"A Star is Born"
Multi-dimensional business leader with an exemplary track record of initiative, vision, tremendous humility and dignity.
- by Michael Rose Jr. with NC.Mohandoss
There are some business leaders who come into their own when the chips are down but they see an opportunity that no one else sees, make something of that opportunity and in doing so do not forget where they began and continue to add value to society because it is their only way of existence.
Sirish Ramkumar is one such multi-dimensional business leader with an exemplary track record of initiative, vision and success coupled with tremendous humility and dignity. Known amongst business associates for his ability to see ‘beyond the obvious’, Sirish has repeatedly shown that his insight and understanding of business and people is both purposeful and enterprising.
Here is a story of a man who, even in the face of extreme adversity has shown true grit to keep moving forward and it was his Mother’s love and compassion that took him through to the man he is today. His Mother played a huge role in shaping the man that Sirish is today. She was an astute and warm personality with a large heart who taught Sirish the basic policy of ‘giving’. She was always willing to help people in need and would go out of her way to do whatever she could for others even if it meant difficulties for herself and her family. She would always tell Sirish that no matter what happened out there, she had food and shelter for him and he could always come back home to the security of his Mother’s arms.
Sirish’s rise to be a formidable business leader has very humble beginnings in Chennai, India. He went to a Christian convent (St Patrick’s Academy) where he completed his schooling. He started his first business at the age of 11 selling fireworks for Diwali season. Sirish was supported by his mother who was working for the Central Government who wanted him to study in a good private school but it was hard to support his expense for other requirements which were quite high in a private school. Whatever he earned through this business he kept for his personal expense.
“Those were very different times and I saw this opportunity that no one else saw and decided to capitalize on it” he says.
This sense of enterprise ensured that Sirish would pay for all his personal expenses including outings, excursions and day-to-day expenses for the entire year. This business helped him to take care of his personal expenses till his Grade 12.
After school, a lack of proper guidance Sirish joined courses which only impacted his Mother’s financial situation but did not go according to his desire.
He was forced to take a break from studies and after trying his hand at many courses and job opportunities, he became a part of a small media company called Media Men. In a short span of 4 months, he was made Branch Manager of the company’s office in Bangalore. He was not even 20 managing an entire team of people far older than he was.
It was at this time that Sirish developed jaundice and had to quit his job and was told to move back to Madras and stay at home as eating food outside was forbidden. This made him think about his future, his career and this is what eventually took him to Loyola College.
In 1992, he joined the prestigious Loyola College, Madras to pursue his bachelor’s degree in Visual Communications (Viscom), which was connected to his work experience. His classmates included Actor Vijay, Actor Sanjeev, Actor Srinath, Actor / Photographer Sunder, Cinematographer / Director Shanki Mahendra, classical Dancer/ Actor/ Photographer Sathyajith Dhananjayan, Director I. Ahmed and many more.
“It was during my stint at Loyola, I was exposed to people from different backgrounds, diverse cultures and this helped me evolve and grow and more importantly helped me grow my confidence, network of friends and well-wishers who have to this day have been a huge support through my life” adds Sirish.
“Some of the people that Sirish met at during his time at Loyola would go on to play a major role in his life. Manesh Joseph a batchmate, GBS Raju & Preetham Kamesh who became associated with Sirish during this time would go on to form lifelong relationships with Sirish.
“We were just a few of us who really enjoyed what we did and in loving what we did, we found great satisfaction and ended up doing some great work” Sirish says about his tenure as President of Loyola Theater Society, the then hub of intra-collegiate theater group. Under his leadership, LTS had unparalleled success and recognition across the city and state of Tamil Nadu. The LTS during this time included several famous personalities including, Actor Surya Sivakumar, Politician Mukil Krishnaswamy, MD of Govindaraja Mills, Varadarajan Ramkumar to name a few.
