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Christopher Burke for The National
Christopher Burke for The National

Shaji Ul Mulk: Family man plays a steady innings

Profile: To say the head of Mulk Holdings is cricket-mad would be a severe understatement, and the prolific batsman brings a similar dedication to the running of his company.

Shaji Ul Mulk's passion for cricket goes far beyond the usual traits of a sports fan: tracking scores on the internet and the occasional knockabout with friends.

So all-consuming is the manufacturing tycoon's love for the game that he tries to recreate the drama and razzmatazz of the Indian Premier League when he plays.

Captaining his club - a selection of business pals aged 40 years and above - against a team from the Indian Consulate in Dubai in a match at the Dubai Cricket Stadium recently, Mr Mulk pulled out all the stops.

"We did it in style," says the head of Mulk Holdings. "We had a live commentator, we had cheer girls and a complete audio system for music in between."

The all-male team even paused between innings to allow wives and girlfriends to have a quick game.

Mr Mulk's devotion to the sport is further evident when you step inside the Sharjah headquarters of his conglomerate.

There are numerous trophies marking Mr Mulk's personal triumphs as well as victories for the various teams he's led. He holds the record for the highest number of runs scored in the UAE cricket league - 400 in a 25-over match in 1990.

Then there is a blown-up picture of Mahendra Singh Dhoni hitting the winning shot for India against Sri Lanka in the final of the Cricket World Cup in April last year, captured by Mr Mulk's friend as they cheered for their country.

The memorabilia sits alongside framed photographs of Mr Mulk receiving awards from various rulers, recognising him as being the largest UAE free zone manufacturer, as well as the leading exporter in Sharjah and Ajman.

The awards give an impression of an individual at the top of his game and accustomed to winning, whether in business or sport.

But despite his competitive spirit, Mr Mulk is keen to maintain a work-life balance, which is especially important, given that his family members are also involved in the company. His wife, Farha, is deputy chairman.

"She is a tremendous support to me," he says. "She looks after the day-to-day operations of the company and I tend to focus on expansion."

He travels frequently between the company's overseas sites in Serbia, Turkey and India.

Adnam, Mr and Mrs Mulk's 23-year-old son, is the general manager of the plastic and metal recycling unit of Mulk Holdings. They also have two daughters, Nida, 20 and Sania, 13.

Fresh from business management school in London, Adnam is already brimming with ideas.

"The younger generation today have their own ideas and he has a few products he'd like to get involved [in ]. I've asked for a feasibility plan and if it makes sense we'll fund it," Mr Mulk says with a smile.

But the Mulks try to ensure a dividing line between the office and home life.

"It's our policy that Friday and Saturday nobody talks business. Business is bad and the telephone at the dining table or when we go out has to be on silent," he says.

"We spend a lot of time together and just the five of us being out together is an evening for us. We are a very close family."

It was family that helped Mr Mulk cut his teeth in business when he arrived in the UAE in 1982 after graduating from university. He landed in Dubai from his ancestral home of Kurnool in southern India planning to stay only long enough to get a visa to complete a master's degree in the United States. By the time the visa was approved, however, Mr Mulk had opted to stay.

He had got a job with his brother-in-law selling solar technology, but after a couple of years he was hatching plans to start his own venture.

In 1985, he did just that, launching a firm manufacturing plaster of Paris ceiling tiles.

But business really took off in the early 1990s after Mr Mulk bought the rights to distribute Alubond, a US composite panel brand. He also took a small stake in Alubond, which has borne fruit as the company has become a global name. Profits were ploughed into new projects, spawning a diversified mix of business units stretching from construction materials to renewable energy and health care.

Today, Mulk Holdings, which was formed in 1995 to oversee all the units, has 1,700 employees in operations in Sharjah, Ajman and abroad.

Mr Mulk has no regrets about his decision to stay in the UAE.

"The UAE has proven to be very conducive to expatriate businessmen," he says. "The country lets you do what you want to do and lets you keep your money. It doesn't tax you and gives you control to send your money wherever you want. That has given us a lot of confidence to invest back in the country."

But Mr Mulk still has close ties to his homeland. In addition to factories in India, he owns properties in his home state of Andhra Pradesh and in Mumbai.

MK Lokesh, the Indian ambassador to the UAE, is a close friend. Mr Mulk is also well connected within the non-resident Indian business community. He helped to form Icons Club, a network of wealthy, mainly Indian, business expatriates in the UAE.

"We thought if we could combine our connections and come up with a single platform where our connections are channelled and business synergies are exchanged, business can be much more progressive," he says.

"But we also need to think about the next generation as we're all in our 50s and it has taken us 30 years to build our contacts, and we need to pass on that to the next generation, so it's a family club as well," he says.

While Mr Mulk is passing on his business expertise to Adnam, his son has also inherited his father's talent with the bat, playing under-19s cricket for the UAE national team.

"We sometimes play in the same team for our club," says Mr Mulk. "The plan is he will take over when I retire from business."

Even when that day does arrive, however, Mr Mulk is still likely to be playing cricket.

tarnold@thenational.ae

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