#12 Naeem Maniar - The Uneducated Millionaire

Naeem Maniar built his wholesale and retail startup from the ground up, turning it into a multi-millionaire dollar business, without ever attending high school. He talks to us about his childhood in Dongri, Mumbai, how he migrated to Ireland at the age of 15 and his journey to riches.



Aamer: So you said you started your first business at the age of 19, right? So you finished St. Joseph College, let's say at the age of 17, was it? 


Naeem: So at the age of 15? I mean, I didn't even go to college. If you were looking at UK standards. I settled for tenth standard certificate passed. That's the extent of my education. 


Aamer: That was Naeem Maniar, the CEO of Sans Retail Holdings, a company with 51 retail stores in Ireland that employs over 1100 people. He went to Ireland from India at the age of 15 for a vacation. He liked the place so much, he settled there for good. He's built one of the biggest businesses in the wholesale and retail industry from the ground up, without ever attending high school. This is his story.


Aamer: Hello. Hello. Hello. I'm Amir Khan and this is the Zed Medium Podcast. A podcast that talks to people and about them too. We take out the most significant experiences of an individual and package it in the form of a story, sharing those with you. We narrate people's journeys in the simplest way we can. There's a new person every episode, so do check out the previous ones. I'm sure you'll find someone to relate to. 


Let's start with this one, shall we? Naeem was born in Mumbai, dongri, to be specific. You guys remember Dr. Tufail? Yeah, they're friends. When Naeem was seven, though, his mom decided it would be better for everyone if they moved to another location in Mumbai called Grand Road because of a number of reasons. You moved to Grand Road. Why was that? What was the shift in thinking?

Naeem: The reason for the shift thinking was really my mom. My mom drew it. She was the stronger personality in the house. In Dongri we had a small one room and in that room the mom, dad, three of us, dad's elder brother and his wife and dad's sister. So seven people living in a small room, communal toilets. And at the time there was this house, it was on the top floor in grandfather area. I think it was around 2000 sqft. Which was with five large rooms. But mom said, look, you know what, we'll move over there. The children need the room and the family needs the space. 


Aamer: So that was really what drove the move. That home still exists and it has become a family home. His mum and his brother's family are still there and he visits often. Obviously not much in the last few years, but whenever he can, we'll have to rewind a bit to when Naeem was about 15 years old, we mentioned earlier that he hadn't ever attended high school. 


That was true, he didn't. And he held a very strong reason in his heart to not do so. I didn't know this at the time, so don't mind my first question. So you said you started your first business at the age of 19 right? So you finished St. Joseph's College, let's say at the age of 17, was it? 


Naeem: So at the age of 15? I mean, I didn't even go to college. If you were looking at UK standards. I studied to tenth level Indian standard. I’m a tenth certificate passed. That's the extent of my education. 


Again, there's a reason behind it and the history behind it. I know it's one of your questions down the line. So I can address it now. No worries. I'm a Muslim. Growing up in India, I always believed in equality and fairness. And I always believe you should get things on marriage. And I was very, very strong opinionated on that basis. And I wanted to go to KC college to do either accounting or CA. 


I found that I couldn't get admission because I did not meet the marks that they had set, which was 80% level. And I was 4% behind. So I was happy to accept that. I then joined Wilson College which was, I think the third or the fourth option at 76%. 


And then I discovered two or three months into the college that one of my school friends, Vimal Jane, who had only gotten 70% less points than me, got into Bawani College or one of those colleges. And I discovered he got in because of his religion. 


Aamer: He didn't like that. Who would? If your success is not dependent on your effort then there is very little you can control. And that's why he decided that India wasn't right for him. The idea of going abroad was always in the family. His mom and dad wanted one of the three children to go out. 


And coincidentally, he got the opportunity. When holidays were around the corner. He decided to go to London and Dublin to his uncle for a month. But that was purely for a vacation for some time off. He never knew that he would end up liking the place.


Naeem: I spent 15 days in London. 15 days in Dublin, visiting uncle. London was lovely. I did all the sightseeing in the two week period. Dublin was different. In Dublin, on the very first day or the second day, my uncle brought between Irish pub. What I found was everybody was talkative to you, they were asking you about India. 


Whereas in London, nobody wanted to talk to you. They were all too busy with their own lives. So I noticed that. And then what happened was, again, around that same time, Mrs. Gandhi got assassinated. So India was in the news nonstop. And there was a computer science course starting in two months time in one of the colleges in Dublin in January. 


So my uncle just said, look, you're already over here. Why don't you do this course for six months? See if you like it. And you know what I said, I'm 15, what the hell. I'll be so year of college in India. Let's just see what life is like over in Ireland because I was beginning to enjoy the interactions. It also gave me an opportunity to be out of India. 


Aamer: So call it chance, situation, surrender. But he stayed back. He finished the course, but it wasn't a proper degree, so he still only completed his 10th grade. He wanted to go to college in Ireland, but the fees at the time for a non Irish citizen was about 25,000 Irish pounds, which he obviously couldn't afford. 


