with the suppliers, they continued to supply me goods and we worked out an instalment plan to repay all what was due to them.”
Rebuilding the company was no easy feat, but Malhotra took on the challenge. “We sold two plots so we could restart our operations, we painstakingly brought back our staff and began all over again. Everybody came back with the desire to help rebuild and it was my ambition to be one of the top companies in Kuwait. We built ourselves up even more strongly after Kuwait’s liberation. Today, we have more than 700 people working and more than a thousand FMCG products divided among food and non-food divisions.”
While product lines in the FMCG industry are limited, Malhotra has set himself apart by representing top brands and specializing in marketing and distribution. “The market goes on changing. One of the factors that changes the market is the buying power of the consumers, second is how educated they become and how that informs their choices, third is the comparative values of the variety of food products available.”
To remain competitive and thrive requires a continuous review of the bottom-line and changes to product lines that become too expensive to operate. “We are turnover hungry and bottom-line hungry because we have to produce money for our shareholders. There has to be an equation where everybody benefits. We have a track record that our staff salaries are not delayed, and that is not a small thing. This is something I’m very proud of and we work very hard to keep those cash flows moving.”
Doing business is not without its challenges in Kuwait and he bemoans how the laws are sadly, one-sided, prompting many to diversify and invest abroad. He also shared his view that Kuwait offers a very limited future for expatriates, and professionals are prone to get frustrated fast. Those who have no alternative, compromise.
“My ambition was to establish a good company and then money becomes a by-product”. Malhotra reveals his love for making money and in the same breath also warns that the love of money in itself can be destructive, “I love making money, I keep what I require and use the rest for welfare. I have spent a lot of time in the company of learned people who taught me that we have to produce money even if we don’t have the requirement ourselves, because there are so many others who do.” The Malhotra family has used their resources to invest in education and empower underprivileged children in small pockets of India, and support religious organizations in order to promote a value-based society.
Malhotra expresses that happiness is the bottom-line of all our exertions and accumulations in life. The biggest enemy of happiness is negativity. “We want to see perfection in others, but no one is perfect except God. We are all an assembly of good and bad traits, but our human nature makes us focus on the weaknesses of the other. This causes conflicts. The only way to be happy is by agreeing, giving and surrendering. Until 1980, I was a very different person. I used to look for perfection in others. But changing my outlook has improved my life immensely.”
Malhotra’s philosophy of life can be summed up simply — live well and employ the resources God has given you for good. He urges people to realize that the decay of the body cannot be stopped but each soul is given a specific purpose that needs to be fulfilled.