Living the UAE dream: Dubai-based entrepreneur Anis Sajan pays tribute to the country on its 51st anniversary

'The UAE is my home away from home'


Joydeep Sengupta

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Published: Wed 30 Nov 2022, 9:46 PM

Last updated: Fri 2 Dec 2022, 11:04 AM

Life can be challenging, but it’s your mindset that determines success. Giving up in time of adversity is easy. However, fighting relentlessly for your dreams, and turning them into reality, requires something greater than persistence.

Many may dismiss such “lofty thoughts” as moral aphorism, but Anis Sajan, vice-chairman of Danube Group, is a shining example of the ‘UAE dream’, which quite like the ‘American dream’, has come to fruition because of his three decades of hard work and an unflinching belief in certain core values that he steadfastly stood by even when the going got tough in his formative years back home in Mumbai, India, in the late 1970s.

Anis lost his father Asker Ali Sajan, who worked as a clerk at Nathani Steel, at a tender age of eight years and his world — a tenement at Pant Nagar, Ghatkopar — came “crashing down overnight”.

He reminisces how his father was a beloved person in the company when the entire workforce showed up for his burial. The father’s premature demise made his elder brother — Rizwan, who is eight years older to Anis — the sole breadwinner of the family. Those were hard times.


With brother Rizwan Sajan, founder and chairman of the Danube Group
With brother Rizwan Sajan, founder and chairman of the Danube Group

Anis’ mother, Gulbanu Sajan, was afflicted with epilepsy and his eldest sister, Shabnam, donned the role of his ‘godmother’ to ensure a carefree upbringing of “playing cricket and flying kites”, despite mounting financial constraints.

Anis displayed an archetypal Sajan trait and has always “been a gifted salesman”. He took to selling fairy lights during Diwali — an annual Indian festival of lights — to make pocket money while he was barely 10 years old.

With sister Shabnam Kassam
With sister Shabnam Kassam

“It’s not how much I made, but it was more important to understand the value for money and try my hand at hard sales. It’s a life lesson that has served me well,” he says while recounting his salad days in his beloved Mumbai amid his well-appointed sitting room in his tastefully done-up villa at Emirates Hills (The villa goes beyond the brick and mortar and an assortment of rare artefacts that money can buy but it’s the love and warmth of his wife, Rubina, and his two sons, Azhar, 24, and Sahil, 21, that make up his happy family. Anis is a devoted family man and a strict disciplinarian).

Rubina, Anis, Azhar and Sahil Sajan
Rubina, Anis, Azhar and Sahil Sajan

Anis was having the time of his life with his friends and batchmates at KJ Somaiya College of Arts & Science in Mumbai, when Rizwan, who by then had taken up a job in oil-rich Kuwait in 1980, asked his younger sibling to join him.

“I couldn’t turn down his plea because he has been a father figure, a mentor, a friend-philosopher-guide for me, an endearing relationship that we enjoy even today,” recalls Anis fondly. On January 2, 1990, Anis landed in Kuwait, where Rizwan was making a mark in timber business at Atlas Commercial Company under the able guidance of its owner, Jacob Moses.

Anis’ stint in Kuwait was “uneventful because I missed Mumbai a lot”.

The Gulf War-1 cut short his stay in Kuwait, and he headed back to Mumbai on October 2, 1992. Over the next 14 months, Anis, who had moved out of Pant Nagar to Bandra after Rizwan bought an apartment in the tony Mumbai suburb, honed his skills as a salesman with Eureka Forbes, an Indian consumer goods company that was capturing lion’s share of the water purifier market. He was one of the leading salespersons in the company and, at times, made 20 times his meagre salary on the basis of his “stupendous sales performance”.

The going was good, but life, as always, had other plans for Anis, who was destined to make a mark in the Arabian Gulf.

Rizwan, who had moved to Dubai in late-1991, wanted Anis to join him.

So, this time, it was the UAE, a young nation that was gradually making a mark on the world stage, because of the visionary leadership of its Founding Father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

He arrived in Dubai on November 12, 1992, and was blown away by the charming Emirati official at the immigration counter, who greeted him in Hindi, “Aap kaise hain?” (how are you?), to make him “feel at home on a foreign land”.

A feeling that he has nurtured for the next 30 years and continues to swear by the country that has become a “home away from home because of its unprecedented safety and security and a cultural melting pot — a happy blend of East and West celebrating diversity”.

However, Anis’ easing into the UAE wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for Rizwan, who ensured that his younger sibling didn’t miss the Mumbai vibes. Rizwan initiated Anis to Karama, one of the vibrant Indian quarters of a fledgling Dubai, which struck an instant chord with the youngster, who was destined to prosper in Dubai.

“A driving licence those days was one of the prized possessions. Few expatriates could obtain a licence quickly. However, I was one of the luckiest to get one in three months, which came in handy for my sanitaryware business. I still remember my first car in the UAE, a Mazda station wagon — its number plate was 88530 — that helped me ferry the wares in Dubai and adjoining Sharjah and Abu Dhabi,” he says. Rizwan was persisting with his timber business and the brothers were making inroads as suppliers to wholesalers in Deira.