Ireland at the time had net immigration. Immigration, which means citizens were migrating out of Ireland to settle somewhere else. So fewer people, fewer businesses, less money spent in the country. But that has done is increase the opportunity for anyone and everyone to get permission to do some business over there. 


Naeem: One of my friends had a relation working in the Department of justice and he's looking, why don't you apply to them for permission to do business? So I remember writing a letter. So what was the letter? I still have it in my handwritten notes I just wrote to the Minister of justice to say, look, I would like to start a marketing business. I have a capital of £1000. I only had £200, which my mom and dad had given me, but anyway, I rounded it up £200,000 and I sent the letter away. And to my surprise, three weeks later, I got a letter from the Minister of justice in Ireland granting me permission to do business in Ireland. 


I started doing the country markets, selling jewelry, costume jewelry, setting up a stall every day. 


Where do you get the idea of costume jewelry from? 


The family name, is Maniar and the ancestors of the Maniar family were always in costume jewelry or I think elephant jewelry. So I just remembered that then my uncle had a shop on the islands where I worked on weekends while I was studying. 


I used to sell costume jewelry and my uncle used to send me to London to go and buy from the wholesalers in London the business people in London, either Punjabi families, Kuja families, or wholesalers, and they would give him the goods on credit. So I got to know them. So the idea really came from, look, I can go to them, buy the jewelry there, and I'll get some credit as well from them, so I can make my capital go further. 


Aamer: Naeem has a pure business mind. I can think of very few who could see opportunities right in front of them. It was a simple task of doing as his uncle told him to do, but he took it a step further, which at that age was really commendable. And how he sold the costume jewelry is as interesting as how he got the permission from the Ministry of justice. 


He had with him a portable business because all he needed were his products and a table to display those products. So he took his business everywhere he could. I would start at 06:30 a.m. In the morning because I took the first bus and then the first train to the next town and then finish the day selling. Because my shop was essentially a table and a sports bag which had my goods. 


So I was like a traveling shop. It used to be a stall kind of thing where you just put it, yes, I will send a picture. It was a 14 camping table. And then I had two wooden breadboards which I made into like an opening thing. And I would open it up and I would display my costume jewelry and I would go into every town and customers would come and buy for me. N


ow, at that time, one of the features of the markets in Ireland was a lot of traveling people. And they would sell watches and electronic goods, but people would not deal with them. Like the wholesalers would refuse them entry. And I started talking to them and I started then selling to them. For me, I was buying watches for say, three pound 50, lending me around four euro 50. 


The retail price was €20. And at that time I realized that the Irish wholesalers wanted you to make a margin of 33%, which meant that the wholesale price in Ireland was around 910 euros. So for me, I'm buying it for €5. Retail price is 20 euro. I can wholesale it to the people around me for €8. I'm €2 less than what they're paying elsewhere. I'm benefiting them and benefiting me. So the conversation is quite easy then. 


So in the morning I used to go to the market for the first hour, I would do all my wholesale business and then I would open up and do my retail business. 


Aamer: He sold jewelry out of a stall for three and a half years. In the process, he took a license, started driving a van around town to sell what he had to, added watches and other products to his collection, and did a whole lot more. But he had bigger aspirations. He wanted a nice car for himself, a nice house.


 And he knew that as much as he liked doing what he did, this wasn't something he was meant to do for the rest of his life. He was always on the hunt for newer opportunities. And when he came to know that a wholesaler had put up his business for sale, he researched it. He did his due diligence. He first made sure that he was capable of running it. 


He studied the opportunity well, got some partners to buy the business together, and approached the seller. And here's the best part. The transaction never went through. He couldn't buy the wholesale business for some other reasons. 


All he and his partners had now were their jobs to return to and a bundle of research that they had done. What do they do now? 


Naeem: But because we had already looked at the whole research and then the business plan. We then set up a wholesale with three partners and the three of us joined together and we set up Aim Wholesale in 1919. And the idea was that the CEO of us would work together and carry on our retail businesses at the same time. 


So each one would be three days in the wholesale and the balance four days in their own regional businesses. We will combine our buying, buy together and then sell to us. And then a year later the two of them decided they wanted to go and do something on their own. 


So I then bought the shareholding. 


Aamer: The two partners eventually sold their shareholding to Naeem and another partner from the UK. About a year later, at the age of 21, he owned 50% of the company and a year later he was a sole shareholder of the company. He had bought the shares of the UK partner as well. 


Naeem started slowly growing the business. He had three questions he would always ask himself before he added anything to the product line. And in retrospect, they were the simplest questions to answer. These three questions led to dynamic growth. At the time. 


The principle is very simple can we buy? Is there a customer we can sell it to? And can we make a profit by doing it? And from there on the business went on to do very well. 


At this height, we supplied each and every retailer in Ireland. There wasn't a retailer in Ireland that did not have our products. He had made it to be a self-running establishment. By 2008, he had created a flourishing business for himself. 


