Building Jamaica from Burma through India

Building Jamaica from Burma through India

Lachu Ramchandani started with nothing, now opens up possibilities for many

BY MARK CUMMINGS Editor-at-Large Western Bureau

Saturday, June 06, 2015

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MONTEGO BAY, St James Lachu Ramchandani is undoubtedly a household name in western Jamaica.

Widely known for his more than two decades of involvement in beauty pageants, the self-styled 'King of Beauties,' and successful businessman can aptly be described as a pioneer.

Not many people, however, would know that Ramchandani's success did not come easy.

In fact, the 63-year-old Ramchandani started with nothing and slowly worked his way up the financial ladder.

The man behind the development of the elegant Blue Diamond Shopping Mall in the upscale Ironshore area of St James in the 1990s, is not ashamed of the fact that when 'the little Indian boy' came to Jamaica at the age
of 16, he immediately began to work at his uncle's Manhattan House in Kingston, while attending school on a part-time basis.

He recalled that, back then, he started out as a 'wrapper boy,' wrapping items purchased at the business establishment, then moved on to sweeping the floor and lifting the shutters, before being promoted to a sales clerk, then a cashier.

Within a few years Ramchandani had earned the trust and confidence of his boss, and was elevated to the post of general manager, not only for the King Street branch of Manhattan House, but for all the five branches islandwide.

His hard work at that time, he told the Jamaica Observer, had started to pay off.

"I was a very hard worker. In fact, for the first few years of being in Jamaica, I hardly saw sunshine. I used to get up at 5:00 am and catch three buses to go to school to register, then leave school to open the store and work until late at nights," he said.

Born in Burma, now Myanmar, Ramchandani came to Jamaica from India in 1967, three years after his father, then a very wealthy industrialist, and the rest of the family fled Burma in 1964 after it became a communist country and sought refuge
in India.

"All of my family's assets were seized by the communist government. We lost everything," said Ranchamdani, who was 13 at that time.

He said that while in India, he worked part-time so as "to send myself to school as my family had no money to school me."

He recalled landing on Jamaica's shores for the first time almost 48 years ago, decked out in a short pair of pants with matching shirt bearing a name tag, a black shoes, no socks, with hopes for a better life in the Caribbean country.

In 1976, Ramchandani said he resigned his stable job with Manhattan House to visit his ailing father in India, taking all of his savings, a year after getting married to a Jamaican woman — Bina Daryanani.

The union has since produced four children.

"While I was in India, I gave all of my savings to my father, and I met a misfortune -- I broke my leg while riding a bike," he told the Sunday Observer.

Weeks later, a disappointed and penniless Ramchandani returned to Jamaica on crutches hell-bent on finding ways to support his young and charming wife, despite his disability.

Unable to resume duties at Manhattan House, the young Ramchandani had to be innovative.

Prior to going to India, he said, he had used a substantial portion of his savings to purchase a hatchback Toyota Corolla motor car for $4,416.25.

The vehicle, which he said, was his only asset at that time, coupled with several business acquaintances, and his burning desire to provide financial support for his
wife, later paved the way for his success.

"I came back to Jamaica penniless. The only asset I had was the car. I know I could go out there and do well as a salesman. I had the contacts, but I didn't have any money to buy the goods to sell," he shared.

Luck, however, was on his side.

Within a month after his arrival, a number of businessmen he knew during his tenure at Manhattan House came to his rescue.

They gave him goods valued at thousands of dollars weekly, without Ramchandani putting up a cent.

The deal was for the young man to sell the goods on a commission basis for them.

Ramchandani was pleased.

The next three years saw him selling "almost everything," particularly across the western region of the island.

"I sold everything... bun and cheese, needles, dresses, skirts, pens, books, kitchen towels... everything," he told the Sunday Observer.

It was hard work.

He would leave Kingston around 4:00 am on a Monday, sleeping on the premises of numerous police stations in his car laden with goods at nights, before returning to Kingston on Wednesday night, having covered scores of business places along the northern and western sections of the island, especially.

During that time, Ramchandani said, his wife who was very supportive, worked at a "small shop" at the craft market in Kingston.

