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Gary Clement for The National
Gary Clement for The National

Jacky Panjabi: Collective snapshot of a career with spark

Profile: With millions of photographs and thousands of boarding passes, Jacky's Electronics' Jacky Panjabi's record of his life, family and work sets him apart from most.

Jacky Panjabi takes a photograph of himself every day and adds it to a pictorial calendar made up of images of his face.

He has hundreds of photos of himself, charting his mood, his attire and his ageing lines over the past two years.

The daily ritual might seem a little over the top or perhaps more likely in the dressing room of a wrinkly rock star.

But Mr Panjabi is the founder and managing director of Jacky's Electronics stores - and it's his quirks that set him apart from other directors of his stature.

"I take a picture of myself on a daily basis. One picture, every single day," he says. "I like to keep a record of myself, everyday what's happening. What was my mood yesterday, my mood today. Yesterday, I was in a white shirt, today I'm in a blue shirt. For the last two years I have a calendar of 365 photos for each year in my Jebel Ali office."

In his beautiful house in Emirates Hills in Dubai, Mr Panjabi talks of his career, family, hobbies and eccentricities, not to mention plans for a business that reportedly makes about Dh1 billion (US$272 million) in sales from electronics distribution and retail operations in the UAE, Hong Kong and Africa.

Last week, Jacky's Group of Companies, the parent company of Jacky's Electronics, celebrated 42 years in business, and Mr Panjabi turned 60 this year.

In the photograph for today's interview, Mr Panjabi is captured wearing a smart shirt and trousers and donning three big signet rings and a gold bracelet.

Family photos adorn every inch of the Panjabi home and the head of the house proudly shows off photos of the 40 years he has been married to his wife, Asha, as well as pictures of his sons at a young age.

"My passion, my hobby, is photography," explains Mr Panjabi. "In my life, I have taken over a million pictures."

On the wall, there is one picture of a young, wide-eyed and widely grinning Ashish Panjabi, who is his son and the chief operating officer for Jacky's as well as the face of the retailer in the UAE.

Mr Panjabi senior happily gives a tour of thehouse, complete with a small elevator and a sign on his desk that reads: My daddy knows a lot of things but my granddad knows everything.

"It is from Ashish's daughter," says Mr Panjabi, who is clearly most at home discussing his family.

Before we even begin talking about his 42-year career, his mobile phone rings and he animatedly speaks in Sindhi to relatives celebrating ahead of a wedding in Delhi of his nephew's daughter.

The house is eerily quiet because most of the family have flown to India for the occasion.

Mr Panjabi jokingly blames the interview for his absenteeism and explains he will fly out the next day, and gives a short but informative tutorial on Sindhi weddings.

"It's parties in the evening mostly, lots of singing, drinking and eating," he says. "Everyone is in a great mood, nobody is talking business, everybody is in a joyous mood."

When he does get down to talking business, Mr Panjabi's story starts in 1970 in Hong Kong when he was 18 and ready to begin life in the working world.

He and his elder brother, Ishwardas, co-founded Jacky's Group as a mail-order duty-free service, delivering all manner of products, including sewing machines, tyres, electronics, televisions, household products and even typewriters to non-governmental organisations and United Nations offices around the region.

In 1980, the group branched out to delivering wholesale bulk electronics and in 1985 Mr Panjabi visited Dubai for the first time.

"I visited the country for two days and as a businessman I saw a lot of opportunity," he says. "I was not here on holiday ... so in two days I studied a lot and looked at what could be done."

On a third visit the same year, Mr Panjabi started operations in the emirate and given a rare opportunity in 1988 to set up a retail store in the same building as its head office, the company took it, despite having never worked in a retail environment before.

"We were definitely never in the retail business, we had no knowledge of retail but we got the right opportunity and a shop in Nasr Square in Deira," he says.

"That's one of my favourite showrooms even today. [Tomorrow] we are celebrating our 24th anniversary of that showroom."

With operations in the UAE, Hong Kong and Africa, Mr Panjabi takes about 90 flights a year.

"The highest I have done is 137 flights in 365 days," he says. Not only does he travel a lot, he keeps the boarding passes as souvenirs.

"I have been travelling, let's say, for 30years non-stop. [From] those 30-some years I have got all my airline tickets and boarding passes. Thousands. I have some at home, I have some in the office, I have some in my briefcase. If you take an average of 90 flights over the last 30 years. It is a lot."

Africa is now the main reason Mr Panjabi travels so often as it is one of the fastest-growing areas of his business.

Jacky's Group has eight electronics outlets in Uganda, eight in Kenya and five in Tanzania. It is the exclusive distributor for Sony, Sharp, Canon, Toshiba, Nikkon, Fuji and Black & Decker, as well as supplying some food products such as Heinz Ketchup.

Having been in Africa for 14 years, Mr Panjabi says the region can eventually make up the biggest part of Jacky's sales.

"I'm surprised because in these countries, we call them third-world countries, [but] there are lot of people that want 3D TVs and smart TVs, they want smartphones, they want the best of the best," he says. "The future is in Africa."

At 60, what of Mr Panjabi's own future? Perhaps it is soon time to stop the travelling and play a bit more golf on the Montgomerie course his house backs on to?

No, is the short answer.

Yes, he says he will slow down, for his health's sake but he wants to continue to work, potentially in something completely different to Jacky's, where he gives back to the community in some way.

Doing something meaningful for other people is clearly important to Mr Panjabi, who has given blood 69 times. But how he will give back, he says, he is still not sure.

"Something that, you know, after all these years ..." he hesitates.

"I can still go to the office, just to buy and sell products and all that. But do I want to do all this for the rest of my life? The answer is no. Let the next generation continue to grow their ideas.

"I would like to diversify doing some better work. We are not the creator, somebody else is the creator but we can save somebody's life ... or give some education to someone."

rjones@thenational.ae

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