A team of four, including two employees, was packing a punch.

Soon, Rizwan, a consummate businessman since his formative days, decided to christen his enterprise as Danube — the second-longest river in Europe after Volga — on a trip to a timber factory in Romania via the water way in 1993.

The UAE, says Anis, “is blessed by the hand of God”.

“Initially, it was the reconstruction of Kuwait following the Gulf War-1, which was followed by the disintegration of the Soviet Republics that brought Russians to Dubai in big numbers. They were bulk buyers whom I was selling my sanitary wares till we diversified our portfolios, such as hardware, tiles, electrical and washroom fittings etc. I went to exhibitions in Bologna, Italy, Frankfurt in Germany and Taiwan to source sanitary fittings and shower curtain rods that the Russians were buying in big numbers,” he says.

In 1996, he got married to Rubina as his enterprise flourished coinciding with High Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, unleashing a flurry of ambitious development plans for the emirate.

Rizwan and Anis were at the right place at the right time. The unity of being — time, place and action — couldn’t have been more opportune for the Sajan brothers, who by the turn of the millennium were ready to cash in on the real estate boom in Dubai between 2003 and 2008 amid the opening up of the property sector.

In 2003, Rizwan invested in four villas in Dubai Marina — one each for himself and Anis — and the other were put on rent, as leading developers of the day were heavily relying on the Sajans for the supply of steel, timber, sanitary products, hardware and electrical fittings. They ensured that the raw building materials were never in short supply and overcame the 2008 global meltdown, whose aftershocks were felt in the UAE as well.

The 2008 recession, widely seen as a moment of adversity, also presented a rare opportunity for the Danube Group to venture into uncharted territory of retail building material business that was backed up by a simple business motto of “no risk, no gain”. The Sajans opened their first store, Build Mart, in Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) in 2008 and retailed stuff required to set up a home under one roof from chandeliers — sourced from China and Italy — to wallpapers and kitchen wares.

Buildmart, since rechristened as Danube Home, has grown and expanded to Manama, Bahrain; to other emirates in the UAE, including Abu Dhabi and Fujairah.

Danube Group, which started with two employees in 1993, employs over 4,500 people across all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and Jebel Ali, Dubai, acts as the homegrown company’s headquarters.

The Sajans decided to get into the real estate business — developing and selling properties — in 2014 that disrupted Dubai’s real estate market because of their innovative pricing mechanisms.

Dreamz was the first real estate project, a four-bedroom villa property priced at upwards of Dh3 million for expatriates, was launched at Al Furjan in 2014.

“The venture was a runaway success as we looked at the other end of the spectrum such as Dh400,000, Dh600,000 and Dh800,000 for a studio, one bedroom and two bedrooms, respectively, at Al Furjan, Arjan and Miracle Gardens. We could offer unbelievable prices because we were passing on our margins in building materials to our customers. This is how we’ve always been ahead of our competitors. We could offer the quality of Dubai Marina to our first-time expatriate homebuyers at the price of Discovery Gardens,” says Anis.

Besides, the one-per cent payment plan has proved to be a game-changer for expatriate homebuyers in the median annual income bracket, who seek to convert their rental expenses into equated monthly installments (EMIs).

“A homebuyer needs to pay 52 per cent of his/her apartment cost, including two tranches of payment in 10 per cent each, to get hold of a key. This pricing mechanism was unheard of in this part of the world. Significantly, the moot point is why do people invest in the Danube Group? It’s not just the pricing and payment plans but it’s their innate trust in the brand. It’s our carefully built reputation through the years. Our organic growth and ethical business practices, which are our biggest capital and assets,” he adds.

Danube Group’s brand ambassadors through the years — from legendary Indian cricketer Sunil Gavaskar to actresses Juhi Chawla, Sushmita Sen and Shilpa Shetty — reinforce the high trust quotient that has spawned two other powerful brands, Milano and Casa Milano, helmed by Anis’ dynamic sons, Azhar and Sahil. For the uninitiated, Milano and Casa Milano together offer affordable and luxurious bathroom fittings and tiles, respectively, which celebrate Italian craftsmanship.

Sahil and Azhar Sajan
Sahil and Azhar Sajan

Anis, who is an avid yoga practitioner and a die-hard cricket enthusiast, has had a full life, thanks to the visionary leadership of the UAE whose constant support and encouragement helped Danube Group emerge as a leading homegrown corporate entity that is making forays into real estate to hospitality to entertainment.

However, he has a couple of unfinished agendas. India and Pakistan — two great cricket-playing nations — had last played a test match in December 2007. Though both teams have clashed against each other in the shorter versions of the game, Anis nurtures an ambition to host a three-match bilateral test series between the arch rivals in Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi.

A cherished dream that may come true someday along with seeing the footprints of Danube Group spread far and wide across the globe, under the leadership of the next generation of Sajans, including his nephew Adel — the managing director of the Danube Group — and his sons, Azhar and Sahil. “Adel, Azhar, and Sahil have a connection, like I have with Rizwan, which is a major factor for our success. I am certain this will be crucial in spreading the influence of Danube worldwide,” says Anis.

The Sajan family
The Sajan family

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