As a nine-year-old growing up in a small Gujarat village, Govind Kakadia would watch wideeyed as the rare motor car whizzed past his family’s tiny farm, carrying in it beautiful people headed towards the nearest big city. “For me, the people in those cars, headed towards Bhavnagar, the district capital, represented all the good things in life that I wanted—clothes, a pair of sandals, and even a pair of sunglasses,” says Kakadia.
“Every time I saw those beautiful people fly past us, I would promise myself that I too would have the same kind of life that they had,” he adds.
Kakadia, now 49 years old, is the head of Sheetal Manufacturing Co., a Rs1,200 crore firm that is the world’s largest polisher of diamonds by volume; every year, 1.5 million carats pass through it. And its brand of diamond jewellery, Kiah, is among the better-known ones in its category in India, and is endorsed by a former Miss Universe.
That’s some achievement for a man who has spent, by his estimates, just around seven months spread over several years in a village school. The term would start in June; the rains would arrive soon after; and Kakadia would be sent off to graze the cattle on the rich grass that would grow in the area soon after the rains.
“In March, we would be back in school, which would promptly shut down in April for the year,” says Kakadia, who is called Govindbhai by almost everybody.
That intermittent affair with schooling ended abruptly. One day, a cousin from Bhavnagar arrived home. He was flashily dressed, and earned Rs100 a month in the diamond polishing business. An impressed Kakadia wanted to head off to Bhavnagar immediately and started pestering his parents to let him do this. A few months later, they agreed and his mother sold her only piece of jewellery to raise the Rs600 he would have to pay for training to be a diamond polisher. He was 10 years old at the time.
For a country that doesn’t own any diamonds, India plays a crucial role in the global diamond business. The dull and rough stones that are mined have to be polished and faceted (literally, have faces cut into them). This is a labour-intensive process, requires considerable skill, and most companies involved in this mode of the diamond business are concentrated in India, especially in Gujarat. These firms import stones from Antwerp (Belgium), the hub of the global diamond trade, finish them, and export them.
In 1968, Kakadia arrived in Bhavnagar. He lived on the terrace of the factory where he trained. The training lasted 14 hours a day,?but he was happy. In six months, he had picked up enough to become a full-time employee at a then princely salary of Rs70 a month. Of that, he sent Rs40 home.
A few years into the job, Kakadia had mastered the art of faceting diamonds. And he was beginning to think that he could run a diamond polishing business of his own. In 1976, he did just that with a colleague and his brother Vallabh, who had by then joined the business. “With the Rs240 that we had borrowed, we rented two polishing machines and set up our own business,” says Kakadia. He was 18 at the time.
The Kakadia brothers fought to stay afloat. Business grew. In six months Kakadia was off to Mumbai with Rs8,000; he bought 100 carats of unpolished diamond roughs, to be polished and sold from his Bhavnagar factory. At 19, he got married to a girl from his village. His wife stayed back in the village while Kakadia built the business, shuttling between Mumbai and Bhavnagar. In 1984, he paid Rs9 lakh to buy a flat in one of south Mumbai’s most tiny neighbourhoods, Walkeshwar. The same year, he bought an office in Mumbai, made his first trip to Antwerp, and incorporated Sheetal Manufacturing Co. His single-minded obsession on growing the business was beginning to pay off. “What has struck me in the 10 years that I have known him is his complete focus on the task at hand,” says Nirupa Bhatt, marketing manager, India, Rio Tinto Diamonds.
In 1985, around the same time that he shifted the factory from Bhavnagar to Surat, Kakadia realized he would never make his millions by merely polishing diamonds. Technology was still primitive and the business couldn’t be scaled up. He decided to move to pure trading in polished diamonds. Business tripled. By 1993, however, there was better technology available, and Kakadia re-entered the business. In 1998, as a sign of the company’s growth (and growing clout in the business), the Diamond Trading Corp., the marketing arm of diamond firm De Beers, selected Sheetal as one of the 30 companies that could directly source diamonds from it. In 2000, Kakadia founded Chirag Designs, to design and export diamond jewellery. And in 2003, encouraged by son Ajay, he started eyeing the Indian branded-diamond jewellery market. A year later, he launched Kiah, a brand that promised affordable but elegant diamond jewellery. Kiah has 15 stores across the country; Kakadia hopes to increase the number to 22 by the end of 2007 and 30 by the end of 2008.
Kakadia’s life hasn’t been a fairy tale. In the late 1970s, his business hit a downturn; he lost Rs2 lakh and had to pay off debts of more than Rs50,000. The money owed to him by customers did not come in on time and, unable to cope with the stress, Kakadia went bald, and took ill for a few months. It all worked out in the end, but not before he resolved to never do business on credit. Three years on, the business was back on track.
“Kakadia has immense trust in the basic honesty of people. What has also worked for him is that he is an amazing manager of people, a quality that has translated into complete commitment from his employees,” says Gems and Jewellery Export Promotion Council chairman Sanjay Kothari. With 20,000 people on his company’s rolls, Kakadia is the largest employer in the diamond business today.
For someone whose life is the stuff dreams are made of, Kakadia is, aptly enough, a Bollywood addict, and a diehard fan of actor Amitabh Bachchan, who playedthe small-man-who-made-itbig-against-all-odds in countless movies of the 1970s and 1980s. While going through his bad patch in the 1970s, Kakadia claims he survived only by repeatedly watching a Bachchan movie, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, which literally translates into ‘Maker of my own destiny.’ It’s less destiny than the willingness to learn and the ability to let go and hand over to the professionals what they do best, says Kothari.
Nearing 50, Kakadia wants to slow down and get his team to slow down, too. “I have started insisting no one stays behind in office beyond normal working hours and that they take their paid leave to spend time with their families. I spent a better part of my life away from my family and I don’t want that to happen to them.”
(Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by e-mail to email@example.com)