x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Firoz Merchant: philanthropist with a heart of gold

Profile: To many insolvent prisoners, the chairman of Pure Gold Jewellers is nothing short of a folk hero: last year alone he settled the debts of 700 of them, as well as paying their air fares home. And just for good measure, he is also shaking up the regional jewellery industry.

Illustration by Christopher Burke for The National
Illustration by Christopher Burke for The National

You would not expect a Robin Hood figure in the jewellery industry but Firoz Merchant might be as close as you can get to the legendary hero, who took from the rich to give to the poor.

Mr Merchant, 53, is the chairman of Pure Gold Jewellers and gives away a vast amount of his wealth each year to those less fortunate than himself.

And like Robin Hood, he rides a horse.

Last year, Mr Merchant, who owns more than 100 jewellery stores across the Middle East, paid off the debts of 700 insolvent prisoners and paid for their airfare back to their home countries, along with their families.

He became something of a cult hero for those who had been jailed for bounced cheques and failing to pay their debts.

Pure Gold is involved in philanthropic work with many bodies in the UAE, including the Red Crescent Society and the Zakat Fund Abu Dhabi.

Now, Mr Merchant hopes to spend Dh3 million (US$816,704) each year bailing out prisoners for up to Dh25,000 through various charities.

"We can't forget we are human," he says in his office in Dubai, as he sits by birthday cards on his windowsill from friends and relatives.

"I started my career from scratch. I know what is poverty. What is a struggle. When I started my career, I was desperately looking for someone to support me and today I am in the position to support many, many where I can.

Prisoners of all nationalities are eligible for his assistance, but Mr Merchant asks that those he supports have been jailed because they cannot pay debts related to healthcare costs, furthering their education or bounced cheques for housing rent.

He has so far helped prisoners from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Ethiopia, Morocco, Afghanistan and the Philippines.

"I don't want to support the criminal," he explains. "Nowadays, health is very important. Health is your wealth. Wealth is not your health. Education is most important if you want to grow or further yourself. Education is a must priority."

When Mr Merchant speaks there is silver-tongued fluidity to his words that grabs the listener with clichés and engaging rhyming couplets.

He believes the debtors are not criminals or malicious in their actions, but are instead subject to an unfortunate set of circumstances.

"Those in genuine trouble, I want to support," he says.

But why not just campaign for a change in the law to decriminalise a bounced cheque?

To answer that question Mr Merchant quotes his father's poignant words as his son left Mumbai in 1989 to first build a business in Dubai.

"Follow the rules and regulations of your host country, my father said," Mr Merchant says.

"Respect the rules. Don't do anything that is against the law. If you do anything against the law, maybe it will stop your success. If you respect the country law, it might be longer, but you will be a success."

So he does not want to "interfere" with the law, but merely work around the rules set by the UAE authorities.

His respect for the Royal Families in the UAE is apparent from the pictures of them in his office, and even one framed of him meeting Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

"I kept what my father said in mind when I came to the country," says Mr Merchant. "I'm not a politician, I'm a businessman. My concern is only to look after the business and do what the Government allows me and Government grants me."

Arriving in Dubai in 1989 to start a jewellery business, Mr Merchant had nothing more than his father's words of advice and blessings from his mother.

He left behind a wife and two boys in Mumbai to move from his family's small property business and start afresh in jewellery. The idea first took hold when Mr Merchant visited the gold souq in Dubai while on his honeymoon in 1980.

For eight years, he thought of nothing else.

"My father discounted me, saying I was a child, a boy, and he did not pay me attention. It took a long time to make up my mind, but it was there the whole time, Dubai, Dubai, Dubai, and jewellery, jewellery, jewellery," he says.

His persistence and persuasion served him well in the first few months of arriving in the gold souq. He first acted as a broker, convincing buyers to part with their cash ahead of delivering gold bars from the sellers. He would take a small commission for his efforts, building relationships and grafting the hard way.

Once he had opened a bank account, he began using cheques as guarantees against delivering cash to sellers.

After six months, he set up an office in Nasr Square, and after six years he set up his first retail store in the gold souq.

More than 20 years after setting foot in Dubai, Mr Merchant is now aiming to spend Dh1 billion on about 200 new stores and factories during the next five years, across the Middle East and in India.

But Mr Merchant's successful strategy of selling jewellery at low margins in high volumes has prompted criticism from some peers in the industry.

However, jewellers in the market say Pure Gold's business model has been to advertise heavily, open multiple stores, and undercut competitors to entice customers.

"He's trying out a business model," said one source. "In a very short time he's built up a very good name. He's done so much and he knows his way around the business."

He must, because this year, Pure Gold hopes to breach Dh1bn in sales. Helping Mr Merchant in his endeavours is his son Karim, who is now the chief executive and managing director of Pure Gold Jewellers.

Helping to build the profile of the company as it expands is his daughter Amreen, who is the head of corporate communications.

And helping him relax after work are his horses: Ferrari, Khalish and Shaba.

"I'm a very health-conscious person. I have to balance my life in terms of professional life," says Mr Merchant, who spends two hours, five times a week riding his horses in the desert.

At 4pm on a weekday, Mr Merchant will saddle up his horse and like all good cult heroes, he will ride off into the sunset.


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