Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The Monk Who Runs A Business

Christian Fabre arrived in Chennai in 1971, a bewildered Frenchman in an alien culture. Today he is an Avadhuta sadhu and owner of a successful textile company

Published: Aug 26, 2014 06:39:29 AM IST
Updated: Aug 14, 2014 04:25:16 PM IST
The Monk Who Runs A Business
Image: Sri Manikandan for Forbeslife India

I’m nervous. there, I’ve said it. I’m at the reception of Christian Fabre Textiles Pvt Ltd—a textile buying house based in Thiruvanmiyur, South Chennai—waiting to meet the founder. I’ve met business leaders and CEOs, chairmen and directors, but I’ve yet to meet anyone quite like the founder of Christian Fabre Textiles. When the owner of a profitable and successful company is a sadhu and a French national who goes by the name Swami Pranavananda Brahmendra Avadhuta, it’s difficult to predict how the meeting will turn out.  

The walls of the reception are bathed in white, and the décor is definitely modern. The two glass cabins flanking the reception room are filled with company executives and clients. I gulp down a glass of water and talk to his executive secretary. And then the godman appears. A Caucasian man in saffron robes with a red tilak smeared on his forehead emerges from the corridor with glass rooms on either side, the wall behind him starkly white. He’s surrounded by people in ties and suits and polished shoes. I was taken aback by his presence. Later, Swami would chuckle and admit that his appearance has unsettled many an unsuspecting client.
Swami Pranavananda Brahmendra Avadhuta christened his company after his “birth name”, Christian Fabre. On its official website, the company describes itself as a “leading buying house in India ably headed by Mr Christian Fabre, a French national with a business expertise of 22 years”. But you don’t meet Mr Christian Fabre. You meet a sadhu.  

A perfect host, Swami introduces me to every employee; his introductions are a mix of warmth and mischief. There is A Jayapalan, Swami’s friend and business partner of almost three decades, and FA Benhur, the company’s first employee who is now its CEO. Most of the employees joined the company in their youth. And very few have left.

As we go through the introductions, I notice the company ID card that dangles from Swami’s neck, holding its own against at least three rudraksha necklaces. It is a sign of things to come.

On his desk, corporate and spiritual totems nudge each other in perfect harmony. Miniature statues of Shiva and Shiva lingams share space with bonsai plants, an iPad and a MacBook. Swami also carries an iPhone. The wealth of religious symbols does not overwhelm, perhaps because equal space is given to ‘management’ paraphernalia, which includes a brand new copy of Thomas Piketty’s recent bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Swami’s two worlds are seamlessly intertwined. “I don’t see any dichotomy. There is no duality. You can’t differentiate spiritual life and normal life,” he says. The 72-year-old smiles as he understands that I have not yet grasped the meaning of his words. He then tells me the story of how Christian Fabre became Swami Pranavananda Brahmendra Avadhuta in 1988. And the story of how he had come to Chennai from France, only to lose his wife, son and job.

From Christian to Swami
Fabre—one of four siblings—was born in Beziers, a picturesque town in southern France known for its annual bull-fighting event. His mother was of Spanish origin and a homemaker. His father, a staunch Communist, worked in the French national railway company. When a 13-year-old Christian Fabre returned home one day with the local priest, who wanted to ask for the “boy to serve the Lord,” his father shouted back: “As long as I’m alive, there won’t be a priest in my house!” It marked the end of young Fabre’s spiritual pursuit, at least for then.

He completed the Indian equivalent of a BA course in France and signed up for military service. It was the 1960s, and the French were trying to quash the freedom movement spreading across their colonies in north Africa. Fabre was disillusioned by the war. “I saw no fault in locals fighting for their independence,” he says. It was during his time in the army that he picked up the habit of smoking. “We would be given cigarettes for free… to control our libido!”

The Monk Who Runs A Business
Image: Sri Manikandan for Forbeslife India
Swami’s ashram in the Kolli Hills is spread over 35 acres, and grows pepper and coffee

Fabre returned to Beziers from Algeria, worked for a while with his father in the railways, did a course on fashion in Paris, and then got married. He soon landed a job as a salesman in a real estate agency where a client told him, “I like your selling skills,” and offered him a job in the leather trading division of a French trading company. Soon the owner had another offer for him. “Can you go to Madras to manage the Indian operations?” It was an “exotic” opportunity. To the young Frenchman, India was the land of elephants, snakes and Maharajahs. “These were the only things I knew about India apart from the freedom movement,” he says.

