Bhagwan Gawai: From slum boy to millionaire, a true global c

Vivek (CA ) (2368 Points)

18 July 2011  

Bhagwan Gawai: From slum boy to millionaire, a true global citizen

MUMBAI: BNP Paribas in Paris , one of the world's largest banking groups, is mindful when it transacts with Bhagwan Gawai, a small customer, but with considerable potential. The bank recently extended a $50 million line of credit to his business group.

Gawai, who as a young lad, worked on construction sites, alongside his illiterate mother and brothers, is now truly a global citizen. As an itinerant businessman, trading in petroleum products, petrochemicals and commodities, his interests straddle the globe. He led an itinerant life earlier too. But back then, he was constrained to do so, as his family moved from one construction site to the other, hauling gravel or laying bricks, raising Mumbai's factories and plush houses.

Eventually, the family settled down at a sprawling slum, Hanuman Nagar, an address that continues to resonate in his life, for the family still retains the shanty. "When we migrated from Buldana in rural Maharashtra to Mumbai , we lived and worked at the site that is now the Mahindra & Mahindra plant in Kandivali," recalls 52-year-old Gawai, now Chairman and CEO of Saurabh Energy DMCC, his trading bridgehead in Dubai. Through the previous decade, his company, established in a joint venture with an Arab partner, recorded a peak turnover of $400 million. In 2008-09, when his partner wound up his numerous businesses following adeath in the family, Gawai launched Saurabh Energy, at the Jumeirah Lake Towers Free Zone, on his own.

He, however, had to start all over again, beginning with securing registrations from oil companies like Shell, BP and the Emirates National Oil Company (ENOC). Gawai buys petroleum products like naphtha, petrol, diesel, bitumen, furnace and base oils from them for onward sales. Today, his firm has a turnover of $20 million. "In a couple of years, I will gather the same momentum as before," he says.


This innate confidence in himself and his abilities, and a perennial urge to seek challenges, has brought Gawai to where he is today. "He always wanted to test his talents, in newer ways," recalls Dilip Rumde , chief manager at the Girguam branch of the Bank of India in Mumbai, and a first mentor of sorts to Gawai.

When Gawai was studying in Mumbai's Siddharth College, he worked with Rumde at a small electroplating unit as a part-time accounts assistant. Gawai's early years in a job were quite uneventful. "I got my first proper job, as a clerk with L&T, after appearing for a written test," he says, implying that merit was the sole criterion for his selection. After some prodding, he concedes his first big job break came on the strength of reservations for scheduled castes (SCs), when he was appointed officer-trainee with HPCL, the public sector oilmarketing company, in 1982. Talent alone wouldn't have sufficed. At HPCL, his talent was recognised. But soon, the pitfalls of a public sector work ethic overwhelmed him, as he hit a glass ceiling in growth. Gawai attributes this to caste prejudices - subtle, subterranean, never overtly articulated.

While affirmative-action policies enabled him to secure entry in a governmentowned company, the absence of a mentoring, nurturing culture in the PSU stymied his progress and aspirations. He then passed through a difficult phase, both in the office and at home. His marriage to a woman of a better economic standing than his, turned turbulent. His friends suggested it was about time he relocated from the slum; tear himself from the past. "Although he never wanted to live separately from his mother and brothers, his move to the HPCL housing colony with his wife saved the day," recalls Rumde.

Workplace, however, continued to provide little succour. "My immediate seniors gave me good grades during appraisals," says Gawai. "But when my papers moved to the human resources department, they were always tampered with." It prompted him to file a court case to secure his promotion, which he eventually won. By then, in disgust, he had decided to move on. MOVING ON In 1991, he took three months leave of absence to explore a job offer from Caltex, the petroleum major, in the Gulf. Although unsure, he quit HPCL and moved to Bahrain. It changed his life.

In the late-nineties, the Dubai government was keen to set up a diversified energy company and refinery.By then, Gawai was well known in oil circles. ENOC was eventually incorporated. Gawai joined as its fourth employee, entrusted with the task of sourcing all feedstock for the refinery. The salary was good: 50,000 dirhams a month.


An Arab businessman, from whom he often hired ships to move feedstock, goaded him. He was willing to be his partner. In 2003, Gawai turned businessman. "In the very first year, we hit a turnover of $80 million," he says with pride. His clients now come from West Asia, parts of Europe, even Singapore and the Far East. His network began to expand. Gawai now has interests in chemicals, biofuels, marine engineering, logistics, telecom and BPOs, through equity holdings in a raft of companies. Through all of this, as he reaped profits, rose in status and privilege, he never forgot his roots.

His two daughters and son are as grounded as he is. Gawai has been instrumental in bringing together a group of over 30 Dalit achievers from across the world. He is coaxing them to invest, bit by bit, in sound projects through a holding company that they have formed: Maitreya Developers. "He is very transparent in his dealings, and would like people to participate in and benefit from his growth," says Satish Mapara of the Dubaibased GlobeApex Management Consultants.

"There is a degree of innocence in him, which sometimes works to his detriment." He has seen the rise of Gawai from close quarters since the mid-nineties. He now wants to diversify into coal. Saurabh Resources, incorporated in Labuan, Malaysia, recently acquired an interest in a coal mine in Indonesia, the world's largest exporter of thermal coal.