It was 143 years ago that Ramdas Thackersay set sail from the coastal town of Mandvi to relocate his growing business to Muscat for faster access to strategic ports. His forefathers, dhow merchants from Mandvi, in Gujarat had landed in Sur in the mid-1800s.
As traders, they brought grain, tea and spices from India and took away dates, dry lime, and frankincense from the Sultanate of Oman. Muscat was, at that time, a very active port. Thackersay's son, Khimji Ramdas, followed him and together, they sowed the seeds of a global enterprise that is today one of the largest business groups in Oman.
Khimji Ramdas Group of Companies passed on from generation to generation and, in 1970,Thackersay's great-grandson, Kanaksi Khimji, took over from his father, Gokaldas, after finishing his education in Mumbai. Today, with an annual turnover of more than $1 billion, the group is the chosen partner of more than 400 top global brands in consumer products, lifestyle, infrastructure, projects and logistics. It has business operations in India and UAE and is a corporate member of the World Economic Forum.
"We see achievements as milestones in the quest for excellence. We just want to be the best," says the 77-year-old tycoon, Kanaksi Khimji. Not sales and volumes, Khimji believes that the most important measure of success for his family's business is how far it has helped advance the national development plans laid out by Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said. In fact, Khimji with his Indian roots was one of the first to embrace Omanisation, a directive to train and empower Omani professionals. Such a rare honour makes Khimji the most distinguished Indian in this Gulf country.
However, it is Khimji's philanthropy that has made him a legend across the world. In 1975, just five years after taking over from his father Gokaldas, Kanakbhai, as he is fondly known, founded the first English Indian School in Muscat. There are 19 Indian schools catering to around 35,000 students in Oman today. Probably the finest jewel in his crown is the title of Sheikh conferred on him by the Sultan, the first-ever use of the title for a member of the Hindu community.
"Though my family hails from Kutch in Gujarat, we have always identified with Oman as our home country," he says. "I was offered the nationality of Oman in recognition of all the goodwill created by my ancestors. It is a gift that I accepted twenty years late. But I am glad I finally did."
A historic bond
When Kanaksi Khimji took over the family business in 1970, motorized navigational ships weren't launched in Oman. Earlier, during the two World Wars, the Khimjis were chosen as supplier for provisions for the entire base of allied forces. "This gave us the opportunity to earn revenue and strengthen our base. We quickly learnt the art of supply chain management and maritime shore support," says Pankaj Khimji, son of Kanaksi Khimji and director of the group.
Life before the Omani Renaissance, though, was tough. "The pre-70s were very different as there was no electricity or piped water. We went to wells to take bath and clean clothes. At least one lantern was required to walk on the streets after sunset. It was a close knit community that lived in Muscat and Muttrah. The gates of Muscat closed at sundown," recalls Kanakbhai.
"We stuck to our core business of trading and prospered with the Renaissance setting in. We were expanding as the country grew economically, and we struck roots across the country," he adds.
The first bank to be set up in Muscat was HSBC, its building constructed by the Khimji Ramdas (KR) group more than 60 years ago. Before that, trading was done by barter or through silver. Bait al Falaj, now known as Ruwi, was the first airport in Oman which too was built by the Khimji group. It was the Khimjis who first acquired the Ford dealership in 1969 and, interestingly, the Sultan of Oman had ordered their first car.