Rising Rajput Stars: Enriching a Legacy

By Fiji Times – 8 April 2017

Dhansukh’s family beside their old Hiralal Laundry van. Dhansukh Chauhan is pictured far right. In the 1960s, the laundry business in Fiji was undermined by household washing machines.

Not too long ago, when indigenous Fijians tried to venture into commercial business, it was common for existing businessmen to smirk in colloquial Fiji Hindi: “Areh, jati log kaha chalai pai (Areh, these Fijians cannot run a business)!” Oh yeah?

But most understandably affronted indigenous Fijian business persons have no idea that the same kind of racist snide remarks had also been made only 50 years ago about Gujarati so-called “lower castes” who had the temerity to venture into business, such as the Gujarati hajaams (barbers), mochi (shoemakers) and the dhobi (laundry people — today calling themselves Rajputs).

One such entrepreneur from the Rajputs, my own family’s mataqali (I also detest the word “caste”) was the late Dhansukhlal Dalichand Chauhan, the creator of Star Printery Ltd, run currently by his sons Sandeep and Vikesh.

Dhansukh originally started out as a civil servant and USP employee, but like many others, saw business opportunities emerging in a newly independent Fiji.

But unlike others, he had the courage not only to cut loose from secure employment and income, but also risk his family’s entire life savings, to become self-employed in a new business — a duty free shop.

Later, when the economic environment changed, he again had the courage to change from an already profitable business to venture into one he knew little about (printing), while coping with changing partnerships.

This entrepreneur came from humble dhobhi origins, but had the perseverance, the frugality, and above all, the good fortune to have the full active support of a hard-working wife (Prabha) and their children.

Budding indigenous Fijian entrepreneurs can learn a lot from the life and business experiments of the late Dhansukh Chauhan and his family.

The thwarted ambitions

Dhansukh wanted to study to be a doctor, but his laundry-running parents in Lautoka could not afford the university fees.

The Bainimarama Government’s free tertiary education for all regardless of ethnicity was not around then.

In the sixties, when the Fiji laundry business was undermined by household washing machines, Dhansukh wanted to revolutionise his father’s laundry business.

But his father did not see the possibilities, unlike the families of Suman Lal (Flagstaff Laundry) and Bhagwan Patel (Electric Laundry in Knollys St) whose laundries successfully adapted to new technologies and clients.

Dhansukh became a civil servant in the late 60s, but soon became frustrated with the lack of upward mobility in the civil service bureaucracy (so what’s new?).

He moved to the USP School of Education as a curriculum researcher, about the same time as another young dhobhi fellow joined USP as a mathematics lecturer.

But while the dhobi mathematician made a career at USP, mostly as an economist, Dhansukh saw no future for himself in academia (smart fellow) and thought that business might be better.

Booming duty free business

In the 1970s and 1980s, when Fiji’s tourism took off, Australia and NZ, the largest sources of Fiji tourists, were in the Stone Age of “protectionism” with extremely high duties on electronic goods considered by their governments then as “luxury” goods.

Several companies in Fiji such as Stinson Pearce (later to become Prouds and taken over by Motibhais), Burns Philp, Musadilal, Brijlal and Sons, were able to convince the Alliance Government to reduce duties on imports of electronic goods to Fiji so as to attract tourists.

The Fiji prices became incredibly cheap, compared with Australian and NZ prices.

During NZ university holidays, my brother and I would work in freezing works at double rates on weekends, Christmas and new year, minting money we had never seen before in our lives.

More than enough to return to Fiji for a week, buy a whole range of expensive tape recorders, cameras and watches, then resell them to the Kiwi students for a fantastic profit which not only paid for our trip home but left us enough pocket money for the whole year.

Dhansukh, however, identified an interesting niche market — the cash-rich NZ army personnel training in Fiji with the RFMF. But they could only shop after 6pm, by which time the larger shops were usually closed.

So Dhansukh sent buses to pick up the Kiwi soldiers for after hours duty free shopping at his outlet, keeping him and his wife busy, sometimes until 2am in the morning. They would open again at 8.30am with just a few hours of sleep.

An all too familiar story of small businesses, like the corner shops stepping into the gaps when larger businesses (like supermarkets) fail to be flexible with shoppers’ needs.

Two other close family members (Virsukh and Pepe) joined his duty free venture which grew into four outlets, one in Pier St, two in Cumming St and a fourth outlet, which was pretty radical for the Gujarati women in those days.

The untold gender equality story

A good research topic for gender studies, the fourth duty free outlet in the partnership was run by the three wives of the three partners — Prabha (Dhansukh’s wife), Niru (Virsukh’s wife) and Naina (Pepe’s wife), on a two-week rotational basis.

There is a great untold story about the emergence of gender equality in the Rajput community.

In an earlier era when Gujarati women did not work alongside men, even my own mother was looked down upon because she laboured beside men in my father’s laundry business in Toorak, until the trend caught on in other families.

Theirs was the typical working class Gujarati woman’s story of maintaining the home, cooking, cleaning, making school lunches, and then going to work the second shift in their husband’s businesses.

They would often then go home for the third shift, to make dinner for the family (while some fortunate husbands, my dear old departed father included, would go off to the Merchants Club with their mates).

But the great lesson for budding entrepreneurs is the boost that is given to equity through the unpaid labour of wives, who in the olden days (and often today as well) often faced the injustice of not having their own names on the property titles.

