Manu Chandaria: Lessons I have learnt in my 90 years

Businessman Manu Chandaria interview [David Njaaga,Standard]
Despite his advanced age, the nonagenarian walks ramrod straight, with poise and assuredness that has probably come from a life fully lived with his loved ones and playing a titan in the boardroom. At 90, age might not allow him to sprint anymore, or stand for long periods, but his mind remains laser sharp. He ushers us into his palatial home, orders some tea for everyone, and we all settle in for an afternoon of reflection.

1.   BUSINESS ISN’T EASY. IF YOU DON’T HAVE GRIT, DON’T GO IN

Failure is the basis for growth of human beings. But if you fall, you must come up twice determined to face it and get out of it. When I came back to Kenya in the 50s after studying in the US, our family had lost almost all its assets after the Second World War. Building everything again and moving from employing 40 people to now when we have over 20,000 employees was not easy. It could have been easy to give up and maybe find a job. But my father had made many sacrifices for us to just walk away. It takes stamina, honesty and hard work to run a business. In every aspect of life, you will encounter difficulties and if you give up, you move back. If you do nothing, nothing happens. Simple as that.

2.   CHILDREN CAN’T BE WHAT THEY CAN’T SEE

It is important to teach your children integrity, honesty and hard work, and you can effectively do so by being an example even in the instances you think don’t make a difference. When someone you don’t want to see shows up at your door and you tell your child, “Go and tell him I’m not in” and at the same time you’re telling them how it’s important to be honest, they will likely do as you do, not as you say. Start them early and be a good role model. 

3.   DEATH IS A FACT OF LIFE

One who is born will die, you just don’t know when. The best way to prepare for it is by always making sure to do your best in everything that you embark on and using your influence and resources positively. That way if nothing else, you have left some positivity behind.  Always remember that you will go. Your loved ones too.  Could be later today. Or tomorrow.

4.   MONEY IS GOOD OR BAD DEPENDING ON HOW YOU USE IT

Growing your money isn’t rocket science. Money always multiples if you invest it well. The opposite is true. Just that simple. Don’t spend beyond your means. Money isn’t evil.  Money is the root of all evil if you use it for yourself and harm others as you do so. Money used to help others is not evil. In fact, it is a basic need.

5.   WHOSE LIFE HAVE YOU HELPED LATELY?

Many years ago, when my daughter came back home after studying in England, every time I came home from work and asked her how she was doing, she’d say she was bored. I told her about a home Mother Teresa was building and if she could volunteer at the construction site. She was 21 at the time and after the first day’s work, she said it was very difficult and it was dirty work. I told her that Mother Teresa cannot build a home in Muthaiga; she builds it where it is needed. She volunteered for a year. Six years later as Mother Teresa was leaving the US embassy residence, she saw my name on the plaque nearby — back then we had names at our gates —and dropped by. At the door she asked my wife if by any chance this was the home of Priti Chandaria, my daughter. After my wife confirmed so, she asked if she could come in and bless the home. Mother Teresa used to interact with lots of people and she remembered. The humility she had is inspiring. Those are the people I learn from and try to emulate. Learn from the people you meet. I also believe life is about doing good and helping others.

6.   KINDNESS TO YOUR SPOUSE IS INTEGRAL

Marriage needs to be nurtured. You just don’t get married and think that’s it. My wife and I have been married for 65 years now. For a marriage to last that long, you need to have common goals, respect each other, have patience and accept the other’s shortcomings. It’s certainly not easy. I have a little hot temper and if things are not up-to-date, I might say something cross. But then I have the humility to say sorry. You’ll go through rough phases and I think that the will of wanting to remain together helps pull you through. The other day I was watching this vidoe clip of a woman was preparing food and added salt, got on the phone, forgot she had already put in salt and added some more. When she served the man the food, he didn’t mention it. Sometimes you don’t need to be critical of things that you know are out of her hands or were done by mistake. I know my wife would never intentionally serve me terrible food so when it happens, I don’t have to mention it or go on about it.

7.   LITTLE THINGS KEEP A MARRIAGE ALIVE

Well, when you get to my age, romance is not there, but the biggest thing I give her is appreciation and taking interest in her activities. She does great paintings which I compliment. My wife is also a great cook. I tell her how much the dish tastes good every time. You don’t stop doing that thinking she already knows it. A few days ago, she wasn’t feeling well. I called her in the middle of the day to check on her. I didn’t have to do that. We live in the same house and have lived in the same house for 65 years. I could have waited till I got home to find out how she was doing, but it’s the little things that keep the marriage alive.

8.   YOU LEARN THE GAME WHILE IN THE GAME

Life teaches you a lot, but you can only learn if you’re willing to. You can’t just stand by the sidelines and hope you will learn enough by observing so that you can take the plunge. You will waste valuable time.  I was chairman for Street Families Rehabilitation Trust Fund for 10 years. I didn’t know anything about street families. But I could see there was a problem and feel their pain. Ask questions, find out what’s happening, that’s how you learn. That’s how we managed to reconnect 30 per cent of street children with their families and make comfortable the lives of the others. Don’t wait. Just act now.

9.   GRUDGES ONLY HURT YOU

A friend and I had a difference of opinion and fell out. I wrote him a letter saying I shouldn’t have behaved the way I did and that I was sorry. Admitting that you were wrong and apologising is not easy, but it gives you peace. For 40 years, I carried that in my mind not wanting to deal with it. And it was a tiresome thing. But I am 90 and I don’t want to carry baggage with me. That’s the same with forgiving. I live on the principle of forgive and forget, to always keep my mind and heart clear. Don’t assemble in your mind all the things that went wrong, all the things someone did to you, the situations that hurt you, that’s baggage that weighs you down.

10.  YOU ARE ONLY HAPPY IF YOU MAKE OTHERS HAPPY

I recently became a great-grandfather. How many people get to live this long? I am grateful for the long life I’ve lived. I am grateful that I am useful to others. To be happy is not just to have everything. Happiness for me is being available to others for their happiness. In my religion, we always say to be happy you have to make others happy; if you cannot make others happy and you think you are happy, you’re not. My happiness depends on others around me being happier.

11.  THERE IS GREAT OPPORTUNITY IN TRYING TO SOLVE PROBLEMS AROUND YOU

Human beings are selfish. That’s one of the problems with leadership in this country. Look beyond the words “I” and “me” and think about what you can do for others. I took many chairmanships with the intention of making life better for others. When I realised that businesses had no good relationship with the government, I thought of ways of forging understanding between the two. That’s what inspired me to create the East African Business Council and Kenya Private Sector Alliance. It takes effort to do that. I’d be in meetings from 7am to late in the evening. It takes effort to get people to sit together and find common ground. Leadership is not just something you learn in school. You must first want to serve, have patience, listen to all the voices, understand them and find a common solution.

12. STICK TO YOUR VALUES. ALWAYS

I live a simple life. I am a vegetarian because I believe all animals deserve to live. I believe in truth and in holding the hands of others. I believe in humility and always being honest.

You don’t need money to help others. There’s a lot you can give — time or a lesson to help eradicate someone’s helplessness. Before making a decision, I consider if it is good for everybody. Will it be beneficial to me and to others and will it bring goodwill? If yes then I go with it. I have achieved lots of love, affection and recognition from people. That doesn’t get to my head or make me stop doing things.

Register to advertise your products & services on our classifieds website Digger.co.ke and enjoy one month subscription free of charge and 3 free ads on the Standard newspaper.

Businessman Manu ChandariaKenyahuman beings