Micky Jagtiani, The Middle East’s Other King

Micky Jagtiani’s story is a fascinating one. He was certainly not born into wealth, and anyone who has struggled in their twenties to make ends meet should be able to find some inspiration in the manner by which he rose to the top. Micky Jagtiani remembers well some last words from his dying father. “I don’t know how Micky’s going to feed himself,” his father lamented. “On what is he going to live?”

His dad had reason to worry. An Indian immigrant who had moved his family to Kuwait, he had scraped together the funds to send Jagtiani, then 17, to accounting school in London. But his prodigal son had flunked several exams and eventually dropped out. Micky was also drinking and smoking heavily. To support himself he cleaned hotel rooms in Earls Court, the cheapest part of London and drove a taxi around the city until he could barely afford to do even that.

Running low on money, in 1972 he rejoined his family in the Persian Gulf, where life took a turn for the worse. His older brother Mahesh was diagnosed with leukemia and died within months. His father, a diabetic, died soon after; he lost his mother the next year, to cancer. “And that was my entire family. You learn to be detached. You go through a very difficult experience,” he says. Micky Jagtiani was 21 years old, without a family and with no prospects.

Jagtiani’s first impulse was to head back to India, where he’d spent a chunk of his youth, and work for a charity relieving the poor. But he felt an even stronger obligation to take over the retail space in Bahrain that his brother had rented before getting sick. Despite being plagued by self-doubt and worries over a lack of experience in retail, Jagtiani decided to take over his brother’s lease. With $6,000, the entire sum left to him by his family , he filled the store, which he named Babyshop, with clothes, strollers, bottles and other gear. Able to hire only one employee, Jagtiani did much of the work himself, picking up boxes from a nearby port, stacking inventory, mopping floors. Starting modestly, Jagtiani focused largely on the thousands of Asian immigrants, who were moving to the Gulf for better jobs.

Twelve years later, with six stores and 400 employees, Jagtiani made another critical decision, moving his family and company to Dubai. Once there, he started of his Landmark retail stores which concentrated on middle-class consumers. The move paid huge dividends as his Landmark Group spread across multiple countries including the Gulf, India, Pakistan, China and Spain with over 6000 thousand stores. His company now oversees one of the largest retailing empires in the Middle East.

Jagtiani himself prefers a modest, quiet life. He owns one car and shares a modest home in Dubai with his wife. His biggest vice, he claims, is a nightly habit of watching “inspirational” movies. No surprise that among his favorites are stories of sacrifice as the ultimate in heroism. “I live my life like Gandhi” he says. My lifestyle is very simple. I sleep on the floor. I run my life with one key, I am very transparent, and I believe a lot in Buddhism. I like to do a lot of social work. All my friends who have money, they have many problems, if they don’t get a first class air ticket they fall to pieces. If they don’t get their best designer clothes they get nervous. To me, these things are materialistic and not important. That is the secret to being peaceful. If I wanted to, I could afford it, but I don’t care for it.”

The desire to give something back to his native country certainly seems to burn brightly in him. He underwrites a foundation that funds the education of more than 100,000 children in slum schools in India, and is also the main benefactor for several orphanages. He said that when he goes to India, he sleeps on the floor in these orphanages, because it helps to keep him grounded.

He said: “In India wealth is so poorly distributed. There are the very rich and then there are the very poor, which is the rest. I went to a terrible Bombay slum in which children work eleven-hour a day on one meal. I was there from ten in the morning until seven in the evening. I just sat down trying to understand the meaning of poverty. Why does it happen? What is the solution?

From a difficult start, his life has turned out to be an amazing one, filled with success. But this story, of the disparity between enormous wealth and privilege human beings literally fainting beneath the weight of their wealth and the poverty of the slums, seems to capture the conflict within the man. He’s a very human billionaire.