From duty free to a printery

But as with many other developed countries seeing the economic senselessness of protectionism, NZ and Australia in the nineties also reduced their duties on imports of electronic goods which had become common consumer items.

With their profit margins reduced, the Fiji duty free trade slowed down. Note that today the Fiji prices of duty free goods are about the same as in Australia or NZ.

While Dhansukh was still doing well with reputable brands such as Marantz, Kenwood, Blaupunkt and Hoya Lenses, he knew that the duty free business future was not going to be rosy.

But unlike many businessmen who are too afraid to move out of their comfort zones, Dhansukh decided to try something new.

A brother-in-law suggested they buy out a printing company which was in receivership.

Since Dhansukh knew nothing about printing, his other business partners were naturally reluctant to put in their own savings.

So Dhansukh and Prabha put their life savings into this new venture, while taking out a loan with their house as security. You can imagine the agonising debates within the family at risking all in a business venture Dhansukh knew nothing about.

But with Prabha’s full backup in the duty free business, Dhansukh began the small printery, with the family personally working late nights and weekends to save on labour costs.

With stiff competition from the several other existing much larger printeries which had economies of scale (and so could cut prices), it took several years before their printery could break even.

It took many more patient years before the profits became reasonable.

Unfortunately, the success of their printery put strains in their duty free partnership.

Difficulties of partnerships

Budding Fijian entrepreneurs who rely on extended family members need to be prepared for the very natural stresses and disagreements in family owned and operated businesses, where capital and savings are pooled and profits shared equally, sometimes regardless of time spent by individual partners.

It is almost inevitable that at some stage, some family members will think that they are not getting their fair share for the work they are putting in, especially when one partner is also running another successful side business, in which all are not sharing the profits.

This has happened to many a family business throughout Fiji and so it did with Dhansukh’s duty free partnership.

Dhansukh and Prabha then made the difficult decision to opt out from the duty free partnership in 1990 and focus on the printery, even though it was not very profitable then. What a risky leap in the dark.

To make it more difficult, the family had also decided after the 1987 coup to take permanent residence in NZ to better protect their children’s future. So Prabha was spending more of her time ensuring that their young children were looked after in NZ.

A new printery

Despite the uncertainties produced by the 1987 coup, Dhansukh bought a piece of land in Raiwai and built a new factory in 1993, supervising the building process himself so that he could save money.

In 1998, his brother-in-law partner wanted to venture out in his own business (again a natural tendency) requiring another pay out from Dhansukh’s savings.

Dhansukh then asked his eldest son, Sandeep, to return to Fiji and join his printing venture, which he did even though he was already successfully employed in NZ with his B. Com in marketing.

This same problem is faced by many very capable indigenous Fijians with a regular guaranteed employment income faced with an entrepreneurial challenge, where incomes can drop to zero and put them into deep debt.

But of great help was that Sandeep’s wife kept some regular employment income coming in from part-time teaching at FNU.

Here is another lesson for budding entrepreneurs: “Do not put all your eggs in one entrepreneurial basket”.

Having one regular employment income coming into the family can be a valuable buffer to maintain basic living costs, in case business income drops because of unforeseen circumstances.

With Sandeep’s help, Dhansukh grew the factory from the original 200 square metres to 2000 square metres. It was not all business for Dhansukh.

A rounded citizen

Many in Fiji think that businessmen all live in flash houses and have luxury lives with flash clothes, shoes and four-wheel drives, which are the hallmark of successful senior civil servants.

But Dhansukh and his family lived most of their working lives in a very plain old wooden two-bedroom house in Waimanu Rd, where the RB Patel carpark is today.

As with most older Gujarati businessmen, you would never know their worth by their appearances, a contrast with the brash show-off younger generations today.

Like many intelligent businessmen, Dhansukh contributed to business and charitable organisations, not just as a way of obtaining business exposure, but also adding value to society.

He was national president of the Duty Free Merchants’ Association. He was on the Board of Fiji Visitors Bureau, which faced the uphill task of recovering tourist visitors from NZ and Australia after the 1987 coup, just as many other tourism operators have painfully done after the coups of 2000 and 2006.

Dhansukh also helped to start the Fiji Rajput Sarvoday Samaj (my parents’ dhobi mataqali) and served in all the key positions. Dhansukh contributed to many charities, as do many other businessmen in Fiji. He retired to NZ and passed away in 2013.

The rising Rajput star

Having worked in NZ for several years and now having the skills to explore new technology and new markets, Sandeep knew that he could move to a higher level from the old and outdated machinery in his father’s factory.

He invested in new technology, growing the business and the equity.

As did his parents before him, Sandeep and his wife also worked long hours, with his brother Vikesh and his wife also joining them.

Star Printery expanded its factory to 4500 square metres and 110 employees.

Their quality machinery and products also allowed them to attract orders from the other Pacific Island countries, earning valuable foreign exchange for Fiji and tax benefits.

Unlike many businesses started by the older generation and run into the ground by the children born with silver spoons in their mouths, Star Printery has been taken to greater heights by Dhansukh’s quite modest sons, Sandeep and Vikesh, and their wives.

Budding Fijian entrepreneurs should find it quite interesting to keep track of these rising Rajput stars, over the next 20 years.