Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Starting from scratch

John Geevargese is the leading Malayali entrepreneur in Gujarat. He talks about his success story as his autobiography in Malayalam is released at a function in Kochi

Photo by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

John Geevargese stared at the TV screen in utter shock on the morning of June 23, 1980. The cameras were panning on the broken parts of the Pitts S-2A plane which had crash-landed around 500 yards from Willingdon Crescent, the official residence of Congress leader Sanjay Gandhi in New Delhi. It had been flown by Sanjay, who was a passionate flyer. While doing an acrobatic turn, he lost control. The crash killed Sanjay instantly He was only 33.

A few weeks earlier, the Ahmedabad-based entrepreneur had met Sanjay through Defence Minister V K Krishna Menon. This was regarding the Maruti car project which Sanjay had started. John wanted to become a dealer for the whole of Gujarat. Sanjay accepted John’s request and the latter gave a security deposit of Rs 3 lakh.  

But Sanjay’s death put the project into uncertainty. John wondered what to do. He already had put up a showroom, with an area of 16,000 sq. ft. on Ashram Road. “That’s when I decided to go into the retail business and set up the ‘Sales India’ shop,” says John, while on a recent visit to Kochi where his autobiography in Malayalam, ‘Eithihaasika Jeevitham’ was released.  

It was an outlet in the right place at the right time. India was moving from a socialist to a consumer economy. John started selling refrigerators, air conditioners and small appliances. To improve the customers’ experience, John laid out everything in a stylish manner.  

Soon, ‘Sales India’ made a name for itself. “If a customer experienced any problem with an appliance, I would get it replaced,” says John.

This created a good impact with customers. Now John has 33 outlets across the state.
Then John’s life took a different direction. One day in 1991, the leading members of the Association of South Indians in Ahmedabad (Asia) approached John and told him that the school they were running was in financial difficulties. “They said they were not in a position to pay the salaries of the teachers,” he says. “Initially I was not very keen but in the end, I took over the management.”

Soon, John put all his efforts to make the Asia school a success. Then he started another one. Now there are five schools. Then he ventured into colleges and set up the JG (his initials) International School. Now there are 25 colleges all over the state. In total, there are 12,500 students, of which 4700 are in the schools.

The schools are run almost in a philanthropic way. The children of any South Indian, with an annual income of less than Rs 5 lakh can study free of cost at any of the Asia schools, under the CBSE syllabus, from nursery to Class 12. The cost of the uniforms, books and travel are paid for. John also set up a Performing Arts College, which offers Bachelor's and Master's degrees  in classical dance, drama and music.

John’s most recent achievement was to set up a YMCA International Centre, in an area of 4 lakh sq. ft. Some of Bollywood’s leading singers like Sonu Nigam, Hariharan, Alka Yagnik and Udit Narayan have performed there.

Sometimes, on peaceful Sunday afternoons at his bungalow on Ashram Road, John goes back into the past. He grew up in idyllic Enathu, which is in Pathanamthitta district. As a child, he would take a herd of buffaloes to the Kallada river so that they could frolic in the water. He would lie on the grassy bank, and stare at the sky. And every morning, he would go barefoot to school, which was 14 kms away. His father Geevargese Chona ran a small grocery shop cum tea stall. “Thanks to my father, business is in my blood,” he says.

When he passed out of Fatima College in Kollam with a B.Com degree, he decided to go outside the state to improve his prospects. In 1958, he went to Chennai and from there to Mumbai where he secured a job at the Secretariat as a Lower Division Clerk. At that time Mumbai consisted of Gujarat and Maharashtra. But in 1960, Mumbai was divided into two states. “Being a non-Maharashtrian, I was sent to Gujarat,” says John. “That was how I reached Ahmedabad.” But within seven years, John resigned and became a businessman.

Asked to describe the people of Gujarat, he says, “The Gujaratis are very lovable and trustworthy. They will not cheat you. They will not indulge in any quarrels. They believe in making money and they want everybody who comes to Gujarat to become rich. They are not jealous.”  

John is married to homemaker Chandramati, and has three children, Jose, Joy and Sunita. Asked the secret of success, the 82-year-old says, “You should have a clear vision. And always say to yourself, ‘I will make it’ and it will happen.”  

And it has. Says MP Chandran, Trustee and Executive Director of the Asia Charitable Trust, “John Sir has worked for 60 years, 15 hours a day, sacrificing time with family and giving up his personal satisfaction to build a fortune. But he used it to help others. And he told me he has no regrets.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode) 

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