In 1995, Sirish began his corporate climb by setting up a company Taurus Communications with a businessman who invested US$ 9,000, Sirish becoming the first member of his family to step into business. The fledgling TV production company delivered work for the national broadcaster Doordarshan and for local privatized TV channels and he won ‘The youngest TV Producer’ award from then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Dr. J Jayalalitha. However, in 18 months, at the age of 25, Sirish was faced with a dilemma when his company was valued at US$ 0.5 million but had to exit the business due to financial cash challenges then existing in Tamil Nadu.
“The going was great, and we were making decent profits creating some good content, but we were caught unawares when the channel we were working for went bust and our company wasn’t paid. It was a big setback. At the time I could not understand why this was happening. We were doing well as a business, but the business conditions were not great at the time and that affected our business.” says Sirish reminiscing on how the situation in Chennai would eventually lead him to move to Kuwait.
During this challenging phase, Sirish was given an early lesson in the ways of the world. He had 3 choices. These would be life-changing choices. One was to work for a leading Producer as an Assistant, a second opportunity was to work for a friend’s company as his Assistant for a very good salary and the third to move to Kuwait with no financial backing or job in hand. He decided not to choose the first option because it was linked to his existing line of work which was already filled with significant tribulations. The second, he believed would not be viable in the long run and would affect dear relationships. He chose the third option because he believed his life needed a ‘reboot’ which was a piece of advice given to Sirish by his wife who has been anchor to Sirish through his life. In fact, Sirish recollects the support and confidence given to him by even his Mother in law. Sirish feels that one of the major reasons for all his success is because of his Mother in law who was a pillar of strength whose prayers and faith in his ability to succeed.
His move to Kuwait is where his career growth would take a vertical tilt.
After a long and hard job search, Sirish was placed in a local trading firm where he worked for a year. “It was a challenging phase for me and my family. I was hired on a very low salary, the working conditions were really tough and I was not used to working in such a culture and whatever I would try to sell would not go through for the silliest of reasons. I would often get depressed, but it was my wife who asked me to remain calm and confident. I was constantly egged on to get into business by friends, associates and even my Superiors who were ready to offer me a profit share in business revenues”
“However, the final twist was when I met with an accident and lost my job. That put me and my family in a very tight spot I felt like my whole world and dream was crumbling before me. A week prior to the accident, a dear friend, a stalwart in business in Kuwait and one of the finest gentlemen who has been a huge source of strength and support for me and my family introduced me to someone. After the accident, this person called me out of the blue to discuss a new business opportunity and wanted to introduce me to a new client in the military business and although I kept pushing away from doing business, here I was with fate pushing me towards business. This was perhaps a crucial turning point in my life” adds Sirish.
Yet another turning point in Sirish’s life after what seemed like absolute doom. In fact, this would be a second defining moment in his life after his life’s circumstances that led him to join Loyola College.
Two more individuals crossed paths with Sirish Ramkumar in 1997 – namely Sunil Menon, a highly experienced professional who had managed brands Like Porsche, Cartier, Omega, Samsonite and many more) and Mathew Thomas, who was a banker in Kuwait a highly qualified and experienced Risk Manager. In 1997 while looking to make a breakthrough, Sirish had approached Sunil Menon for a job and was refused at the time. However, the three gentlemen formed a strong friendship.
In 1998, Sirish Ramkumar set up Al Qabandi Group WLL with a friend Fadi Al Zuhair in the space of defense contracts and services with an aim to provide a host of services to the US Defense present in Kuwait at the time. “It was all I had but I knew I had to do this” he says. Thus, began the slow and steady journey to business stardom. The local partner, Mr. Mohammed Al Qabandi, played a key role in growing the company and had become a dear friend & support for Sirish and his family.
One of Sirish’s key capabilities has been to bring people together to deliver on a commitment. With almost no capital in hand, Sirish was able to get investors, banks, partners, suppliers to believe in his ability to build value that would then become a part of his long term business belief which is entirely based on long term relationships that go well beyond the boardroom. His business associates are also his closest friends.
