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Ravi Pillai: From Farmer's Son to Construction Tycoon

Ask Ravi Pillai who has scripted his rise from a farming family in Kerala to the ranks of the wealthy

Published: Nov 21, 2013
Image: Courtesy Malayala Manorama

Ravi Pillai
Chairman and MD, RP Group of Companies
Age: 60
Rank in the Rich List: 34
Net Worth: $1.7 billion
The Big Challenge Faced in the Last Year: A huge shortage of skilled workforce. To overcome this, is planning to set up technical training institutes in India, Middle East and other countries.
The Way Forward: Pillai wants to double turnover of $3 billion over next three years. Will focus on expansion in Africa, Middle East and India.


On September 2 every year, Ravi Pillai, 60, the chairman and managing director of the $3 billion RP Group of Companies, performs the udayasthamana pooja at the Tirupati temple in Andhra Pradesh. Whichever part of the world he is in, Pillai flies into Tirupati the previous night. He wakes up at 4 am and heads to the temple. Udayasthamana literally means from dawn to dusk; that’s how long the devotee must pray to the lord. Only five to seven people are allowed in the sanctum sanctorum where the pooja is conducted. And you cannot book one today if you want to—the waiting time for an udayasthamana pooja is more than ten years.

September 2 also happens to be Pillai’s birthday.

“I booked this pooja 30 years ago,” says Pillai. “And I have been doing it every year since then. Whatever I have achieved in my life, it is because of my hard work and the blessings of god. I couldn’t have done anything alone.”

The gods seem to have taken notice of his devotion. Consider how well he has done for himself: This year, Pillai has entered the Forbes India Rich List for the first time, at No. 34 with an estimated net worth of $1.7 billion.

And now look at his back-story.

Born into a family of farmers near Kollam in Kerala, Pillai says that he had always wanted to become an entrepreneur. As a first step, he started a chit fund. While that proved profitable, he soon realised there was more to be gained from the booming construction sector. In the early 1970s, he began doing sub-contracting work for companies in the chemical and oil refinery business. His journey, however, came to a sudden halt when the labourers went on strike. Pillai says he was disappointed but, in many ways, this was a turning point in his life.

BUILDING TO LAST
In 1979, Pillai moved to Saudi Arabia with whatever little money he had saved. This was also the time when many ‘Malayalis’ from Kerala were getting lured by opportunities in the Middle East. “I didn’t know anybody there. And this was the first time I had gone abroad,” says Pillai. While he was clear that he wanted to stay in the construction business, it wasn’t easy to get started. For the first two years, he worked with a businessman called Abdullah Jufan. “Our partnership did not work out. So I left and started working with another businessman called Nasser Al-Hajri,” says Pillai.

It is a partnership that has stood the test of time.

Headquartered in Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, today Nasser Al-Hajri Corporation is one of the largest general construction contractors in the Middle East. It was founded in 1978 and was a small company at the time Pillai joined it. Al-Hajri, the original promoter, is the CEO. (Pillai has a 50 percent partnership in the company; later he formed RP Group of Companies and Nasser Al-Hajri Corporation is a vertical under it.)

Pillai, who is the managing director of the company, says the venture started with around 120 people, all of them recruited from a town called Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu. “The real growth took place around 1983. We started getting sub-contracting work and our first project was to construct an underground parking space for aeroplanes, for a French company,” he says. “Then we got a project for the Royal Terminal [at Riyadh airport], followed by other petrochemical plants and refineries.”

The major contributor to Pillai’s growth has been the industrialisation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the construction boom in the Middle East. Starting 1975, the country began work on Jubail, a small fishing village which is the largest industrial city in the Middle East today. In 1976, Saudi Arabia formed Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), a diversified company with interests in chemicals, petrochemicals, fertilisers and steel. Nasser Al-Hajri Corporation piggybacked on the growth of SABIC; it was and continues to be the preferred contractor for SABIC’s industrial projects.

 

SABIC recorded a turnover of $50.4 billion in 2012. Pillai also did well to expand the business to other countries like Qatar and United Arab Emirates; today, Nasser Al-Hajri Corporation’s client roster includes global players such as Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, Shell, Philips Conoco, Chiyoda, Daelim and RasGas.

But it wasn’t like companies were queuing up to give him projects. He had to battle enough scepticism. Pillai says that the impression of Indians in the Middle East at that time was that they were only fit to become cooks, drivers or gardeners. Add to that, the construction sector was dominated by Korean companies. “People would say that Indians can’t do it. With every project, I showed that we could do technical work too,” says Pillai. “We were better in both quality and cost. In fact, I have delivered many projects with just an Indian workforce.” The RP Group of Companies today employs around 70,000 people, more than 45,000 of whom are Indians.

