Business Find/Feedback/Site Index
March 22, 2000


Gope Hathiramani, the richest Indian in France

Email this report to a friend

Ranvir Nayar in Paris

"I can vividly remember that day even today. It was in May, 1964. Algeria was at the height of its war for independence from France. Armed groups on both sides roamed around on the streets of Algiers looking for trouble."

"Braving all this, I decided to accompany some French hardliners to a fair in the city centre. No sooner did we reach the place than I realised that it was not the wisest thing to do. There were hundreds of people belonging to the French community all around and there was the French military."

"Soon, trouble broke out and the French army started firing into the crowd. I just ran. I could feel and see people falling to bullets, but I just kept on running till I reached safety."

The charm of crystal Gope Hathiramani is unlikely to ever forget his brush with death. Since then, however, he has come a long way. For, today, Gope Hathiramani is the richest Indian in France and seemingly getting richer by the day.

"It has been a record year for me. I have never had it so good. Commercially, 1999 was definitely the best year that I can ever remember," he gushes, occupying his usual chair at his plush shop in Rue de Rivoli -- the most prestigious quarter of Paris.

Hathiramani's revenues are linked directly to the strength of dollar and it gladdens his heart to see the US currency gaining strength as it has done for the last 12 months - gaining almost 20 per cent.

"Almost 80 per cent of my customers are US tourists. So a stronger dollar means they find my goods cheaper and, hence, I always pray for a strong dollar," explains Hathiramani.

At the first glance, there is hardly anything extraordinary about Hathiramani. The 59-year-old Sindhi businessman looks just that -- a Sindhi businessman. He is of medium build, short, and has a round face.

The soft eyes, however, hide an incisive brain behind them. For, even though he was born with a silver spoon, he was to literally lose everything at several stages in his life and had to start all over again.

Born in 1941, Hathiramani was the only son of a family with extensive land holdings at Hyderabad in Sindh. But six years on, the family had to leave everything and move at the time of partition.

His father had left just before the partition to join a multinational company in Algiers, capital of Algeria. The rest of the family initially settled in Baroda, but later moved to Pune. And it was in Pune that he began his education.

However, even here life was not going to be easy and settled. His father resigned from the MNC and opened a shop selling toys and gifts, aimed at tourist traffic. But, soon, yet another turn came in 1954 when the Algerian war of independence began.

Initially the Indian community, largely dealing in business, was unaffected as a neutral party in the war. "Our home was in the French quarter but to get to the shop, we had to cross the Arab quarter. But we never faced a problem, even at the height of the war. For, the Arabs respected us and the French knew we had nothing to do with the war of independence. Hence we were able to do good business even during these tumultuous years," recounts Hathiramani.

In 1962, nevertheless, after Algeria won independence, it became difficult for the Hathiramani family to continue as the new government had imposed a total clampdown on imports.

"My father was quick to realise the danger that we would face if imports were banned or curtailed. So he sent me to France to start working there. even though I had to struggle a lot for the first three years, due to a large variety of reasons, it was a very sensible move and it has paid off handsomely," says Hathiramani proudly.

By 1965, Hathiramani's luck began turning and in March, he opened his first shop on Rue de Rivoli, selling leather hand bags for women. The choice of the venue, more than anything else, helped Hathiramani tremendously in the initial years as he had the right kind of items for his upmarket and tourist clientele.

Since then he has not had to look back.

Within three years, Hathiramani had acquired his second shop and the fourth year saw yet another addition. Incidentally, all the shops were located on the same road.

By this time, his sister and brother-in-law and parents had also joined him in France. In 1965, he also got married to a Sindhi girl in Bombay.

Business continued to flourish and in time, the Hathiramani couple was blessed with a son and a daughter. However, commercially, the big break was yet to come, until 1984.

"By this time, I was very well settled and doing extremely well. But I wanted to expand my business and move into something other than souvenirs. Then, one day, I was attending an exhibition in Paris on crystal-ware. That is where it struck me that crystal could be my next line of business,'' Hathiramani says.