In 2002, Al Qabandi set up operations in the Sultanate of Oman 2002, in Qatar in 2003 and UAE, Al Qabandi had a subsidiary set up in the UAE called Gulf Master General Trading LLC with his old associate and friend Alex Eapen. In a tryst with destiny, 2003, Sirish offered Sunil equity in Al Qabandi. Mathew Thomas was a well wisher and financial advisor till 2010.
By 2003, Sirish had begun to encourage new business initiatives and entrepreneurs to bring forth their ideas, thereby becoming a serial entrepreneur and angel investor with an active support system that would help such businesses to grow. This he did to help bridge the gap between a wealth of ideas available among individuals in the Middle East and the lack of funds and local backing to fulfill them. Even today, almost all those businesses exist with Sirish Ramkumar on their Advisory Board.
In 2004, Thomas Mathulla, a dear friend of Sirish from his college days joined the company and to this day is one of the senior-most Contract Managers in the group. Fadi’s brother, Firas Al Zuhair joined the company soon after and would go on to forge a strong bond with Sirish.
AQ would go on to become one of the largest service providers supporting requirements of the US Defense in the region. In 2005, seeing opportunities in construction, design and build and interiors, PrimeOne General Trading & Contracting was set up. The company grew significantly under Sirish’s astute leadership.
In 2010, as a part of his expansion plans, Sirish decided to enter the growing Afghanistan defense contracting business. It was a business venture that required a lot of investment. Sirish went all in.
He sold PrimeOne that year and with the proceeds from the sale along with external investors they invested millions in the Afghanistan venture. As misfortune would have it, the business in Afghanistan went bust and Sirish and his partners lost millions of dollars and put him on the verge of absolute bankruptcy.
Sirish felt that his world had come to an end. How was he to face his friends who had trusted him with so much money? He felt like an absolute failure.
To make matters worse, Sirish lost his dear Mother to a prolonged illness and a series of unfortunate incidents followed. In Feb 2012, Fadi Al Zuhair exited the business to focus on other projects.
Sirish’s friend Raju who is a renowned businessman in India and has been a tremendous support to Sirish throughout his career came to know about this situation and it was Raju who told Sirish not to lose hope.
“He said that when I can build a business from zero experience, zero infrastructure, zero investment and zero market knowledge or reputation by purely using my skills and confidence, I could do it again, only now, I had the experience of seeing success as well as failure, infrastructure and local market contacts and reputation.” refers Sirish to his conversation with Raju who remains his closest confidante to this very day.
“The very same day another dear friend called me and said that my core strength had always been positive thinking filled with happiness, high energy and confidence. He said that it was sad to see me in this situation because I traded these great qualities for the greed.” adds Sirish.
“This is the day I realized, it is not the assets or success or money which defines my core strength. It’s me and my ability to get things done that are my core strengths” says Sirish.
With the help of attending a 2-day NLP session Sirish could realize the simple factor of his core strength was ‘Happiness’. Using this new approach, he was able to tackle all that he was going through, probably the most difficult time of his life which most importantly was the loss of his dear mother and other unfortunate incidents that followed.
This approach helped him come out of these situations without any pain or stress because he did not allow any of these to jeopardize his happiness. Within 3 years he paid back every investor and brought the company back to cash positive.
This was the third and most impactful change that Sirish experienced in his life. He realized that although he had faced several instances of setbacks in life, these occurrences would help him strive to succeed even more and so he began his journey back to success.
“Quite honestly, I chose to work smart and not hard. Keeping my happiness as my goal on whatever, I was doing, I noticed that things started to open up. This approach along with the support of my partners who were also my friends and my team who stood by me that I was able to make it through this phase of my life and keep me moving forward. They taught me that human beings are my greatest asset. When I look back, it is obvious that my losing heavily in Afghanistan is what took me to the next level in my career. When you are sincere in what you do, it will take you to next level and during this process it will make you feel like this is a major disaster that has struck you but in reality it is life taking you to next level”.
“It is a lot like remodeling your house or office. When the work is going its very tough to see your place getting demolished or broken down. At some point you think that perhaps you took the wrong decision to go with this. But when its finished and you are settled, you feel amazing with the result. It is a remarkably similar feeling when you move to the next level in life.” adds Sirish.
