There is no such thing as a self-made man by P P Chhabria

Charlie Munger mentioned the qualities Warren Buffett looks for when hiring – “But other people interpret that to mean that if you take a pile of money and hire the very best people you can get, who’ve gotten A’s in business schools and who are honest and know the lingo of modern management and are nice to their wives and work hard and are just quality people, then its sure to work. That’s not what he means. His definition of a wonderful person, is somebody who could fall out a freight car with no money in a strange town and without cheating anybody become rich without waiting too long.” Mr. PP Chhabria literally fell out of a freight car with not only no money but also no education, in a strange town – Pune in 1945 at an age of 15 years. From that standing start, he built the Finolex Group from nothing to a market value of ~$2 billion today. The enormity of what he accomplished against all odds is mindboggling. Its quite a story!

Mr. Chhabria was born in an affluent Sindhi family in Karachi in 1930 in pre-independent India. However, his father passed away when he was 12 years old and his family fell on hard times. The situation was so bad that he had to work as a cleaning boy, cleaning the shops and serving refreshments to the customers; at various small institutions in Karachi. When one of the shops where he was working closed down, he was sent to work for a relative in Amritsar, who had a moneylending business. In addition to cleaning the shop and serving customers, here he had the added responsibility of recovery agent, collecting money from borrowers. When he was 15 years old, he was sent to live with his father’s sister’s family in Pune, who also had a moneylending business. His responsibilities here remained the same as in Amritsar – cleaning, serving the customers and collecting money from them. He says the following about his time in Pune – “All day long, from morning to night, my life was a routine of nothing but drudgery without dignity or joy of any kind.” His family joined him in Pune after partition, when it became difficult for Hindus to live in what was now Pakistan. At this stage, he was becoming restless and started looking for opportunities of doing something on his own. He dabbled in a few areas. He was briefly a cloth salesman. He used to procure cloth from Mumbai and he and his brother used to sell it on the streets of Pune. When that did not work out, he tried selling plastic soap boxes, and finally electrical equipment. He was a trader of electrical equipment buying from wholesalers in Mumbai and selling to the small shops in Pune. This turned out to be a win-win proposition both for the wholesalers and the small shopkeepers. He scaled up the trading business and from there went on to start manufacturing on a small scale. Beginning from there, he kept on going and never looked back as the business kept growing.

Mr. Chhabria was a salesman above all else. He started his business career by selling cloth from his bicycle on the streets on Pune. He then went on to selling electrical equipment to small shopkeepers. He kept growing the business by selling relentlessly. From getting the first order from the Government of India to appointing distributors for his business, he was always selling. He traveled extensively throughout India for work. Many times, he would return home after traveling for upto 30-40 days. I can only imagine what traveling was like in those days when flights connectivity was poor and travel meant trains and buses.

He had a strong work ethic from the very beginning. When he was a cleaning boy, he used to work from morning till late at night with little or no break. “My work started at 10.30 each morning and went on till 9 at night.” And he never stopped working. Even after he became successful, he was either in office from early morning till late at night, or he has traveling for work. “Completely committed to this life of waking early, working all day, and coming home late at night to eat and sleep, only to set off again early next day, because I knew this was the only way to succeed.” He continues to work despite facing challenges, both personal and professional. On a personal front, he had to deal with the loss of his 3-year old daughter to cancer. Professionally everyday was a challenge as you can imagine for a businessman working in the era of “license raj”. It was very difficult to do business in India during this time when the economy was not liberalized and everything was controlled by the government. But he was a firm believer in the message of his guru and mentor Swami Ram Baba-

If you are poor – work!
If you are rich – continue working!
If you are burdened, with seemingly unfair responsibilities – work!
If you are happy – well, just continue to work!
Idleness gives room for doubt and fear.
If disappointment comes, please just work!
If your health is threatened – work!
When your faith and hope falters – work!
When your dreams are shattered, and your hope seems dead – work!
Work, as if your life was in peril.
The truth is, your life really is in peril. So, work!
No matter what ails you – work!
Continue to work – faithfully, dedicatedly, and devotedly.
Work with love, faith, and patience.
Work is the greatest remedy.
For every mental and physical affliction!

He displayed integrity from the very beginning. In the book, he tells a story about his days when he started working in Pune as a recovery agent in the moneylending business. One of his task was to deposit the money in the bank at the end of the day. Once he went to the bank to withdraw money and the clerk gave him Rs 100 extra by mistake, which was a big amount at the time. When he realized this, he immediately returned extra money back to the clerk. From that time, he was always welcomed in the bank and the clerk and other employees treated him with respect even though he was only a teenager.

Although he was not religious but he talks about his guru and mentor Swami Ram Baba. He met Ram Baba serendipitously but immediately felt a deep connection. He benefited immensely from the wisdom of Ram Baba both in personal and business life. Ram Baba was a gifted being who had powers beyond the comprehension of normal human beings. He was one of those genuine gurus who don’t seek fame and fortune. They work quietly and tirelessly, illuminating the lives of those who have the good fortune to come in contact with them. Mr. Chhabria was one of them and his life was better for it. People may think that stories about gurus has no place in a business autobiography. But Mr. Chhabria writes with honesty and warmth about all aspects of his life. I found the parts about his personal life including those related to Swami Ram Baba complement the story and I’m glad he included it in the book.  

As you can guess from the title of the book, Mr. Chhabria is a humble man despite his accomplishments. He tells the story in a matter of fact way, never displaying a hint of arrogance. It is such a refreshing attribute and is difficult to find in business leaders today. Despite his legacy, very few people know about him. That is because he never sought publicity for himself. He let his work speak and always wanted to people to know about Finolex, not himself. “I look for publicity for my company, never for myself.” If he is not a self-made man, I don’t know who is.

Value investor

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