Sunday, July 05, 2009
Making the right choice
COLUMN: TURNING POINTS IN LIFE
Jose Thomas, the chairman of the Choice Group, was only 17 years old when his father passed away. It marked a turning point in his life.
By Shevlin Sebastian
Jose Thomas, the chairman of the Choice group, was the 10th child of an 11-member family. “When I was growing up there were over 20 nephews and nieces staying in the house,” he says. “In my childhood, I received less attention from my parents and siblings.”
At the age of 13, Jose was admitted into the boarding at the Nirmala high school in Muvattupuzha. Even though he belonged to an affluent family, he was not given any pocket money. Jose says that since there were so many people in the house he was unable to tell his parents about his needs.
One day when Jose came out of the church in Muvattupuzha, he saw people doing a brisk business in selling hens, eggs and clothes. “I realised that if I could sell something I could make some money,” he says.
One weekend, when he went home, to Mattancherry, he met Hamsa Kunju, who dealt in foreign goods, like Gillette and Wilkinson blades and Yardley soaps. He managed to persuade Hamsa to give him a small batch of Gillette blades on credit. Jose sold those blades in Muvattupuzha at a handsome profit.
“I learnt two things from this,” he says. “One was how to get credit and the second was to make a profit.”
When Jose told his classmates that his father, O.C. Thomas, was a seafood exporter and the ‘Choice’ company owned many vehicles, they laughed out aloud and refused to believe him. “So I begged my father to send a company vehicle to the school,” he says.
One Sunday morning, when Jose came out of the church, he saw a Bedford lorry parked in the courtyard of the school, with the word ‘Choice’ written in bold letters across it.
His awestruck friends finally realised that there was, indeed, an establishment called Choice and Jose’s father was the owner.
“I have never forgotten the recognition I received from my friends,” he says. But Jose yearned to get noticed by his father. “I wanted to prove to him that I am a smart businessman and a go-getter,” he says. “This need for recognition has been the driving force of my life.”
One day Jose read in the newspaper that diesel vehicles were much cheaper than petrol ones. He realised it would make a big difference in running expenses if the 25 trucks of Choice were converted to diesel. When he told his father about this, Thomas gave permission to change one truck to diesel.
At a workshop in Thoppumpady the mechanic, Lawrence, told him he would be able to get a good second-hand diesel engine at Kunnumkalam. Jose went there and after much bargaining, bought one for Rs 7000. When Lawrence inspected it, he said there were problems with the crankshaft and the bore. So, repairs needed to be done.
Eventually, it took Jose nine months to get the vehicle ready. But on September 29, 1972, Jose's father, Thomas, was admitted to the hospital. Doctors said that they would need to do a thoracic surgery. “On September 30, the motor vehicle test for the vehicle was over,” says Jose. “Now all I had to do was to wait for the papers.”
Thomas asked to see him. Jose entered the room and said, “Appacha, the vehicle is ready. I will bring it to the hospital tomorrow.”
Thomas said, “Very good,” and asked his son to go down on his knees. Then he placed his hand on Jose’s head and said, “Son, I have a lot of expectations from you.” After the surgery Thomas went into a coma. When he would briefly return to consciousness, Jose would hear his father say, “What will happen to Choice and my children?”
On October 2, Thomas passed away. He was only 60 years old.
And here was the tragic part. It was on the diesel vehicle, KLE 5382 that the body was taken to the funeral.
“During the journey the only thought in my mind was that my father had been unable to see the vehicle that I had got ready after so much of hard work,” says Jose. “Even now I have not got over the disappointment.”
Meanwhile, following Thomas’s death, there was uncertainty about what to do with the business. The company came to a halt. Close relatives and friends suggested closing it down. But Jose, who was only 17 at that time, was unwilling to accept that. “My mother backed me completely,” he says.
One day, Jose re-started the seafood factory of Choice Canning at Kannamalli.
Today, the Choice group has a turnover of Rs 450 crore, with interests in marine products, exports, shipping, travel and tourism, real estate, property development and education.
But it is only when Jose started the Choice school in 1991 that he felt he had made an impact. “This is my lasting contribution to society,” he says. “When I die, people will remember me as the person who started Choice school, and not for my other business achievements.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi)