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Savji Dholakia on diamonds, family business and teaching values in the next generation

By James Beech

Indian diamond merchant Savji Dholakia says the trust of family, staff welfare and environmental, social and governance values are his priorities in his $1.2 billion family business, with finance and growth the “by-products” of his lifelong enterprise.

The 59-year-old Hurun India Rich List principal, whose family business is managed by a team of four brothers (pictured below right), three partners and eight young adult children, also said he does not believe in planning his succession.

Dholakia is the founder and chairman of Hari Krishna Exports, one of India’s most prolific diamond manufacturing, retailing and exporting companies. Founded in 1992, the HK Group is headquartered in Mumbai, based in the west coast city of Surat and has a presence in 81 countries. The Responsible Jewellery Council-certified group achieved $800 million in sales by 2013-14 and has won 21 Gem Jewellery Export Promotion Council awards over 17 years.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (with Dholakia, below left) cut the ribbon to officially open the group’s pioneering 54,000 sq m diamond manufacturing complex, called HK Hub, in Surat in 2017.

The Dholakia family office launched Dholakia Ventures in 2020 to invest in early stage startups in all sectors. The fund offers entrepreneurs functional expertise, strategic views and connections and is managed by Dravya Dholakia, one of the founder’s sons.

Among its raft of ESG initiatives, Hari Krishna Exports holds blood donation drives, staff health checks and eye tests, installed toilets in villages and runs marathons and cycle races. The family’s philanthropic Dholakia Foundation supports welfare, environmental, healthcare, water conservancy and women’s empowerment causes.

Dholakia himself makes headlines for gifting hundreds of new cars and flats as performance bonuses for HK Group’s 7,000 employees at Diwali. He has sent his sons and nephews into semi-exile for a month to fend for themselves without the family fortune to learn the value of money and understand the importance of struggle.

Dholakia understood the hard life himself as the son of a farmer who learned the diamond trade as a child. A small loan from his uncle enabled the budding entrepreneur to start his own diamond cutting and polishing venture.

Almost 90% of the world’s diamonds are cut and polished in India. After five years of moribund sales at about $80 billion, then worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic, the global diamond market reported a 20% year-on-year boom in the fourth quarter of 2020. Luxury consumers in lockdowns and unable to travel, especially in the United States and China, spent their pent-up wealth on diamonds online during the holiday season.

CampdenFBasked Savji Dholakia about his motivations in family business, engaging his family’s next generation and his legacy.

If you could give the 12-year-old you advice before he enters the diamond trade, what would it be?
Good question, I entered the industry at the age of 12, but as per the current situation, I would say, if a person completes his graduation before joining the diamond industry, he would take five years to reach the position where I reached in 40 years. And within 10 years he can achieve the growth I accomplished, but the condition is you must be a graduate or must have a master’s degree. 
Which trends in the global diamond industry are exciting you the most?
What attracts me most to the diamond industry is, this is the only niche, where we can serve people, along with doing the business.

It is the field where we can help people develop themselves, impart happiness, improve employment opportunities for people, help them do an excellent job, and get the best wages.

Secondly, the reason why the diamond industry is fascinating is the people who purchase them are happy and well-to-do and the money that comes from these diamonds goes to the ones who actually need them. So ultimately, this business provides bread and butter to many while also giving happiness to some. This is what excites me and I feel proud that I am a part of such a business.

What are the family values which guide your business decisions?
First of all, it’s difficult to hold family values and business parallelly. But once you win the trust of your family, business outcomes become the by-product, business becomes easy to handle. 

So, in anyways if my family is at a loss, I will prioritise that over my business. My priority is always my family, as once you prioritise them, your business automatically grows because we put family values at precedence over money.

What is your growth strategy, and how do you plan to finance it?
There is a very simple logic behind my growth strategy, which not everyone understands, as most people don’t think the same way. 

I will tell you, it’s very simple: “I just work for nature, I work as an employee, I work as a customer, I work as a miner, I work as a jeweller, I work for others and run this industry for their betterment.”

