Wednesday, March 19, 2014

From refugee to property czar, G L’s untold story

A crowd of Hindu refugees preparing to set sail for Bombay, December 1947. Photo: Margaret Bourke-White/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

From refugee to property czar, G L’s untold story

Construction baron Gopal Lachmmandas Raheja (80), who died on Tuesday, was often described as Bheeshma Pitamah, the grand patriarch of Mumbai's real estate industry.

However, the past few years of his life were tumultuous following an acrimonious fight with his son Sandeep over the vast business empire he founded. The dispute began in 2012 when Sandeep objected to the father's alleged proximity to a Brahma Kumari woman half his age. The senior Raheja, though, had refuted the allegation, stating that Sandeep was refusing to hand over a share of the business to his two sisters. The row, which spilled out into the media, ended up hurting both father and son as they had always jealously guarded their privacy.

"Where are you? Come and meet me," he called last month, only to cancel the meeting ten minutes later because he said he was not well.

At one point in time, G L, as he was commonly referred to in the cut-throat property market, was one of the largest land owners in Mumbai; that's before the family separation two decades ago.

His earlier life was full of hardship, though; a rags to riches story. The Rahejas fled Karachi soon after partition, virtually penniless.

One day, his father, Lachmmandas, came home frantically and asked the family to immediately vacate the Karachi home. Within an hour, they had packed up and were ready to sail for Mumbai. The Sindhi clan travelled in a cargo ship and took shelter in a factory at Bombay Central. Twenty members of the Raheja family later shifted to a two-room rented apartment with a common toilet in Andheri.

But the hard-nosed boy, then barely 15, would not allow himself to wallow in pity. He started his career in the then Bombay Housing Board as a civil engineer, earning a salary of Rs 270 a month in 1957. But soon, along with his father and brother, Gopal established Raheja Brothers.

"There was a time when I worked from 7am till 11pm. I often neglected my wife Sheila," the unassuming billionaire would tell this correspondent. In the mid-1990s, she passed away after a prolonged illness, leaving him disconsolate.

During her treatment in the US, G L would often take walks around malls while the wife shopped. It was here that he got the idea to start a similar concept back home. Thus started Shoppers Stop, a brand which he created—later he had to cede the chain of stores to his brother Chandru.

The Rahejas were also one of the first developers in the Bandra-Khar-Santa Cruz belt. Gopal, along with his late father and uncle, constructed their first building at 3rd Road in Khar and sold flats at the rate of Rs 20 a sq ft in the late 1950s. Today, his group claims to have completed 2,000 projects all over the country.

Besides starting the Shoppers Stop chain in 1992, G L also co-founded the S L Raheja Hospital. He was the founder trustee of L S Raheja School of Architecture & Arts, L S Raheja College of Arts & Commerce and L S Raheja Technical Institute.

The construction czar never forgot his humble roots, though. His networking and friendship with top politicians, including the late Bal Thackeray and Sushilkumar Shinde, was well-known in industry circles. But, as he told this correspondent once, "Even now, I sometimes sit with junior civic officers in their cabins and drink chai with them."