And around the same time he had started to deviate from the wholesaling aspect of the business to the more retail side of it, just a little more information. A wholesaler buys goods in bulk and a retailer then buys from the wholesaler with the price being a bit higher at each stage of sale. Makes sense. Okay, so in 2008 yes, I think Naeem should continue. 


Naeem: So in 2008 I approached a big supermarket chain in UK, Iceland. They had close to 8900 stores. So I remember my first meeting, I went to see them in England. What I said to them was look, I would like your franchise for Ireland. And before you start asking me, I do not know anything about the supermarket business, but what I can tell you is I'm one of the fastest learners and I'm going to ask you lots of questions to try and learn about your business and then I will just simply go and execute it. 


And I'm a very good executor in terms of decisions and programs and plans. So they agreed to give me the franchise only for one store. And they said, okay, show us what you can do with the one store and we can then have a conversation. 


Aamer: He took on the challenge and opened up the first store on Eisenhower Island in November 2008, or as many like to call it, the height of the recession. But it was a supermarket. People are bound to have food even at the peak of the worst times in the world. And so it worked. And here's the story after that. 


Naeem: And then we grew the business five years to the day. When we built up the business, I sold it to Iceland, we sold it back. I sold it back to them. Okay, so from 2008 to 2013, 


Aamer: So five years you did this. How many stores did you open up in that time? 


Naeem: We got eight stores. Eight stores. Turnover of 20 million from a zero million start. 


Aamer: That was in your mind the whole time, or you just-


Naeem: Well, no, I always in my mind at some time that I'd like to build up a business and sell it. And we agreed a fair price. Fair price for them, fair price for me. So one of the things in it was there was noncompete close, which meant for three years I could not start up or be involved in any retail business. So that was fine. So that brought me up to 2016. 


And then I said, what am I going to do? And I decided I'm going to do the same again. And that's when I started selling retail with a view to building up a chain of discount stores. 


Aamer: He did well, and he's still doing well right now. Touchwood. But he was doing well anyway with the wholesale business. There's one question we haven't addressed yet on this podcast, and that is why did he make the switch that involved leaving the self-flourishing business to go out and actively build another one that was clearly never going to be owned by him? 


Yes. I have a question, though. If your wholesale is going very strong, why get into retail in 2000 and special when there was the decision, and it was a tough time for everybody financially, what made you take that decision in that year? 


Naeem: So the decision actually was taken, that decision was really taken between 2005 and 2006, I was spending around six months traveling at various trade shows to buy for the business. So first week in January, I would be in Las Vegas, then Hong Kong, then Harrogate, then Frankfurt in Germany, then any sister in Birmingham. Then the Cologne Fair, then back to Hong Kong and China. Fare So I was spending around six months of my time traveling away from home at the time. 


My daughter was four, and the second child son was one year of age. So one of the things I remember in all of my meetings with people, very successful people, I would always ask them for some tips. I would always ask them, looking back on what they have done, what would you do differently? 


Every one of them gave me the same answer, which was they all wish they had spent more time with their children. Growing up, it all came down to family. 


Aamer: Everything that we do is ultimately for a larger cause. And for Naeem at the time, he wanted to spend more time with his children, and his family and this gave him the opportunity to do that, which is why he deviated. And he's been there for his family. He's attended school events, been a present father, and has always made sure he's put really important in front of everything else. 


But as we come to the end of the episode, there is one thing that Naeem has not ticked off his bucket list, and that's starting something for the benefit of the majority out there in the world. 


Naeem: So the next thing for me really is I'm 52 now. God knows how many years have I got? But I'm very clear. So it's a question of what I enjoy doing is seeing others succeed, helping others. My intention would be I'll carry on in business another 8-10 years with a view to then exiting the business. After that, I want to go and do some social projects out there, because what I've realized is for you to make a difference, you require three things. You need money, you need time, and you need effort. 


So I know there are a lot of philanthropists out there, who just give the money away, but then they are trusting others to make a difference at the other end. So I want to take up a social project and make a real difference and make a difference to bringing positive benefits and outcomes to people's life. Now, whether that project is in Ireland, in India, or somewhere else in the world, it doesn't matter. 


I haven't given any thought other than that. That's something I do want to do. 


Aamer: Hey, if you like that episode, share it with others. You never know, how you sharing it could impact someone in the most difficult of times. You never know, you might just share something life-changing with someone else. And yes, the common rule. Follow us for the latest updates on LinkedIn and Instagram. We're here to stay, we promise, and we're bringing a whole lot more for you. 


Next up, we have Ashisha Garwal, the managing partner and head of private equity at Edelweiss, who talks to us about his journey from being a computer science engineer in Silicon Valley to entering the commercial side of things at his time in Sierra in France. 


Yes, that was very fortunate. I was able to get an introduction to a senior partner at Madison who happened to pass through Paris. I went to business school at NCAD, which is also near Paris, and it was a meeting at a cafe there where I got half an hour with him, and then he invited me over to Hong kong to work with him over the summer. So that's how I landed the internship. 


Find out more about him in the next one. Stay tuned, and goodbye for now. Bye.