With barely four globally reputed manufacturers, the crystal-ware business is a closed club.

Swan in crystal "If anyone wants to become a franchisee for a well-known company, it is almost impossible. This may be due to the high costs involved and few companies may want to risk such valuable amounts with an unknown person. But if you get your first company, then all others will quickly make you a stockist. It is just that getting the first one is really tough.''

He, nevertheless, persisted and got his break. On visiting Baccarat, one of the leading brand names, Hathiramani discovered that its owner had once been saved during war by a close relative of his. Within minutes, he got the franchise. Armed with this, he visited other crystal companies and got franchise from all.

Today, he runs the most frequented crystal store in Paris, actually two of them. And often, he beats his own suppliers like Baccarat and Lilaque by bagging huge individual orders from overseas customers. Even though his franchise is limited to Paris, Hathiramani gets tremendous business from abroad.

"I manage to do that by selling at good prices and taking good care of my customers. We guarantee safe delivery by mail and replace any breakages. Not many other stores do that and that is why my customers come back to me," he says.

Though most of his customers continue to be Americans, Indians are becoming increasingly important for him. From a rare Indian buyer till the early 1990s, now Indians form the second largest group of consumers for Hathiramani.

"As the Indian middle class grows and people start buying bigger houses, they obviously want to decorate them better. And crystal is high on the priority list,'' says Hathiramani.

And the list which earlier included stellar names like Lata Mangeshkar, the Singhanias, the Singhs and the Poddars, has now ballooned. For most Indian clients he likes to keep a special record of purchases.

"This is because of their insistence on discounts. Often they say that last time they had got so much more discount and, hence, want that again. But I keep a detailed record of their visit, how much they bought, what price, etc. I can readily produce this evidence and that does the trick," says Hathiramani, displaying his collection of Indian visiting cards, with copies of bills attached or small notes made behind.

However, being in the crystal does not add tremendously to the wallet. It has more glitter than margins. "I make much more money by selling souvenirs than through crystal. But this business is prestigious and has a certain respect," he admits.

And it brings in some very big names as his customers.

Hathiramani is unlikely to ever forget at least one of them. It was May 13, 1998. Two American women stepped into his shop. They asked if they can block his shop for about half an hour.

Thinking it a joke, Hathiramani played along. But soon, to his utter surprise, a dozen police cars were outside his shops and cops were going through his shop with sensors. And within ten minutes, the shop got its most important customer, Hillary Rodham Clinton. The US' First Lady was in town and wanted to shop for crystal-ware and had chosen the shop.

Though Hillary bought goods worth only about $ 600, for Gope Hathiramani, the experience will remain forever etched in his mind. He has proudly displayed the pictures of the event in his shop. And even today, Hathiramani's eyes glint with pride and pleasure when he recounts the events of that fateful day.

Hathiramani has had his lows, too. In 1981, he began exporting French porcelain items to the United States through franchisees. However, wild fluctuations in the dollar rate proved to be his downfall. Within two years, the currency fluctuations led to a loss of $ 330,000 and Hathiramani closed down the operations.

For the last five years, he has also been planning a dry fruit project in India. Due to bureaucratic delays, the 5-million French francs export-oriented deal is yet to get off the ground. He, however, is still persisting.

Politically, Hathiramani is on the right side of the spectrum. A French citizen, he has been voting the Gaullist party for a long time, even though if the right wing rules France it is not too good for him.

"My heart is on the right, but the wallet is on the left. With a socialist government, the Franc also weakens, that is good news for us, but a right government boosts the Franc, which is not so good as it makes our goods expensive for the tourists."

Looking back, he is almost philosophical, "I was not supposed to be a businessman at all. My education and training was to be an electronics engineer. And here I am dealing with souvenirs and crystal. But for my father, who forced me into this business saying as the sole son I had to carry on. I guess I have done well enough and now, I am waiting to hand over to my son completely."


Tell us what you think of this report