“Many who are self-taught far excel the doctors, masters, and bachelors of the most renowned universities.”
What would you call a man who began with a small road side shop and then went on to being ranked by Forbes as the 21st richest Indian with a fortune of $600 million? The story of P.N.C Menon, now an Omani citizen, is truly fascinating. Menon’s father died when he was 10. He had to drop out of college because of financial problems at home—he was pursuing a BCom from Sree Kerala Varma College, Thrissur.
Decades ago, this 26-year old left for Oman with just Rs 50 in his pocket after being invited by an Omani friend whom he had met ‘accidently’ in a hotel in Kerala. He says “Till then I had never heard of a country called Oman.” He then began doing small design jobs, such as interiors, in Kerala. He’d had no formal training. “I could say that it is destiny because I met my first business partner by chance when he was visiting Kerala to buy a fishing boat,” says Menon, who followed him to Oman.
As he did not compromise with the quality of his work, he along with his business partner soon started gaining confidence of his customers and as he says, “we started getting businesses in interiors and fit-outs”. His turning point was when he was asked to work on a palace of the Sultan of Oman and then worked for the ruling families of Bahrain and Qatar and president of Tajikistan. Later by 1995, Mr Menon founded Sobha Developers Limited, a construction and real estate development business to expand his business in India, which today is a reputed real estate developer brand in India and has its presence in both Oman and Dubai.
Menon took a loan of 3,000 rials (around Rs 3.49 lakh now) from a bank in Oman to set up his interior decor business. He climbed up steadily, “two steps” at a time. “My first assignment was the interiors of a photo studio, doing the paneling, etc.,” he recalls. Over the next 17 years, he moved towards larger projects, hotels and then palatial homes, including a project for a royal family in West Asia. Under contract not to name any of his royal clients, Menon treasures a book containing photographic samples of his work in palaces.
“You have to be exceptional to be successful. I am not being arrogant,” he smiles, glancing at the intricate and rich work in the images, when asked how he landed these deals. With names such as the Sultan of Brunei on his list of clients, Menon was keen to expand the geographical reach of his business. “I tried the US and UK initially, but then decided that the scope for growth in India was high,” says Menon, who focused on premium and luxury residences in Bangalore before moving on to large office spaces. In 2008, he met Infosys chairman and chief mentor, N.R. Narayana Murthy, who gave Sobha the opportunity to build Infosys’ first campus at Electronic City. What triggered Murthy’s interest was one of their first projects, Sobha Sapphire, a premium residential project on Bangalore’s Bellary road.
“It’s been an honourable relationship,” says Menon of his association with Murthy, adding fondly: “He is a busy person, admirable and unusual. It is difficult to have his vision. There have been only four people in India with that vision— J.R.D. Tata, G.D. Birla, Dhirubhai Ambani and Murthy.”Menon’s entry to the country did not come without its share of troubles. The economic downturn of 2008-09 taught him key lessons. “What we learnt is that debt needs to be controlled. Menon, who lives in Dubai, is planning his retirement or, rather, the work he can do after retiring. The whiteboard in his Bangalore office, where he spends up to two months a year, has a countdown to the day of his retirement. “We started five years ago when I was 58, and that number is changing every day,” he says.
His son Ravi Menon (29), the vice-chairman of the company, will take over as chairman. He also has two daughters—Bindu (31) and Revathi (26). “There is a clear succession plan in place with my son becoming the chairman. I may or may not be on the board,” he says, adding that his son, who works out of Bangalore, is perhaps more equipped than he was at his age to handle the business.
Once you make all of the money I don’t think you should keep all of it for your family, a large portion of it should go to society. I have decided that 50 per cent of my personal wealth should go to society,” he was quoted as saying. “My view is very simple; I am lucky to have made my money. After a certain point in time, money cannot make a difference in your life. I feel that it’s not even called charity, it’s about accountability and the responsibility of society,” he said His charitable giving had caused many sleepless nights for the devaswom board officials of the Guruvayoor temple as they worried about the safekeeping of gold worth Rs 6.8 crore that he donated to the temple in 2006. It was a tulabharam, or an offering made equal to one’s weight in gold.Menon, though, refuses to call it charity. For him, it is an obligation to give back to society a share of what he has earned. The social initiatives undertaken by him have clear goals. They are aimed at human development through education, health, employment, water, and sanitation, housing and social empowerment.
Palakkad in Kerala is witness to his charitable activities. He has adopted two economically backward panchayats in the district- Vadakkenchery and Kizhakkenchery – where he runs several old age homes, educational institutions and healthcare centres.Sobha Academy, for instance, works to provide education, clothing and food to the underprivileged children, while Sobha Vocational Training Centres train and develop skilled tradesmen from the economically weaker sections. He also runs several social rehabilitation schemes for the poor and promotes dowry-less weddings.
So what does he plan to do? “There are three things I need—physical and mental health, plus I should be alive. If all three are positive, I will be working,” says Menon, who plans to start a new firm that will make and sell furniture and home fittings. Labeled PNC, the new brand will be launched internationally and will perhaps not be available in India initially.PNC reflects his need to work. “I’m a restless person, so I don’t take weekends off,” he says. “People who have worked their way up are insecure about the things they have. I wouldn’t know what to do on holiday.”While going on holiday might not be his idea of peace, P.N.C. Menon spends two and a half hours every day praying. “The prayers are important to me, and even if I can’t do it at one go, I catch up during the day,” he says.