Pretty soon he started to operate the Nik-Nax shop in the Rose Hall area, a souvenir gift shop that catered to tourists, after the owner decided to leave the island in the 1970s during the era when former Prime Minister Michael Manley flirted with Democratic Socialism.

"The owner was leaving and so he decided to give me the shop with $32,000 worth of goods. He knew that I was a hard worker and that I could be trusted, so he gave me two years in which I would make monthly instalments to pay off for the goods. I didn't have much money, in fact I had sleepless nights, it was really a struggle, but I decided to persevere," he told the Sunday Observer.

He said that soon after, other souvenir merchants who were also leaving the island decided "to give me all of their goods valued at almost $200,000 on credit."

And, as destiny would have it, less than a month after he got the merchandise, the Jamaican dollar began to weaken against its US counterpart.

As the dollar slipped, Ramchandani's profit margin on each item soared, as his goods were priced in US currency.

And wanting to capitalise even more on the 'continuous devaluation' of the Jamaican currency, the astute businessman, who by then had a monopoly on souvenir gift items, decided to close shop for a month.

That was a master stroke, he recalled.

"I did no selling; I went to India for one month, and by the time I came back the dollar had devalued by almost 100 per cent and scores of people were lining up to buy from me because I had a monopoly for the souvenirs," he explained.

"The demand was so high that I would get payments in advance for goods," added Ramchandani, who was by then dubbed 'the King of Souvenirs.'

By 1983 Ramchandani had started to import trailers of goods from Hong Kong and Taiwan in an effort to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for souvenir items.

Nine years later he had made enough money to start the construction of what was later named the Blue Diamond Shopping Mall.

The elegant blue structure was named after his youngest daughter Neelam, the Indian name for Blue Diamond.

Ramchandani told the Sunday Observer that when he started the building he was ridiculed.

"At that time when I was building the mall I had more opposition than supporters. Almost everybody said I was building a white elephant. Some said that it seems like I was a mad man or in drugs, because I am putting up a while elephant in a residential area... all sort of other negative things were said," he revealed.

He shared that he decision to construct the mall in the upscale community was out of the need for several amenities in the residential area, including a supermarket, restaurants and a theatre.

The construction of Blue Diamond preceded several other developments in the Ironshore area, including the Whitter Village, Golden Triangle, RIU hotel, the Ward's Power Tools building, as well as the opening of two gas stations and a Burger King outlet.

Today, Blue Diamond Mall boasts 55 shops, consisting of restaurants, a pharmacy, legal offices, a supermarket, souvenir shops, a beauty supply store, and more.

Basking in his success, Ramchandani now wants to establish a call centre at the mall in his continued effort to provide employment for locals.

"I am looking for a joint venture. My target is to bring in anywhere between 200 and 300 workers to get jobs at Blue Diamond. I am willing to give up the space free of cost," Ramchandani stressed.

"What I mean is that an investor can come in, put in the structures and equipment, they will pay no rent at all, but they will have to give me a percentage of the profits. I really want to see the economy of Montego Bay grow in terms of the employment. I know tons of girls who are not employed. A lot of people are suffering."

Apart from his pioneering role in business, Ramchandani is involved in several activities including the Good Shepherd Foundation, which positively impacts thousands of lives across western Jamaica.

A lover of beauty pageants, he is also the franchise holder of the Miss Global World International beauty pageant, which he has staged at various sections of the island since it was founded in 2006.

But citing a lack of financial support from Government and the private sector, the businessman has decided
to take this year's staging of the event to the twin-island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

"I have not been getting any financial support from Jamaica, not even from the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB). I have had several meetings with the Tourism Minister Dr Wykeham McNeill, JTB officials ... and all I am getting is that I am behind you, the show is excellent, it has helped Jamaica a lot, but we have no money," said a disappointed Ramchandani.

He said that the pageant will be held at the Chamber of Commerce Convention Centre in Couva, Trinidad, on October 3, adding that at least 50 countries are expected to be represented at the event.

Apart from Miss Global World International, the Montego Bay businessman had been intimately involved in other pageants, including Miss Jamaica World, Miss City of Montego Bay, Miss St James Festival ºQueen, Miss Universe, and Miss Caribbean Queen International.


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