Prior to his retirement, Manilal Premchand Chandaria led the Comcraft Group of Companies, a conglomerate with annual returns of Sh200 billion.
The 90-year-old billionaire spoke to the Nairobian:
If I gave you Sh1,000 right now, what would you do with it?
Mmh…1,000. Today I went to shave and spent Sh500 at the barber shop, then I tipped him Sh100. I then paid Sh50 for parking. Sh650 just gone like that.
But money should never be a priority. It’s what you do with it that makes a difference. Use the money to do some good. Bring a smile to someone’s face, even if you can’t take away their pain, give them a relief, or a reason to smile.
Why do you spend your money on education and health?
Apart from education and good health, what else is important? With good health, you can go to school, and when you get an education, you start thinking beyond your nose, and education opens a lot of doors.
Mother Teresa one day walked into your home uninvited and rang your doorbell. Tell us about it.
My daughter Preeti, after finishing school, had nothing to do, and she couldn’t join the family business. So I asked her to go do some charity work at a construction site that Mother Teresa was building in the slums for less privileged children.
She went there and volunteered for about a year. A few years later, Mother Teresa was leaving the US ambassador’s residence, and there was a sign with my name on my gate. She saw the name because my house is right opposite the ambassador’s residence, walked right in and rang the bell.
My wife answered and Mother Teresa asked her if this was Preeti Chandaria’s home. My daughter wasn’t home, so Mother Teresa asked her to get a picture of Preeti so that she could bless it. She then came to our home and blessed it. Such a great soul and humble person.
Which other world leader have you met who awed you?
Mandela, Gandhi and Dalai Lama. I met Mandela at the opening of the Pan African Parliament and I still remember what he said: “I can have no poison for those who imprisoned me, because even though I am free, if I have bitterness towards them, then my body will be free and my mind will still be in prison.”
I admire Gandhi a lot…Gandhi led a campaign called QuitIndia. He wanted the colonisers to leave India. So he initiated an economic boycott of products that weren’t Indian made or products made using technology that didn’t originate from India. And for my sacrifice, I only had three trousers, three shirts, a pair of underwear and one pair of sandals on campus.
Do we have such leaders in Kenya? Leaders who can inspire?
Yes. We have a lot of potential in Kenyan leaders, only that potential can be used positively or negatively.
Your company is now 100 years old. Your business has seen two world wars, the 2008 economic crunch and several coups and the great depression, but your company is still running. What’s your secret?
First, it’s not my company. It’s a family-owned business where everyone has responsibilities. Second, no one should assume that it was easy. We have lost assets, we’ve been driven out of some markets.
It’s been tough, but the company flourished. My father founded the company, and he insisted on us getting quality education. When we joined him, we worked hard. Sometimes we used to work up to midnight and be up by 5 am.
It’s all been possible through hard work. In Ethiopia, there was a coup and the military nationalised our business, but we still went back and invested afresh there.
What do you do for fun? How do you relax?
I relax by working. I watched my first World Cup this year. The semis and the finals, and it’s because my granddaughters were watching it. I have never had time for such things. It’s always been work, work and more work. I don’t play golf or tennis, I don’t play any sports, I just work.
You’ve had the same watch for 65 years, you have only five suits and one wife. How do you get so contented yet you can have much more worldly pleasures?
It’s because of my religion, Jainism. It gives me a philosophy of serving others. We don’t hurt others, be it in action, speech or thoughts. We don’t spill blood, so that means we don’t eat any animals. This also translates into the way we do business. We do clean business and focus on quality.
If you were to start all over again, what would you do differently?
I would focus on helping people more. What’s the point of having so much money and you are surrounded by poverty and lack of education? Our family would help people more than we have already done.
Daughters were never involved or absorbed into the Chandaria business. Is that still the case?
Yes, we wanted them to create a conducive environment at home so that their men can work. They could do any business they wanted, but not join the family business. You see, those are things of the old days. I am out of business now, and who knows, the girls might take reins of the business. My granddaughters have gone to Stanford, and they are well educated.
Have you ever been in a slum? Can you walk through slums?
Yes, very much. I walk through slums in Nairobi and they know me. Nothing can happen to me, because for 10 years, I was actively involved in working in the slums, providing education and healthcare. I am comfortable in any slum. I saw the other day Obama came in, he was whisked away and hidden from people. I look at these people and shake my head. Interact with people, and you can inspire someone.
What do you think of the Chinese influx in Kenya?
It is good. If someone, be it a Kenyan or non-local, can provide 10 jobs, we should welcome them. But still, on the Chinese, we have to think, ‘what’s good for us as a country?’ If you answer that, then you can make a decision.
You turned 90 last week. What present did your wife, children or grandchildren give you?
We had a small party, with about 50 people. Presents aren’t that important. What I really enjoy is their love. I retired three years ago from any business related activity. I focus on philanthropy and other things. I still wake up as early as 5 am and go to bed at about 10 pm or 11 pm.