Manu Chandaria: I no longer want to talk business

Industrialist Manu Chandaria during an interview with the Standard on May 31, 2022. [Samson Wire, Standard]

One of Manu Chandaria’s few regrets is not retiring at 80.

At 93, the industrialist is still fit as a fiddle and sharp-witted as ever; you feel he could still be globe-trotting and addressing gatherings of business people.

But he retired at 90, detaching himself from the businesses that he made - and that, it could be argued, made him in return.

“Businesswise, I have retired from everything. If someone asks me what is happening in Comcraft Group, Kaluworks or Mabati, I would not answer,” he tells Financial Standard.

“Unless you detach completely - even from that which you have been running for these many years - you will always be thinking about it and will not be in retirement.”

After more than seven decades of service and leadership at Comcraft Group, which was founded in 1915 and which he grew into a multinational manufacturer of steel and aluminium, Mr Chandaria decided to step aside and let his protégés take over.

“My body is still okay. I chose to retire when I am still okay and do social work and other things, not wait until I am sick,” he says.

“I retired from the businesses, I do not have that worry about any businesses.”

His schedule has since changed. While he still wakes up around 6am, he no longer has to get ready for the office at 9.30 am.

“I wait until 10.30am, or 11am, when I will take my coffee,” he says.

Keep in shape

Mr Chandaria’s many years in business, and the mental exercises he always did to keep in shape, must have been really useful; he remembers details with dumbfounding accuracy and detail.

He remembers being woken up by his father at 5.30am to read and complete his homework when he was a child.

His parents, who he says only spoke vernacular and lacked an education, instilled in him discipline and the desire to work hard to change himself and the society for the better.

His father also taught him and his siblings to work towards a course.

“In 1916, my father targeted 4,000 rupees, then he would go back and stay with his family, open a family business and look after his people. He taught us that you must have a basis of why you do something,” he says.

Mr Chandaria pursued engineering at the university and even got a masters degree, before coming back to manage Comcraft, then a young family business.

His background in engineering helped his adaptation in the company, though he says they were only “one, two-odd engineers” in the family, and many others have hacked it without that specific professional background.

A few years into business, he suggested forming The Chandaria Foundation, which would come up with initiatives aimed at helping vulnerable people in society.

Initially, his father was dismissive of the idea, doubting the potential as the family business was still small.

After some time, though, they sponsored the first student and have gone on to impact many more people that need aid, growing into a foundation that has a presence in every city where Comcraft has operations.

In his retirement, Mr Chandaria says he is not welcoming to those who visit to discuss business. But he gives an ear to those willing to talk about social impact.

He is the chancellor of United States International University (USIU) Africa, was the chancellor of Technical University of Kenya and is the chairman of Bank of India.

In these institutions, he says, he does not interfere with operations, availing himself for consultation and offering advice when needed.

“There are institutions with which I am connected. Several institutions come to me. But normally I will not go and say I would want to do this,” he says.

“As chancellor, I am the titular head of USIU, but I cannot intervene on anything. All my duties are once or twice a year during the awarding of degrees; I have to be there to sign the papers.

“Otherwise I have no connection with them; they once in a while phone me and say how things are. But for me, I don’t want to go into things; as a chancellor, you cannot.”

With so many years in business, does Mr Chandaria miss some of the things he used to do on a daily basis?

He says it was a very difficult decision to take “that you do not want, from now onwards, what you are used to.”

He says he told the companies’ directors to resolve any problems they have within the ranks and to only involve him if they need help in social work.  

“I think it was a good decision because for how long can you continue? How long can the number twos and number threes and fours remain there? They have to become number one at some point.”

Mr Chandaria belongs to the Jain faith, which he says constitutes about 20 per cent of the population of Asians in Kenya.

In Jainism, the three guiding principles are right belief, right knowledge and right conduct.

Jainism also believes in non-violence, and encourages living in a way that minimises use of the world’s resources.

“In Jainism, when you cut off, you cut off. There is no connection left,” he says.

This means that ready or not, when his time for exit came, those behind him had to step up and take the wheel.  

“A lot of determination is needed to get away from things. Our religion is very much based on that. Give up because it is the constant wants that keep you busy and you cannot enjoy life,” Mr Chandaria says. 

“Determine that you want to detach, and detach. The minute I ask one question (about Comcraft and his businesses), there will be 100 questions I will want to ask. It is a huge disciplinary test; it is not easy.”

He says business can only thrive if one is able to trust in people and in their abilities. “If I have the capacity, why should you not have the capacity? We are all human beings.”

He says the failure of a leader to detach and give the chance to others muffles their growth and hurts the success and continuity of a business.

He is sure that the principles that have been instilled in those who are running the business will ensure that the business and the foundation run for a long time.  

Social work and spending time with family and friends keep him busy and he does not miss his work schedule.  

Impact on society

On his growth to a successful industrialist, Mr Chandaria says he was disciplined enough not to get carried away by the finer things in life.

He has some enviable properties, but he says that what a person should be known for is not their wealth but how they have impacted on society using the wealth.

“Manu is not known because he is wealthy. He is known because this is the man who helps others,” he says.

“I can only wear one pair of trousers at a time, however many I have. The minute it gets to you that life is not about material items, then you think about what you can do, not to yourself but to others.”

He has inculcated philanthropy into those that manage his businesses, and they understand that they have to consider more than the company’s profit margins.

“My principle is: we are not getting it (profit) from up there. We are getting from this society. We have a responsibility towards this society,” Mr Chandaria says.

He also says he has no interests in some of the organisations he is associated with, some of them simply seeking his presence, which is an endorsement.

Chandaria Foundation, however, has an eight per cent shareholding in Kenindia Insurance, which, alongside what he earns for being chancellor and chairman of several institutions, goes towards philanthropy and charity.

He is happy many people know him for the impact he has had on society, and not merely for his wealth.  

“It is a good thing that people know Manu Chandaria because of what he has done. The country can tell who I am without meeting me because through what we do, people feel I am a man who has love for the country,” he says.

“They don’t know I have a Rolls (Royce, which is one of his expensive acquisitions), they don’t know about the mansion, they don’t even know where I live. But they know Manu.

“And that is how they should know Manu.”

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