Thursday, July 21, 2011

[ZESTCaste] The rise of Dalit enterprise: Ashok Khade

21 Jul, 2011, 06.52AM IST, KRUTTIKA NADIG,ET Bureau
The rise of Dalit enterprise: Ashok Khade

He speaks animatedly, accentuating his words with hand movements that
make his gold and diamond rings sparkle. "My father worked as a
cobbler in Mumbai. You can still find the tree he planted and plied
his trade under near Chitra Talkies."

For a businessman, Udyog Ratna awardee Ashok Khade has an incredible
repertoire of childhood stories to tell. His story is compelling: from
extreme poverty to heading one of the most sought-after offshore
fabrication companies in Mumbai: DAS Offshore Engineering.

DAS is the biggest employer among dalit-owned companies - with 4,500
employees - and is credited with building Mumbai's first skywalk at
Bandra. The company specialises in doing fabrication work on offshore
platforms for energy and infrastructure companies.

Khade's beginnings in his native village Ped in Sangli district were
humble. He was a bright student despite limitations like lack of
electricity and inadequate nutrition. Teachers, he says, particularly
admired his neat handwriting, proudly displaying the fine strokes on
the yellowing paper of notebooks he has carefully preserved.

Hunger was an everyday reality for Khade and his five siblings. He
asks if we know what it is to sleep on a hungry stomach. "Once, I went
to get flour from the mill during the rains, but dropped it in the
water. When I got home, my mother said there was nothing else to eat.
I can never forget that incident." There are many other remembered
snatches: how, for instance, the siblings would sleep in an embrace
for warmth on winter nights.

Khade may be an overachiever, but he has his quirks too. He has been
twirling a green fountain pen, which is now revealed to be the same
pen with which he wrote his SSC exam 40 years ago. "Babloo", as he has
affectionately nicknamed the instrument, cost him a precious Rs 3.50.
"And yet," he opens a drawer, "only Babloo would make the cover of my
autobiography," and casually scatters on the desk half a dozen Mont
Blanc pens collectively worth .`5 lakh.


Khade's circumstances however were far from being amusing or romantic.
He recalls how his background was a stumbling block in his education.
The Brahmin boys in his class had an edge over him in Sanskrit because
of the rituals they followed at home, while his struggling family had
no time for poojas. He eventually topped his class 10 Sanskrit exam.

He also met some good samaritans along the way. During the famine of
1972, he was "adopted" by a man who gave him food, and one of his
teachers bought him a new set of clothes after he showed up for an
exam in torn trousers.

After finishing high school, Khade came to Mumbai to live with his
uncle. He ended up working at Mazagon Dock when financial constraints
cut short his desire to pursue medicine. "I went crying to the docks,"
says the future ship designer. He worked at Mazagon from 1975 to 1992,
building a career as well as an enviable network of contacts and
well-wishers, along with brothers Datta and Suresh.

The stint would bring new experiences into Khade's life. He was sent
to West Germany in 1984 for an assignment related to submarine quality
control, and married shortly after returning home. He also managed to
complete a part-time diploma in mechanical engineering alongside his
job. In 1992, Khade's uncle died leaving behind four unmarried
daughters. This sudden tug on the family's pockets was the trigger
that activated Khade's entrepreneurial ambitions. DAS Offshore - named
after the initials of the three brothers - was established in 1995
without an ounce of external capital, according to Khade.


Their first project came from Mazagon Dock, their former employer. A
contractor had abandoned a project halfway and bids were invited.
Captain PV Nair, a retired Indian Navy officer and former chairman of
Mazagon Dock, recommended DAS for finishing the job, and so they were
awarded the contract worth Rs 1.82 crore. "I got all my supplies on
credit from people I had worked with," says Khade. Nair, who now acts
as advisor for DAS, says that Khade is "determined, hardworking, and
will take the work to its logical conclusion."