FRESH TERRAIN
Pillai hasn’t stopped there. In the last 35 years, he has gone beyond construction and now has interests in hospitality, education, retail and hospitals as well. There is also a tours-and-travels business and a trading company in Dubai. While he is based in Bahrain, Pillai has made significant investments in his home state, Kerala (Upasana nursing school, Raviz Hotel & Resorts, K Mall in Kollam and RP Mall in Kozhikode). He was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award in 2008 and the Padma Shri in 2010.

In 2011, Pillai bought Leela Resorts, Leela Group’s Kovalam beach property in Kerala, for about Rs 500 crore. CPK Nair, the chairman of Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, says that he is very fond of Pillai. They first met in 2010. “I had never heard about him. I saw him for the first time when I was getting the Padma Bhushan. He was getting the Padma Shri and had come with around 100 people to collect the award,” says Nair. A year later, Nair found himself in trouble. His company, Leela Venture, had accumulated debt of Rs 3,830 crore at the end of FY11 owing to capital expenditure of over Rs 4,000 crore. He needed to reduce debt urgently. The idea of putting the Kovalam property on the block was on his mind but it was a prized possession—he wasn’t willing to sell it cheap.

But the word was out. In July 2011, Pillai approached Nair to buy the property. Pillai says that each time he visited Kerala, he was disappointed at the quality of hotels there. “That’s why I wanted my own hotel to stay in with my friends and family. And I love the sea,” he says. He met Nair in his office in Mumbai and the two agreed on a deal. “While I was initially hesitant, I sold the property to him because he gave me a fair price. We still manage that property for him,” says Nair.
 
Pillai is obviously aware of his success. But, at 60, he also knows that there is only so much he can do. For more, he has pinned his hopes on his children. His son, Ganesh Ravi Pillai, who has worked with Citibank and has enrolled for his MBA at IE Business School in Spain, will join him next year. “I am also looking forward to my daughter [Dr Aarathi Ravi Pillai], who’s a doctor, joining the business. They will drive things,” he says.

They have big shoes to fill and bigger dreams to fulfill. Their father aspires to double his existing business (turnover) over the next three years. But, while he waits for them to join, he isn’t resting either. “There is still a lot of potential in different parts of the Middle East. We are growing in Africa and India,” he says. “I am travelling all the time, looking for new opportunities.”

(This story appears in the 28 November, 2013 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Sajitha Chandrasekharan

    Really !! Great persons with such a dedication,sincerity and simplicity are born few.Let God bless him with all success,happiness n prosperity to lead India higher and higher globally.

    on Apr 27, 2016
  • Venkatesh B A

    Great article....gives high hope to aspiring Indians..!!

    on Apr 15, 2016
  • Babu Lakshmi Narayan

    May God bless u for many years for the well being of Mahabharath.

    on Apr 4, 2016
  • Sankarasubramanian

    Honesty and sincerity adorned with simplicity is the secret of his success i feel.HE WILL BE SUCCESSFUL THROUGHOUT HIS LIFE. I WAS BORN AND BROUGHT UP IN NAGERCOIL AND MY FATHER WAS A PROFESSOR IN LOCAL COLLEGE. I FEEL PROUD THAT HIS FIRST TEAM MATES WHO BROUGHT HIM ALL THE GLORIES ARE FROM MY TOWN. I NEED AN APPOINTMENT TO MEET HIM.

    on Nov 27, 2015
  • Sagar

    Ravi Pillai one of the Indians who has made India proud with his rising empire. looking forward to RP company to launch in India like MFAR construction by Galfar P Mohamed Ali who is also from Kerala.

    on Sep 3, 2015
  • Vasant Mungara

    Very inspiring story... Marvellous just like the story of Dhirubhai...Just awesome...

    on Aug 24, 2015
  • Hariprasad

    Really great life with dedication to hard work and it gave fruits. God bless Sri Ravi Pillai.

    on Apr 23, 2015
  • Salih A K.plus Two English Teachers. Ghss Thadathilparamba Aroor. Malappuram. Dt

    To be a great business man with passion and vision is really praiseworthy. Your fame and power transcend all limit . Your projects and plans may empower our God's own country paving the way for economic prosperity. I Will be extremely delighted if you set aside your few hours to interact with our students. I am sure ur presence will be a source of grreat inspiration to our students. Expecting your favour salih mob 9947428488

    on Oct 1, 2014
  • T.p. Mohan Nair

    Dear Mr. Pillai, Being a (Gulf returnee) Indian familiar with the atmosphere over there, I can only feel proud of your achievements. Heard lots about you through the press too. May God continue to bless your endeavours. I would very much like to meet with you when you come to Kerala next. Or, is it possible to have your contact mail id ? Warm regards.

