The Great Gambler

From flashy Dubai, rustic Russia and the glitz of suburban Bombay, to selling clothes and electronics and helming a glamorous beauty empire, Nitin Kalwani’s is a true tale of sheer ingenious, smartly manoeuvring life’s unexpected turns with a smattering of luck on the side.

Interviewed by Shagufta Patel | Written by Qiraat Attar

Some find adventure in scaling mountains, others dive into the deep sea, but Nitin Kalwani found his heart racing at the prospect of creating new businesses. His is a success story you may not have heard of yet but should have. He has turned around many a venture through his knack of finding opportunity in adversity, mining it with his impeccable acumen and ingenuity.

Nitin was born in the sleepy small town of Indore, Madhya Pradesh, known for its pristine beauty, agreeable weather, and well-run schools. Being the eldest of three children, he felt the pressure to set a positive example for his siblings. His father was a professor by profession (with four Master’s degrees in English, Sanskrit, Political Science, and Hindi) and wrote for the national newspaper Indian Express in his spare time.

His business-oriented family, who had well-running enterprises in Dubai, had later invited his father to the UAE and helped him in setting up a textile business. But given his academic disposition, Nitin’s father found it difficult to put his heart into the business.

His first independent business was purely incidental, a ploy by his father who pleaded with his brother (Nitin’s uncle) to deter him from going

MATTERS OF THE FAMILY

At the fledgling age of 18, while still pursuing studies, Nitin travelled to Dubai in 1985 to assist his father in managing the show and soon took over the business. Life had taken its first unexpected turn, and bereft of choice, he stepped into his
father’s shoes.

The textile stint, though short-lived, was his first brush with business. However, it helped him garner great experience. He later sought apprenticeship within the vast enterprise of his uncle, Mr. Lal, where he gained tremendous exposure in the sale of electronics, food, and computers. Jumping between departments, he learned on the job, absorbing knowledge at every chance he got. Still harbouring a deep desire to continue studies abandoned halfway when he’d travelled to Dubai, Nitin now planned to travel to faraway USA.

His first independent business was purely incidental, a ploy by his father who pleaded with his brother (Nitin’s uncle) to deter him from going. As part of the tactic, the young lad was asked to suggest an alternative that he’d want to pursue, and he stubbornly decided to suggest something so outlandish that his father and uncle would have no option but to let him go. He asked to start his own business, with a quarter of a million Dirhams as seed money. Against his wildest expectations, his uncle assented.

TRINKETS AND THREADS

Bulked with money, Nitin started his independent foray into business with imitation jewellery, handpicked from places like Taiwan and Japan, enjoying patronage amongst the citizens of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in multitudes. There were some kinks in business; after all, he was still an amateur. But margins were good, the business thrived, and the future did not pose a spot of worry. Having one hell of a beginner’s luck, his business kept expanding from a single to five stores in the first year itself. His uncle was infinitely proud, bragging about his nephew’s growth to the senior directors at his firm.

And then, it was over as quickly as it had begun.

The 1990 Kuwait War took lives and livelihoods, and fledgling businesses folded under duress. Profits were destroyed, and Nitin lost the initial investment as well. “Business collapsed, and one by one, I started shutting down shops. As quickly as I had grown, I was folding up faster than that,” he recalls. For a minute, it all seemed non-existent.

Humbled, he returned to his uncle, but not empty-handed; he had something new brewing. His uncle’s defunct supermarket provided the stage for this next venture, inspired by Mumbai’s bustling Fashion Street, where high-end fashion surplus found their way for dirt cheap prices, which brand enthusiasts snapped up readily. Nitin rebranded this modest idea, designed like a warehouse, the idea becoming its namesake. Essentially an outlet mall before the concept became commonplace, his venture possessed his signature gusto, as he travelled to India, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, knocking on factory doors, hunting for quality products, buying them way under the sticker price, and selling it at handsome margins. It was a gamble that paid off, and his uncle’s forgotten store saw heyday again.

A TREATY WITH RUSSIA

Around 1992, when the store’s lease was set to expire, Nitin was introduced to a Russian customer. Fascinated by their striking language and somewhat enchanted by the foreign land, he impressed them enough for an import–export business opportunity to come his way. After a stellar first meeting, for which he had hired a Russian for a hundred dollars an hour to translate, the deal was in the bag. The Russians felt an uncanny connection with him, admiring his tenacity, resourcefulness, and quick-wittedness, and offered him a contract worth half a million dollars. He admits that he frankly did not believe the deal had gone through until his banker called him, bewildered, that he was richer by half a million dollars, which was transferred into his account overnight.

His diligence ensured he had a successful stint of supplying goods to Russia, and soon he had gone from a business in ruins to a millionaire again. He was then all of 22. The venture gave him the self-assurance to contemplate a permanent move to the frigid land to expand his business and consolidate his place in it.

Russia was the untamed Wild West; where Dubai offered the chance to interact with people from every nationality with diverse perspectives, Russia handed him the threat of the mafia, entrenched bureaucracy, and otherworldliness to the country continually in political strife. Nitin was like India’s unofficial ambassador to the semi-republic land of Azerbaijan, one of the first Indians there, and he was flourishing against all odds.

