“Risk more than others think is safe. Dream more than others think is practical.”
Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO
His father was a cobbler and his mother worked as a farm labour in Peth –a village in Sangli district of Maharashtra. Being a dalit he was not permitted entry into school, temple or any public place. Once in the rainy season, when his mother sent him to get flour, he slipped on the way back and the flour fell in the mud. He along with his parents and five brothers had to go without food for two days. He realized that if he did not do something different, then he would have to spend his life as a cobbler like his father. Indeed he did something different. Meet Ashok Khade the founder CEO of DAS Offshore Engineering –a company worth about five hundred and fifty croresand having about 4500 employees! ,He was conferred the Udyog Ratna award in 2011.
. Ashok Khade had a humble beginning. He was a bright student in school in spite of the fact that his Dalit background acted as a stumbling block in his education. Teachers, he says, particularly admired his neat handwriting, proudly displaying the fine strokes on the yellowing paper of notebooks he has carefully preserved. He has been twirling a green fountain pen, which is now revealed to be the same pen with which he wrote his SSC exam 40 years ago. “Babloo”, as he has affectionately nicknamed the instrument, cost him a precious Rs 3.50.He also met some good Samaritans along the way. During the famine of 1972, he was “adopted” by a man who gave him food, and one of his teachers bought him a new set of clothes after he showed up for an exam in torn trousers. All through school, poverty gnawed at him. Students had to provide their own paper to write their exams, and one day he found himself without any money to buy the necessary sheets of paper. A teacher tore pages from the attendance ledger. Too poor to buy string to tie the pages together, he used a thorn from a tree. None of it could shake his determination.
After finishing high school, he went to Mumbai to live with his uncle. He worked in Mazgaon docks along with his brothers. In the daytime he would do welding, and study at night. They had just one room to stay so Ashok would often have to sleep outside on the stairs .This did not prevent him from dreaming big. He built a network of excellent contacts along with his brothers Datta and Suresh. His flawless drafting skills and boundless appetite for hard work won him promotions. In 1983, he was sent to Germany to work on a submarine project. One day, he saw the pay slip of one of his German colleagues, who earned in one month more than Mr. Khade earned in a year. “I thought about my family’s needs,” he said. “My sisters needed to get married. I knew I could do better than working for someone else.” He got married shortly after returning home. He also managed to complete a part-time diploma in mechanical engineering alongside his job.
Ashok Khade with his mother
When he returned from Germany, he began laying the groundwork to start his own company. The risk was enormous, and it was almost unheard of to leave a steady job to start a company. But his two brothers were expert offshore welders. They had good contacts from their years at Mazagon Dock. What seemed like a setback turned out to be a stroke of luck. The economy was changing after years of stagnation as the 1991 reforms began to reduce the bureaucracy’s control of the economy and stimulate growth. “It was obvious there was a chance to make a lot of money,” he said.
The brothers used their savings to finance the small subcontract jobs they began with, and in 1993 they got their first big order, for some underwater jackets for an offshore oil rig, from Mazagon Dock. Mr. Khade’s hunch was right, and his timing was impeccable. Faster growth meant India’s appetite for fossil fuels grew ever more rapacious. His company, which builds and refurbishes offshore oil rigs, has expanded rapidly and he is expanding to the Middle East. He recently signed a deal with a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi to work on oil wells there, and he is building what will be India’s biggest jetty fabrication yard on the Maharashtra coast.
DAS Offshore – named after the initials of the three brothers was established in 1995. Their first project came from Mazagon Dock, their former employer. A contractor had abandoned a project halfway and bids were invited. Captain PV Nair, a retired Indian Navy officer and former chairman of Mazagon Dock, recommended DAS for finishing the job, and so they were awarded the contract worth Rs 1.82 crore. “I got all my supplies on credit from people I had worked with,” says Khade. Nair, who now acts as advisor for DAS, says that Khade is “determined, hardworking, and will take the work to its logical conclusion.” The company specializes in doing fabrication work on offshore platforms for energy and infrastructure companies.
Having battled against both financial and social odds, one might expect a dalit entrepreneur to favor positive discrimination towards his ilk. Khade, however, is a staunch believer in merit, and rejects the idea of giving more weight age to aspiring employees or vendors from his caste. Less than 1% of his employees are dalits. “I believe in quality control,” says the man who once refused a job to an under qualified nephew.
Mr. Khade probably would not be in business with a prince had he not attended a networking cocktail reception hosted by the Dalit Chamber of Commerce and Industry at the five-star Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai this year. There he met the Indian businessman who introduced him to the Arab sheik, who helped him to globalize his company. He recently signed a deal with a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi to work on oil wells there, and he is building what will be India’s biggest jetty fabrication yard on the Maharashtra coast.
As far as encouraging talent goes, DAS’s capacity-building programmes have trained over 1,000 employees so far. Das posted a turnover of Rs 130-140 crore in 2010-11 and has an order book of Rs 550 crore. Khade says DAS does not have any investors and did not take bank loans to start. Most of the funds, he says, came from acquaintances and relatives because of the brother’s high performance ratings.
Khade says that he looks after quality control because of his experience and skill in design drawing. The younger brother Suresh handles labor issues, while elder brother Datta oversees goal management. In a business like this, it is survival of the fittest. “Competitors try to strike just before a contract is awarded. It is a cat and mouse game. Sometimes I am the cat and sometimes I am the rat,” he laughs, while admitting that he is extremely competitive. Turning serious, he adds that honesty, hard work and love for one’s country are indispensable ethics for business. Prakash Malvankar, CEO & Vice President (projects) Dolphin Offshore Enterprises, a rival, concurs. “I have met Ashok Khade at conferences and we have regard for each other. The DAS offshore leadership is technically sound and follows fair business practices.”
Ashok Khade has also bought 100 acres of fields in his native village, where his mother used to work as a farm laborer. When asked whether it was a business decision or a personal one, he merely calls it a “cycle of nature” and denies that any sentiment was involved. While Khade does not give preference to dalits in his work, his family gives back to their community in different ways. One of his brothers arranges for the wedding trousseau of each new bride in their village, regardless of caste. Even Mr. Khade, with all his wealth and newfound status, does not want to offend potential upper-caste clients. His business card reads Ashok K, leaving off the last name that reveals what he is: a Dalit.
His two brothers are now in politics – one leads the Ped village council, the other is a member of the state assembly, both holding seats reserved for Dalits. Mr. Khade has bought vast tracts of land around his village, the same plots where his mother, now 86, used to work for upper-caste farmers for pennies a day. Now she dresses in expensive silk saris, rides in a chauffeured car and wears gold jewelry. The sons of upper-caste families now work for Mr. Khade’s company. By any measure he is a man who has made it, and big.
Khade has also renovated a temple in his village that used to stop dalits at the gate — a promise he had made to his mother. He is a devout man who visits Alandi and Pandharpur every month, and sports a black thread from Tirupati around his wrist. A temple door covered in 55 kg of silver bearing his mother’s picture has been installed at Alandi — another tribute from her son. Although he does not like to quantify, Khade estimates he has given about Rs 50 lakh to his community. Reclining in his BMW 530, Khade indulges in two minutes of nostalgic soul-searching. “You know, I once met Mother Teresa at an international airport. I kept in touch with her, and she called me Ashok. I was there at her bedside after she passed away…” With that, Khade drives away, full of memories from his meteoric journey