When Ram Buxani first set foot in Dubai in 1959 it was scarcely more than a sleepy pearl-fishing community. “It was simply a desert,” recalls Buxani, now 76. There wasn’t electricity or running water—and certainly no Burj Khalifa.
Buxani arrived in Dubai from India at the age of 18 to work as an office clerk with a small firm trading in textiles. When he took the job, he couldn’t point out Dubai on a map.
Despite its rustic nature, Buxani liked Dubai’s idyllic setting and put down roots—a decision he’s still reaping rewards from more than half a century later. As oil wealth allowed Dubai to shed its humble past and transform into a glittering metropolis, Buxani’s fortunes rose alongside it.
Today, Buxani serves as chairman of International Traders Limited Cosmos Group, or ITL Cosmos Group. With operations across the U.A.E., Oman and India, textiles account for around 30% of the diversified company’s revenues, but it also deals in banking, information technology and consumer electronics. Buxani is a major shareholder.
Outside of ITL Cosmos Group, Buxani serves as a community leader among the U.A.E.’s non-resident Indian (NRI) population. He rose to prominence in 1985 by helping convince the Indian government to abolish estate duty.
“I consider Dr. Buxani the founding father of the U.A.E.’s NRI community,” says Sripriyaa Kumaria, Director General of the India Trade & Exhibition Centre in Sharjah. Kumaria’s organization oversees the Business Leaders Forum, a council on which Buxani serves, seeking to increase bilateral trade between the U.A.E. and India. “His vision for the welfare of NRI businessmen dates back to the days when no such formal community existed in the U.A.E,” says Kumaria.
Over the years Buxani has also found time to pen an autobiography and act in 28 plays. He’s a father of three daughters, and has seven grandchildren.
But, ITL Cosmos Group still demands his attention. The company’s consumer electronics segment has performed poorly recently. Buxani points to innovations in technology, particularly smartphones, that have rendered obsolete many of the products the group distributed for years. In 2006, ITL Cosmos Group lost its license with cameramaker Minolta—the group’s first major electronics brand—after the Japanese company ceased to manufacture photography equipment.
Buxani readily admits ITL Cosmos Group must adapt to the changing market and find new segments to develop. “We have to anticipate the change now,” he says. Despite the decline of its consumer electronics business he’s confident the textiles and banking segments will continue to prosper.
In 2004 ITL Cosmos Group established a real estate segment focused on renting out properties across the U.A.E. Following a few rough years after the market collapse in 2008, real estate emerged to become the third best performing segment. “We change, we grow,” says Buxani.
It helps that he is no stranger to change.
Buxani was born in 1941 in Hyderabad, only a few years before the partition of India and Pakistan. Following independence from the British Raj, upheaval in Pakistan’s Sindh province displaced Buxani’s family; like many Sindhis, they fled to India. Growing up in India the family moved frequently. His father passed away when he was five. It was a struggle at times to get by.
“There was no question of career ambition,” says Buxani.
At 18 years-old, Buxani was in Mumbai looking for a job so he could support his mother. He saw an advertisement in a local newspaper for a job as an executive assistant with International Traders Limited in Dubai.
It was common for Sindhis to go abroad for work, so the young Buxani applied without hesitation. He got the job, and in November 1959 boarded a steamship. The ship weighed anchor off the coast of Dubai on a rainy day, and Buxani was ferried ashore in rough seas in a small boat. When he reached the beach he was greeted with a scene a world away from the Dubai of today.
“While the whole world was in the 20th century, Dubai was moving into the 19th,” recalls Buxani. Dubai was then part of the Trucial States and had not yet capitalized on its immense oil reserves.
Arriving from the bustle of Mumbai, it was a culture shock, but Buxani was attracted to the tranquility of old Dubai. “I felt this is a place where one can settle down,” he says.
He got straight to work with ITL, for a salary of 125 rupees a month. ITL then had four employees in Dubai. The office was run by Murij Manghnani, who established the company’s outpost there in 1953. ITL was then a subsidiary of the trading firm Intra Group, which itself was associated with the Chotirmall Group, a larger trading enterprise operating primarily in southeast Asia.
Buxani and Manghnani were responsible for the majority of ITL’s operations in Dubai. Buxani did everything from filing records to delivering mail. “I was writing my own job description,” he quips.
There were positives to being an overworked clerk though—he got to see firsthand how the entire business operated. When Buxani first arrived, ITL dealt only in textiles, which it imported from Japan, China and India and exported primarily to Iran.
But it was on the verge of diversifying. Soon ITL began bidding for licenses from foreign companies to act as their distributor. In 1960 ITL opened its first Cosmos department store in Dubai.
After two years on the job, the chairman of ITL’s parent company visited Dubai. While there he offered Buxani his first promotion. He gave Buxani two choices: a salary increase to 300 rupees and 3% profit share, or 400 rupees and no profit share.
Buxani pondered the offer, ultimately taking the profit share over the higher salary because he thought it would motivate him. “I knew that would give me the feeling of ownership,” he says.
ITL continued to develop its textiles business, scoring distribution licenses with companies such as Japan’s Chori, which it still represents today.
As the 1960s drew to a close everything changed. Dubai and neighboring Abu Dhabi began exporting oil. The resulting revenues allowed the Trucial States to begin investing in infrastructure projects, which accelerated even further after the formation of the U.A.E. in 1971. Slowly, paved roads appeared, along with schools, hospitals and airports.
Simultaneously, local consumers discovered an appetite for spending on foreign goods. ITL and its Cosmos stores were perfectly placed to meet that demand; it just needed more distribution licenses. Buxani negotiated many of them.
Although ITL faced little competition in securing tenders in those days, it proved difficult to explain where they were negotiating the license for. “People were ignorant about the existence of Dubai,” says Buxani.
Using an atlas, he would physically point to the blank space of coast where Dubai was, as many maps didn’t include the city at that time. The only nearby name on the map was Sharjah, because it was home to a U.K. Royal Air Force base.
According to Buxani, the first major license Cosmos secured was with Minolta; the Japanese camera brand turned out to be one of the group’s most successful brands for decades.
From electronics ITL expanded into a diverse range of industries, from selling ice cream to buying hotels. In 1970, it opened its first Cosmos location in Abu Dhabi. “Since then, we have been on the move,” says Buxani.
In 1985 came a turning point for Buxani—one marked by personal tragedy. In December of that year Buxani was in a board meeting with members of Intra Group when he received word that his mother had passed away in India. He left immediately to fly home.
Upon returning to Dubai, he discovered that in the moments after he left the meeting he had been promoted to the position of director in ITL.
As Dubai continued to grow into the 1990s, ITL morphed into a conglomerate and became known locally as ITL Cosmos Group. The skyscrapers went up, and so too did the trajectories of Buxani and Manghnani, who both advanced up Intra Group’s corporate ladder.
By then Intra Group’s operations outside of the Gulf were in decline. In 2003, the company, then headquartered in Hong Kong, relocated to Dubai and joined ITL Cosmos Group. By then Manghnani was chairman and Buxani vice chairman.
As Buxani’s profile rose in Dubai’s business world, he devoted himself to supporting the U.A.E.’s burgeoning NRI community. He founded numerous business associations and served as chairman of a private school catering to NRI families.
In 2014, Manghnani stepped down as chairman of ITL Cosmos Group after falling ill. There was no question who would succeed him. The one-time office clerk became chairman.
Just like Dubai, today Ram Buxani is very much on the map.