He went on to set up many other businesses in many other countries and divisions using the same approach.
In 2017, Mathew Thomas was made CEO of Al Qabandi. His bond with Sirish and his understanding of the market made him apt for the role. Together, Mathew, Sirish and Sunil would take Al Qabandi to new heights
Today, all his companies are thriving businesses with an asset value of over US$ 120 million with over 1,100 personnel operating across the GCC. The policy at work is that each Director, Manager & Supervisor should ensure that his respective team is always happy and hence the Company works more like a family and not as a corporate or individual ownership.
In 2016, Sirish came up with a maverick idea to transform a regular WhatsApp group of forwards and jokes among friends from different parts of the globe and diverse nationalities into a meaningful business engagement and was able to raise US$ 3.1 million in a span of just over hour and set up one of Chennai’s leading fine-dining vegetarian outlets called ‘Paati Veedu’ (Grandma’s Home) under the umbrella of Bhakshana. In just a year, the restaurant has received raving reviews and has been nominated for several awards and is set to become a chain of restaurants across India and other parts of the world. Further, Bhakshana will be branching out across the country and worldwide as a high-end vegetarian fast food chain.
Each of the companies are structured in a way that they function independently with business heads leading the verticals giving Sirish Ramkumar the opportunity to provide insight and advice on key Corporate matters thus allowing him the bandwidth to look at new opportunities for growth.
In addition to being a successful business leader, Sirish Ramkumar has been an active anonymous philanthropist participating in several fund-raising initiatives. He is a leading contributor to an association for blind children in Madurai, India called ‘THUIMAI VIZHIHAL TRUST’ meaning that ‘The More we give, the more HE gives and without giving, you will never fulfill your journey of life’.
On being asked to share what he would like to say to our readers, Sirish says
Always do things that will make you happy. If you cannot make yourself happy, how on earth you will make others happy
Always value your relationships. Whoever you meet in life, always value it. If you meet someone that means he or she has some role to play in your life. It may be big or small, but they will play some role.
Love everyone you come across in life and your life will becomes amazingly beautiful.
Always be humble. Help people as much as possible.
Never give some the opportunity to become a fool and then complain about being cheated.
Never be afraid of good friends. They are there to sail with you. Be honest to them before you expect their honesty.
Happiness is key. God sent us to be happy. Simple Happiness can come even by drinking water. It is so simple, but we end up complicating it. The negative emotions will only pull you down and will make our life miserable. Best way to gain happiness is by keeping a simple and clean lifestyle.
Sirish Ramkumar lives in Dubai. Both his sons are pursuing their education overseas. He is happy that they are brought up with core human values more than just their education.
Sirish has something important to share about professions too. “We are all chosen by God including our professions. There are less leaders when compared to captains and that does not mean a leader is great and a captain is nobody. Each one of us is chosen to do something specific in life and we must respect whatever we do and try gain happiness from our life instead of cribbing about it. Whether you are a leader or a captain, your happiness quotient cannot be measured by your money or status but by your aura.
Sirish’s Approach to Life
Sirish is also a very spiritual person deeply entrenched in philosophical teachings. His motto is and always has been to spread happiness and positivity in the world.
A popular adage of the ages refers to each of the fingers of the hand representing the various emotions of life.
Little Finger: Guilt
Ring Finer – Sadness
Middle Finger – Anger
Index Finger – Fear
While the thumb is the shortest in an open palm, it is the strongest and only finger visible when the fist is closed, and all other emotions do not exist.Thumb – Happiness
When you live only for happiness life becomes simple. Be happy with whatever you have and dream deeply when you are happy state of mind. Your mind will ensure you will get whatever you dream of or wish for. For that you need to be happy and wish for it deeply.
Your core studies what you are born with. It is not necessary for you to be great in studies or sports or anything specific. It is important to pursue what you are good at and the talents you are born with. No individual can do everything in life. Each one is given a unique set of talents at birth and this is what they should pursue it happily.