Having battled against both financial and social odds, one might
expect a dalit entrepreneur to favour positive discrimination towards
his ilk. Khade, however, is a staunch believer in merit, and rejects
the idea of giving more weightage to aspiring employees or vendors
from his caste. Less than 1% of his employees are dalits. "I believe
in quality control," says the man who once refused a job to an
underqualified nephew.

Dalit vendors, he says, are given a chance to match the competition's
price. As far as encouraging talent goes, DAS's capacity-building
programmes have trained over 1,000 employees so far. Das posted a
turnover of Rs 130-140 crore in 2010-11 and has an order book of Rs
550 crore. Khade says DAS does not have any investors and did not take
bank loans to start. Most of the funds, he says, came from
acquaintances and relatives because of the brothers' high performance
ratings. This is partly explained by Khade's


DAS Offshore's clients notably include ONGC, Leighton Australia,
Essar, Hyundai and British Gas Exploration & Production India. DAS has
developed a strong relationship with ONGC. NV Subramanium, executive
director of ONGC, who has known Khade for seven to eight years, says
DAS has a good reputation.

DAS is currently handling a sub-contract for ONGC's ongoing Jeevan
Heera reconstruction project, for which Essar is the main contractor.
Subramanium says that although there was a round of bidding for the
sub-contract, DAS was "indirectly suggested" by the main contractor
because of its track record. When asked if there is any caste
preference, Subramanium is as clear as Khade. "Caste is not even a
consideration when awarding contracts." The Khade brothers have their
respective strengths.

Khade says that he looks after quality control because of his
experience and skill in design drawing. Younger brother Suresh handles
labour issues, while elder brother Datta oversees goal management. In
a business like this, it is survival of the fittest. Khade admits he
has an advantage over the competition because of Suresh, a BJP MLA.
"Competitors try to strike just before a contract is awarded. It is a
cat and mouse game. Sometimes I am the cat and sometimes I am the
rat," he laughs, while admitting that he is extremely competitive.
Turning serious, he adds that honesty, hard work and love for one's
country are indispensable ethics for business. Prakash Malvankar, CEO
& vicepresident (projects) of Dolphin Offshore Enterprises , a rival,
concurs. "I have met Ashok Khade at conferences and we have regard for
each other. The DAS Offshore leadership is technically sound and
follows fair business practices."

Last year, DAS deployed 1,760 workers at Bombay High and finished the
work without LTI (loss of time or injury). The company has also
completed the skywalks at Sion and Ghatkopar, in Mumbai, and is
currently building two more in the city, at Airoli and Kurla.


With a Rs 3,000 crore project for ONGC recently wrapped up, DAS has
big plans. Its Sharjah office is nearly up and running. Khade plans to
launch the company's initial public offering (IPO) in 2012. In
addition, Khade has purchased 140 acres of land near Murud-Janjira,
where DAS is building its own jetty fabrication yard, India's first
private yard, projected to be operational by the end of the year.

The yard will employ 2,500 workers at peak hour. Khade also intends to
build a school, hospital and engineering college there. He has also
bought 100 acres of fields in his native village, where his mother
used to work as a farm labourer. When asked whether it was a business
decision or a personal one, he merely calls it a "cycle of nature" and
denies that any sentiment was involved. While Khade does not give a
preference to dalits in his work, his family gives back to their
community in different ways. One of his brothers arranges for the
wedding trousseau of each new bride in their village, regardless of

Khade has also renovated a temple in his village that used to stop
dalits at the gate - a promise he had made to his mother. He is a
devout man who visits Alandi and Pandharpur every month, and sports a
black thread from Tirupati around his wrist. A temple door covered in
55 kg of silver bearing his mother's picture has been installed at
Alandi - another tribute from her son.

Although he does not like to quantify, Khade estimates he has given
about Rs 50 lakh to his community. Reclining in his BMW 530, Khade
indulges in two minutes of nostalgic soul-searching. "You know, I once
met Mother Teresa at an international airport. I kept in touch with
her, and she called me Ashok. I was there at her bedside after she
passed away..." With that, Khade drives away, full of memories from
his meteoric journey.

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