“Do you know Raj Kapoor?” the soldier asked. And this is how he found himself singing Awara hoon in the freezing night, surrounded by Soviet guns and soldiers

If something could be bought and sold, he leaped at the possibility. “One day, I was selling frozen chicken, and the next day I was selling Gillette razors.” No product was off-limits, and he soon established himself across the board, picking up some Russian language, making Azerbaijan his home. He has numerous achievements to his credit—the first new Mother-care (a UK brand) store in Russia was started by him, as was the first western supermarket. However, in a twist of events like a noir Hollywood film, concerned with safety and security issues, he regretfully left the Russian land, the story unfinished.

To Nitin, however, Russia features as a reminder that home is never as far as you think. During his first time in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, he remembers arriving at a freezing, dilapidated airport, where martial law was in full force, and he was perplexed by the language. The streets would not be open for hours, so he bribed his way into a person’s car to hitch a ride into the city. The militia patrolling the roads with guns and impassive faces accosted them, and Nitin stepped out with bated breath. “They asked me, ‘Indus?’ to mean India, and as he nodded, their whole demeanour changed,” he remembers. Suddenly, they were laughing, friendly, looking on with fanfare instead of intimidation. “Do you know Raj Kapoor?” one asked hopefully. And this is how he found himself singing Awara hoon in the freezing night, surrounded by Soviet guns and soldiers, who’d adopted him as their VIP guest and personally dropped him off at his hotel. Years later, as a hat-tip to this fond memory, he launched a tea brand in Russia called ‘Awara’ with a handsome picture of Raj Kapoor on the label, which would sell out in minutes owing to the craze around the legendary star.

BUSINESS IN BOLLYWOOD

After Russia, Nitin was rudderless, but unbeknownst to him, he was on the cusp of something new. His stint in Russia introduced him to L’Oréal, which got him interested in beauty. The USA-based Toni and Guy, an unpretentious up-and-coming enterprise instead of the global rage as we know it today, offered him distributorship for their products in India. Impressed by their funky, colourful design and quality products, he dived in.

But selling was more complex than procurement. High-end salons were unheard of—the beauty scene still dominated by small street parlours. Beauty was not associated with lifestyle or self-care as it is now, and Nitin was once again a pioneer. Takers for his products manifested as Farhan and Adhuna Akhtar, a director-stylist duo, the latter operating ‘Juice’ hair salon in Mumbai and the former thick in the middle of his first directorial venture, Dil Chahta Hai. They expressed interest in the product, but money was tight; Farhan had placed all his bets and money on his movie. So, they offered him a partnership in the salon instead. Ever the collaborator, Nitin came on board. What followed was a stupendously successful Bollywood classic, forever changing Indian cinema. As word spread about the actor’s chic styling being curated by Adhuna, ‘Juice’ boomed, opening up more branches, with Nitin, Farhan, and Adhuna reaping the rewards of their faith and tenacity.

As Adhuna moved on to her own individual styling ventures, Nitin helmed ‘Juice’ and took it from strength to staggering strength. Under the freedom, he provided his team to capitalize on India’s emergent beauty boom; ‘Juice’ emerged into a multi-million-dollar business with over forty stores in India and seven in Dubai.

With wife Jiya and enjoying the ride with his son

CAPTURING ENDLESS MILESTONES

Nitin’s latest ventures include the professional salon-quality hair and skin brand titled ‘LYN – Live Your Now’, blazing a path across nearly 2,000 stores in India and growing steadily. Manufactured globally and inclusive of experimental new products, he also plans to expand it with a new, as-yet-unrevealed business model that will revolutionize the business. He is also the creator of a concept-driven venture called @the lab, where independent brands of stellar quality but limited reach can be made available to buyers, along with an in-depth hair and skin analysis with the recommended products suited for them. In an era of hyper individual needs, this new idea is sure to hit the nail on the head. Besides the business of beauty and grooming, he also holds the franchisee of the immensely popular F&B brand, Jones The Grocer for Qatar. His days are pretty occupied also managing the continuing import–export venture.

Nitin has not been infallible or without second thoughts. He wonders about the roads not taken, if he had stuck with ‘The Warehouse’, or if he could’ve cemented the Russian import–export business. But he does not dwell forever for he loves the adventure life took him on.

Nitin provided his team to capitalize on India’s emergent beauty boom; ‘Juice’ emerged into a multi-million-dollar business with over forty stores in India and seven in Dubai

On the personal front, he has a kindred spirit in his wife Jiya, who aids him with the aesthetics of his enterprises and with social media. He admits that work–life balance is tricky. “Instead of allocating a fixed slot I cannot adhere to, I keep it flexible and take lighter moments as they come,” he says. He is passionate about wellness, hiking, cycling, or simply walking to keep himself shipshape, and conscious about the food that nourishes his body. Also a mountaineer he has summited Mt Kilimanjaro amongst many others. One desire he yearns to check off his bucket list still is to cross the Atlantic on a wind-whipped sailboat.

To date, Nitin remains a voracious reader, irrespective of genre, and credits technology, which he says has made reading more accessible on-the-go, while so many of us complain otherwise. He remarks that perhaps his insatiable learning instinct is to compensate for not having earned an MBA, the one he wanted to pursue in the USA, which his uncle so deftly veered him off. But he takes it all in his stride. He may himself not be an MBA, but many who work for him are. After all, a successful business makes a successful businessman. Degree or not, fate intended or not, Nitin Kalwani is an accidental yet incredibly well-suited businessman.

In the end, he credits his parents with the upright teachings of always doing the ethical thing and learning at every given chance. His story is a testament to the importance of going against the tide. “When everyone is getting off the bus, that is when you climb on and create something worthwhile,” says the entrepreneur with no limits as he signs off.

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