    on Sep 28, 2014
  • Panicker Prasad

    Inspiring....!!! Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. My Son (Mechanical Engineer) is interested to be a part of \"R P Group\"

    on Sep 25, 2014
  • Riya Mary Thankachan

    lots of inspiration.............

    on Sep 24, 2014
  • Aby George

    DR B RAVI PILLAI MAN WHO INSPIRED ME LOT . I WANT TO BE A PART OF R P GROUP

    on Sep 13, 2014
  • Vijayakumar

    Really inspiring......!!! Congrats.....We SALUTE you.....

    on Jul 29, 2014
  • Kumar

    Lucky,inspiring,motivational but there r many more nri s or pio s like Ravi Pillai for example,Rajen Kilachand,Raghuvinder Kataria,Ramesh Prabhakar,Harshad Mehta,L T Pagarani,Tony Jashanmal,Vidya Chhabria,J P Kalwani,Sunil Vaswani,Paras Shahdadpuri,J R Gangaramani,Kabir Mulchandani,Nilesh Ved,Maghanmal Pancholia,Shaji Ul Mulk,Manohar Lahori,Ajay Bhatia,Rizwan Sajan,Dhananjay Datar,Yogesh Mehta,Mohan Valrani,Ram Buxani,Murij Manghnani,Hitesh Bodani,Vasu Shroff,Khimji Family,Satish Seemar,Jacky Punjabi,Ramesh Hiranandani,Jayant Ganwani,Lachmandas Pagarani,G B Jethwani,Deepak Babani,Ashok Awtani,Amit Dhamani,Chetan Karani,Surender Singh Kandhari,Harish Fabiani,Ram Bhavnani,Bicky Chakraborty,Murli Chanrai,Suresh Chellaram,Hari Harilela,Kamlesh Punjabi,Ramesh Hathiramani and many more who also have inspirational,motivational stories......

    on May 22, 2014
  • P.k.padma Kumar

    Sri. Ravi Pillai, a man of success because of his courage, calibre and capacity

    on May 12, 2014
  • P.k.padma Kumar

    Sri. Ravi Pillai, a man of succes, by dedication, dareness, capacity, calibre and courage.

    on May 12, 2014
  • R S Taruna

    So Nice

    on Mar 3, 2014
  • Amrutha Krishnan.r,final Year B.tech ,

    Sir, it is really great to know about you. Real motivation to all youngsters. Your hard work and blessings received from the almighty. I have read lot about you throug media and people. We feel proud of you ,Sir

    on Feb 3, 2014
  • Amrutha Krishnan.r,final Year B.tech ,

    Sir, it is really great to know about you. Real motivation to all ounsters. Your hard work and blessings recieved from the almighty. I have read lot about you throug media and people. We feel proud of you ,Sir

    on Feb 3, 2014
  • Ramachandran

    I am proud of you Mr.Pillay. Iran is the place where Vedas took rebirth. S.A is also one among them. These middle east countries owe you a lot and giving the money they owe you. You have good mind power and skill, wishing you a long life with your family and friends.

    on Dec 11, 2013
  • Sandy M

    great man , god gifted him his devotion..nice read..

    on Nov 29, 2013
  • Anil Kumar Pk

    Dr RAVI Pilla .........great man. Sir......Congratulation.

    on Nov 27, 2013
  • Jayakanth Nair

    u are being an inspiration to us. great effort gifted with bundle of luck shared you...really wish to meet you once.

    on Nov 27, 2013
  • George T. George

    Great article on one of India's most successful and low-profile business tycoons of our times. Very few can be compared to Mr.Ravi Piallai. Another great and successful son of soil from the same city of Koallam (Quilon) comes to mind, Mr. Rajan Pillai of Britania Industries, even though the merits of case(s) against him and his tragic death are still debatable.

    on Nov 27, 2013
  • George

    Great article on one of India\'s most successful, low-profile, business tycoon our times. Very few overseas Indians can be compared to Mr. Ravi Pillai. Another son of soil, late Mr. Rajan Pillai, who fled from Singapore on suspected fabricated case, from same city of Kollam (Quilon) Kerala, of Britannia Industries, comes to mind at this time; even tough his tragic death and the cases against him are totally different and debatable.

    on Nov 27, 2013
  • Dr Koya Kishore

    Inspiring story, Congrats Mr Pillai. wish you all the best to achieve your target dreams and win across the world.