Fabre, his wife and son arrived in Madras (now Chennai) in 1971. “It was hot and humid.” He recounts their first moments in India: For instance, his son vomitting at the airport. And that was just the beginning of a saga of hardship.

That night, after hosting the Fabre family for dinner, his sole French colleague in the Madras office announced that he would be returning to France the very next day. “I was left with a car and a house in a completely new place,” recalls Fabre. His wife was not amused with the living conditions, which included an insect-ridden home and a noisy watchman who kept everyone awake at night with his vocal vigilance. By the end of the year, India would go to war with Pakistan over Bangladesh.
Fabre, meanwhile, was fighting a war on the personal front. His wife was unhappy in India. My hot-headedness didn’t help, he says. With each passing year, the fissures of his marriage grew deeper until in 1974, his wife left with their son for Japan. That very year, India banned the export of semi-finished leather, and Fabre’s Madras office had to shut operations.  Within three years of coming to India, “I was jobless, wifeless and childless.” But he refused to return to France. “I couldn’t go defeated.”

What followed were several attempts at entrepreneurship, but they only served to highlight the difference between Fabre’s French background and the Indian conditions he was contending with. The differences in language, culture and food—everything became starker.

He entered into a partnership with a Parsi businessman (Fabre doesn’t reveal his name) who agreed to venture into textile manufacturing. Though the business did well, the partnership suffered. “He was more interested in poetry and theatre. Given his escapades with women, the Parsi gentleman’s wife would keep coming to me to complain.”  

It was during these years that Fabre found a friend in his colleague, Jayapalan. (Swami had introduced me to him at the start of the interview.) The friends decided to end their association with the Parsi gentleman and founded a new company, Shivashakti, in 1983. They sourced material and manufactured apparel for clients. Fabre got a lucky break when he started getting business from a French customer.

Though things were looking up on the business front, Fabre was heading for a “nervous breakdown”. Ever since his marriage had fallen apart, he had become a heavy smoker (up to 60 cigarettes a day) and drinker (half a bottle of whisky every day).  The unhealthy lifestyle exacerbated by an unhappy personal life was taking its toll.  “Lying on my small bed, I would often ask myself what I was doing here. I was pushing 50. For whom was I working so hard?”

The Monk Who Runs A Business
Help came in the form of a Hindu Brahmin who lived next door with her Pakistani Sindhi husband. She gave him a book, The Gospel of Paramahansa Ramakrishna. The first few words hit Fabre at his core. “God is in all men, but all men are not in God. That is why they suffer.” Fabre realised, as he writes in his autobiography The Holy CEO, that even though he had lost a lot, truth was not found in the material world, “but rather inside myself”.
He read the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita, and discovered the concept of Dharma. He started practising yoga, stopped smoking and drinking, and began meditating. Within a year, there was a visible change in his demeanour and health. The short-tempered Frenchman prone to violent bursts of anger found a measure of peace. His ability to concentrate increased and so did his capacity to work.

The final push to Hinduism came through his guru, Shree Sarveshswara Swamigal, who he had met in 1986 through a common friend.  “He had lost his limbs to leprosy, but I hadn’t seen a happier person,” says Fabre. The swami advised him to take up sanyaas—renounce attachments. Fabre became an Avadhuta or one who lives in the nude. (When he is based in Chennai, Fabre wears clothes.) The guru also advised Fabre to find sadhana (spiritual practice) in his textile business. Seven years later in 1995, Fabre would make his transition to a  sadhu and set up an ashram near Salem in Tamil Nadu.

But first, the student had to learn to live in a material world without succumbing to materialism. The businessman became a monk. At the age of 46, he founded Fashions International with Jayapalan. Instead of manufacturing fabric, the company became a service provider.

As its present CEO Benhur explains, “We are like a marriage bureau. On one side are the grooms (retail brand clients like Diesel and Lee Cooper) and on the other side, the brides (manufacturers or suppliers based in India). Our job is to get the right match.”