So, I don’t need to look for growth and finance, they are the by-products of my efforts. My main product is manpower, their happiness, their salary, security, these are my focus and the rest all are by-products.

What have been your toughest decisions during the pandemic?
If we talk about the pandemic, yes corona was a big challenge for us, but I love to take decisions in difficult times.

The biggest question at that time was, how can we keep our employees financially stable. As per our experience in 2008, we were well-prepared to handle such a situation that even if the factory is closed for 6-8 months our employees and the people connected with us never lack anything. 

So, making things available for our people in the form of salary, taking the decision of making it available for them, was a kind of joy. Whatever happens, we will face the consequences, but covering all the expenses of our employees was our decision. 

I don’t see it as a challenge, as we use to keep all the safety measures and conduct check-ups for them, but I look at it as an opportunity that God has given me as a businessman to serve people in the hard times. So, I was glad that I could help.

How can founders instil their drive to succeed in their next generation?
I believe being the establishers’ of business, one doesn’t need to do much, let them develop their own perspective, don’t tell them what to do, instead just keep them with you while you make decisions, while you do private meetings, in your positives and your negatives.

Be transparent and open in your conversations and behaviour, automatically your children will adapt to these things in their life, not copying you, but being a better version of themselves.
What are the do’s and don’ts of engaging the next generation in the family business?

Let them enjoy being in the business, introduce them to business in a way that they love doing it, find their interest, invest time after them from their very childhood so that even if they do some other business, their values don’t change, their core remains the same. 

This will help them build a business that doesn’t bring a burden, but makes it easy for them. Business is actually a meditation, business is actually devotion, business is actually a service, it’s the enjoyment. Invest such things in them.

What is your succession plan?
We can’t decide our succession. Our work, our behaviour, our investments are what one should adopt. So, I don't believe in planning my succession. 

In my opinion, I have trained eight of my sons, so even if any one of them is missing from their responsibility, the other seven would stop and guide them in the right direction. So, for me, all of them are my succession and I am assured that four from these will never question my decision and will follow in my footsteps.

Which ESG practices do you personally focus on, and how do Hari Krishna Exports measure the outcomes?
Hari Krishan Exports measures it by results, while I measure it on a personal level. As I believe, my work is doing better for society, more precisely, planting trees—50% of my time and efforts are spent planting trees and conserving water. This is my hobby.

I think the only things that can sustain mankind and our lives are water and trees. If we leave money or treasure for our children and family, it will only last for one generation, but if we could give a gift of water and trees on a large scale, it will sustain our seven upcoming generations.

As I am working on my Mission 100 Sarovar project, I realise this water would help people for 500 years. Also, I have planted thousands of banyan and peepal trees that live 400-500 years. If you really want to benefit mankind, I assure you this is the best contribution you can give.

The reason behind the success of Hari Krishna Exports is the by-product of all this welfare that's done to nature and its creatures. I suggest everyone should invest some of their time to improve natural things, to build a better world for the next generation.

Why do you bestow such generous Diwali gifts and bonuses on your employees?

Diwali gifts and bonuses are not just motivation for our employees, but my intention is to enhance and improve their lifestyle, make them mindful, develop their personalities and help them understand the importance of a “giving back” ideology towards social responsibilities.

As a result, I have seen a tremendous commitment, dedication and growth in every employee.

With our current initiative of “VIPASSANA”, we send every employee for Vipassana meditation with the intent to help them learn the art of living life. With this trust of every employee in me, I can guarantee that in the next three years, my employees and their family members will be strong, intellectual and tough individuals. I consider this as the biggest investment for my every employee and the Hari Krishna family.

What do you want your legacy to be?

My thought process, my intentions behind my work and actions, my dedication towards work, my passion for my work, my behaviour with everyone, my skills and my work process can be a legacy of mine.
I consider my financial status as a bonus from God and my ability or skills or success as a fuel to use for others’ benefits and to make others’ lives even better and give them happiness in all possible ways.

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