I don’t have any of those. I am none of those. What I am is a good entrepreneur. I can hire others to get the job done.
– Rajkumar Gupta
From living in a rented 200 square foot house and earning a monthly salary of sixty rupees to becoming a celebrated real estate tycoon and a business mogul, Rajkumar Gupta has come a long way in life. His is the kind of rags to riches tale that everyone aspires to. But the story of how he went about building those riches will offer a hard knock of conscience to those for whom wealth is a major criteria for success. For even when he was earning sixty rupees a month, Gupta was a man supremely content with his lot. Even when he and his burgeoning family were crammed in a tiny one room flat, the well-being of others was a priority for him. If you didn’t believe in karma, then this is the story that will make a believer out of you.
Rajkumar Gupta is the chairman of Mukti Group, the company he founded. He pioneered the modern architectural scene of Kolkata by coming up with the concept of multi-storeyed residences in the Hooghly belt and consequently launching the first residential apartment in Hooghly district in the year 1984. Since then the Mukti Group has become a key player in Bengal’s entertainment hub with a multiplex, international hotel, lounges, fine dining restaurants and many more to its name. Yet Rajkumar Gupta’s name is not one you are likely to find on the internet.
Modest and humble he shuns the spotlight with a fervour, instead focusing on his two main passions in life- business and his charity work. He agreed to the interview after repeated persuasions that the world deserves to be inspired by a story such as his. And what a story it is! Though he has scaled impossible heights of success his greatest triumph, as he cheerfully told me, came so close to fulfilment before crashing to the ground. Read on to know.
I was born in a very poor family in Punjab. I struggled to finish my school exams from there and then came to Kolkata where I completed my under graduation. I got a job at a small private firm, with a salary of sixty rupees a month in 1978. After slogging for a few years there, I moved on to Hindustan Motors, earning a princely sum of a hundred and twenty five rupees a month. I worked there for five to six years, working at the ground level and learning the tricks of the trade. Then I opened a trading and supply business of my own.
How philanthropy paved the way for my success
I rented a 200 sq. foot house and lived there with my family. Though I still lead quite a hand to mouth existence, at least now that I was my own boss I had my independence. I was always thankful for my lot in life and wanted to do something for those who weren’t as lucky as me. I spoke to a few of my friends regarding this. They told me that eking out our own survival is a difficult job and you want us to go out help other. How is that possible? I said that if we were indeed so badly off, then we would be sleeping on the stations and scavenging food off the waste. We are incredibly lucky the way we are and for that reason we need to go out of our way to help the truly needy.
It is a myth that philanthropy and charity need you to give up large chunks of your income. A little bit of time and good intentions are all you need. We realized that the homeless people in stations have no access to clean drinking water. In the scorching heat of Kolkata that is a travesty. So we set up a man with a ‘matka’ so that these people and the little children could quench their thirst. It did not cost more than fifty or sixty rupees a month. All of us friends contributed to that fund and no one felt a pinch in their own lives. This was how I got started with social work.
Life went on like this for a while. I wanted to do something more. This time to my friends I proposed opening a free homeopathy dispensary for the poor. They said that the cost would be too high for something like this. For me the failure is not that we tried and it didn’t happen. The failure is if we didn’t try at all. Had we tried and then lost, that would have been alright.
We took an 8 foot by ten foot garage on rent for about forty rupees a month. We begged and borrowed scrap furniture from people. Someone donated a bench, someone a stool, others curtains and so on. One person generously donated a medicine kit. We pooled our contributions and hired a doctor part time, from 6 pm to 8 pm. Within fifteen days we were up and running. It was a small place, but we were inordinately proud and wanted someone big and famous to inaugurate it. The president of Hindustan Motors, my old company, was N K Birla, of the famed Birla family. He was interested in homeopathy as a hobby. We approached him and he agreed to inaugurate the dispensary. We put up banners and posters everywhere and the launch happened amidst terrific fireworks. It was the best feeling in the world.
After this my name came to be respected in my community. I was made me an honorary member of Rotary Club where I came into contact with high flying investors. Thanks to my social work, people knew I was an honest and decent chap who would not scam or cheat. So they heard out my business pitches and when they liked it, they went ahead and invested in me. As I took on projects- hospitals, apartment complexes, etc. – and delivered on them my reputation blossomed and my destiny took off.
It was not easy. Many times I had to skip paying myself anything as I had to fulfil my financial obligations to those who worked for me and to those who invested with me. But gradually, brick by brick, it did come together.
Mukti Airways: The dream that crashed
I have never been one to rest on my laurels and achievements. While I was getting extremely lucrative offers in the real estate section, I was itching to do something bigger. That time (early 90’s), the airline sector in Asia was really picking up and I wanted to be part of that game. So I set off to start my own airline.
Deciding was the easy part. But I did not know the A B C D of aeroplanes. I figured since planes take off from the airport, I too should go there. Once there, I went to the relevant office and said, “I want to start an airline.” Everyone in the office stood up at that announcement. Starting up in Bengal in 1994 was a ridiculous concept. But I was adamant.
Though there were significant bureaucratic red tapes and technical hurdles to be overcome, there were also many officials who were extremely helpful and guided us with skill. We then assembled a small team of engineers and technical experts.
My project report was submitted on 1st January 1995. Tata Singapore Airlines also submitted their report on the same day. Mine was approved by the Ministry of Civil Aviation, theirs wasn’t.
Prior to getting my license I had gone to Delhi and done intensive leg work, meeting everyone- from the ground level peon to the then Civil Aviation Minister Ghulam Ali Iyer. When I met the Joint Secretary Mr. Mishra, he started telling my how impossible my proposal was. He said they were not going to give the license to someone who did not have the required technical training, background and a hundred other criteria. I told him, “I don’t have any of those. I am none of those. What I am is a good entrepreneur. I can hire others and organize finances to get the job done.” He said that he was so impressed with my upfront honesty that would grant me the license.
The kind of heavy duty deals and negotiations we conducted with international airplane manufacturing companies were the first of its kind in the country. Initially we had to bear the brunt of the prejudice Europeans held about Indians. They even refused to take us seriously. Once they realized I meant business, things got smoother.
Just as we were about to launch the airline, the Harshad Mehta scam shook the nation. The newly liberalised economy took a serious beating. Investors refused to touch such a risky venture and Mukti Airways crashed to the ground.
Failures and disappointments:
It broke my heart when the airline failed to materialize. I had put the best years of my life into creating it and it really seemed to be taking off. When the blow came, it was shattering. I sometimes think that instead of having wasted that much time, if I had put those resources into my real estate business, we would have become a key national player. This has set us back by so much.
But in retrospect I realize that with success we can rejoice, but it is from failure that we truly learn. Someday I will make Mukti Airways a reality. Till then I am happy with what I have achieved and continue to apply those hard earned lessons in my business and in my life.
Message for those wanting to make it big in life:
It is admirable to want to be successful, but you will get nowhere in life if you are only thinking of yourself. Think of yourself as a part of the bigger picture. Do work that matters and do it from the heart. Then see where life takes you.