A capitalist who shares
Benhur met Swami in 1991 when he was a graduate desperately looking for a job. “I liked that at that age also [Swami was 49 years old by then], he had tremendous drive and energy. He asked me for only two things: To be hard working and ethical,” says Benhur who became CEO three years ago. Swami’s focus on discipline made him a favourite among his European clients. Business started growing. He launched a brand called Dude and by 2010, he was dealing with four million apparel pieces annually. But this success was not the only reason why employees remained loyal to him. Swami has the knack of identifying talent. One was Benhur. Another was Ani P.

Ani first worked in Swami’s ashram near Salem and then became his driver. While sitting around in the office, Ani became interested in graphic designing. Swami encouraged him and today he works as a graphic designer at Christian Fabre. “I owe everything to Swami,” a teary-eyed Ani tells me.

Apart from funding education costs for some of his employees, the founder, in a practice unheard of in today’s corporate world, also shares the company’s revenues with his colleagues, including the office peon. “They work as hard as me. Sharing profit is not enough… I’m a capitalist who shares,” Swami says.

Fabre doesn’t command a salary, except for a monthly “pocket money” of Rs 20,000 to take care of his personal needs. Until two years ago, he didn’t even have a house of his own and was living with Jayapalan and his family. He finally bought a house along the coast of Kovalam, a Chennai suburb, at the urging of his friends. The only other thing that he bought was the land for his ashram.

The Hermitage
Early next day I accompany Swami on an eight-hour drive to Kolli Hills. The hermitage, as he calls it, sits atop a hill. In 1995, he started buying land in the area and, today, it is a 35-acre ashram; he grows pepper and coffee (soon to be sold through his new e-commerce firm) on the land.  “I visit it once a month and spend a week there,” he says.

After 72 hairpin turns through the hill, we reach the ashram, which is supervised by Sunny (“a Hindu’s ashram looked after by a Syrian Christian,” says Swami) who has been living here for nearly two decades. There is John, who is a helper, and his wife who is the cook. Their two-year-old daughter is indulged by everyone, including Swami, who keeps telling her “Rumbha alaga irrike” (Tamil for ‘looking very good’). After 43 years in Chennai, Swami tends to sometimes respond instinctively in Tamil.

They are the only ones who live there. Some “disciples”, especially from France, turn up occasionally. Past guests include a former model-turned-schizophrenic who left the ashram because “there were no mirrors” and a self-acclaimed investment banker who later claimed he didn’t have money to pay the bills. Swami opens his door to all who seek refuge, but prefers to be alone. “I’m not a swami for what people expect me to be. I became a  swami for my happiness,” he says.

The ashram has three “houses”.  One, where Sunny lives, the second has a kitchen and attached to it are rooms for guests and rest of the staff. This third is where Swami stays. The door opens to a temple, which is flanked by two rooms—Swami’s workplace and bedroom.

When I visit him in his quarters, I find Swami sitting naked at his desk working on his MacBook. He welcomes me and Manikandan, the photographer, but makes no attempt to put on his robe. He later tells me, “It doesn’t matter what you wear and even if you don’t wear. You are what you are.”  (A Tamil magazine, sometime ago, though, made a hue and cry of it, calling him a “German” and published a nude photo of Swami with his private parts blacked out.)

Swami, now draped in a saffron shawl, shows us around the temple and the garden. He knows each plant by its name. There are vegetables, herbs and flowers from all over the world. Soon, it is time for his only indulgence—coffee from home-grown beans. I ask him about controlling desires. “You can’t be desire-less! I need to fill my stomach. I love chocolates. If someone offers them to me, I will surely take them. But I’m not attached to them. I won’t cry that you didn’t give me enough. I’m happy with it and I’m happy without it,” he explains.

That might explain why he doesn’t hold a grudge against his wife. He is in touch with his son and is looking forward to meeting him later this year in Tokyo.

His son, who is a journalist, is not interested in textiles. But Swami has thought about the future of the company. “I have arranged things in such a way that when I’m not around, Jayapalan is not alone.” What about his own life, I ask him. When he looks back, does he feel he would have changed a few things? “Not at all,” he replies. “I would have lived the same way.” The journey, after all, if altered might end differently and Swami is unlikely to countenance that.

(This story appears in the July-Aug 2014 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)