    on Nov 25, 2013
  • Sukumar Nair

    Rags to riches - No magic , sheer hard work , dedication added with MILK OF HUMAN KINDNESS. Best Wishes

    on Nov 25, 2013
  • Vinu

    Great man

    on Nov 24, 2013
  • Ex Engineer From His Company

    I worked his company NSH as an engineer.. guys am saying truth.. that he is the worst business man that i hav ever seen, he is utilising the poor peoples from india.. U please go to the complaints page of naser s alhajri in Facebook.. he is the worst.. i knw from my personal experience from his company

    on Nov 24, 2013
  • Ajith

    see what happened when he tried to establish something in kerela , the CPI\'s... never ending labour problems.. so he got people from TN equally skilled and hard workers and he excelled !! god job ...kerela is never investment -labour friendly !! people with high ego..who thinks they are the best !!! LOL

    on Nov 23, 2013
  • Radhakrishnan Nair

    Really Interesting. His hard work and Motivation has given him the success. My son is working in his company at Saudi, as planing and design Engr in his Sadinara chemical Projects.

    on Nov 23, 2013
  • Mohamed

    From grandfather found. Great effort this humble man

    on Nov 23, 2013
  • Shyla Pillay

    Congratulations and well done Mr. Pillay. So happy to see our people succeeding in life....Like to meet you one day

    on Nov 23, 2013
  • Jacob C Neroth

    It is only a page of his life !!!

    on Nov 23, 2013
  • Prabash

    congrats! We salute u !.... http://puthiyakavutemple.com/

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • Akhil Kumar

    Mr. Ravi Pillai is keeping a low profile, but big businessman, we have to learn lot from him. His charity works in Kerala are admirable. He is employing more than 30,000 Asians in Middle east countries, mostly Indians. Kerala govt. gets advise and help from him for solving the Nitaqat issues among Keralites in Saudi. Politicians from Kerala irrespective of the parties always round him when he visits Kerala.

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • X Employeeee

    frnd pls vist this link to check Nasser al hajirri corp history. https://www.facebook.com/groups/nshcomplaints/

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • Kirit Palakati

    Congrats Sir u are awesome and self built man

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • Anju Sharma

    Very very congrats! We salute u ! Take care

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • Neha Kumari

    Awesome and motivational article.. we are proud of you sir :) Owner: http://hotindiandealz.com

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • Salam Ozhur

    Mr. RP made it simple for Keralaites, Congrats for Him.

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • Surendra Das

    Yes, Mr. Ravi Pillai helping poor people so many charitable works also ... Good wish u all the best...

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • Ravindran Varma

    Congragulations Mr.Ravi Pillai

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • S.thandayuthapani

    Really he is a role model for every young Entrepreneurs

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • Savithri.barry, Advocate

    Admirable to all and liked by each and every one

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • Riyadh Perumbavoor

    Great men reach great height through hard work. Brilliant

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • Sagar Nathani

    really he is nice man and his life.real inspiring success in business

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • Pappan Abraham

    Hai Mr Revi Pilla. I am fromUSA, born Kollam. work hard in my life.begin my life as a account, kollam town. I am very proud of you. your charity work for the poor. May God Bless You

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • Sojisomaraj,kollam

    Real inspiring sweet success.

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • Varadarajan.n

    good info

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • Rahul.r

    Really he is nice man and his life will be a motivation to all who want to win their life.Same time he is remembering the needs of spirituality and charity.Hearing your name itself feeling proud.

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • Kishore Gupta

    well earned and real inspiring sweet success.

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • Ansari Shaik

    really great to hear , and this gives us superb motivation to go forward to creat something in our life also. thanks to forbes for giving us such wonderful news about the ordinary people becomes the role models.

    on Nov 22, 2013
  • Karan

    well done ravi pillai sr i am very happy, i cant explain u very good news, u touch height of success plz it countinue sir. See u always happy. jai hind sir

    on Nov 21, 2013
  • Vedant Desai

    ravi pillai sir u r my role model../.....its ws my dream 2 get into construction......business...

    on Nov 21, 2013
  • Monu D. Surendran

    No mention of the RP Group\'s tie-up with ITC hotels.

    on Nov 21, 2013
  • V.p. Gangadharan

    THE SUCCESS STORY OF THE NOTABLE PHILANTHROPIST, BUSINESS MAN NONE OTHER THAN MR. RAVI PILLAI !!

    on Nov 21, 2013
  • Naveed Shareef

    first time iam seeing this india forbes its amazing for business world really i like it and i prefer this... thanx

    on Nov 21, 2013
  • Dr.a.jagadeesh

    Very Inspiring. Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    on Nov 21, 2013
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