How he makes the right moves by never resting on his laurels.
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
“The way you play sports or chess can reveal your character and how you do business: whether you prefer an aggressive or defensive play, or whether you like to take risks. For example, in chess, I like to play white all the time – I like to move first,” Haresh Ramchandani tells me with a smile at his office, where his chess trophies are displayed in pride of place behind him. “It’s an aggressive play. It tells you that I like to be the one to take that first step.”
A chess aficionado, Haresh waxes eloquent about the lessons the game can teach you about life, and the ways his gameplay is a microcosm of his business deals: “I want to win games in a way where the number of pieces isn’t important. I need to checkmate the King, not win simply by taking all an opponent’s pieces. To win is not always fun. I want the challenge; I want to try new things.”
And indeed, this drive to choose the road not taken can be seen in the many proverbial pies Haresh has his fingers in: not only is he the Co-founder of wholesale trading business Manila Enterprises, a partnership that he shares with his brother; but he’s also the Founder and CEO of Sky is the Limit, a company that owns Skyy Hotel in Sukhumvit Soi 1; and Wynn Real Estate, a property company. On top of that, he dabbles in the collection, trade, and professional repair of luxury watches and vintage cars.
“There’s a quote from a book I read that says something along the lines of, ‘there are two types of people: campers, and climbers.’ When I look at myself, I’m a climber,” Haresh says when I ask him about the impetus behind starting so many businesses. “That means that whatever I do in my life, I keep climbing. I don’t want to camp. This gives life a lot of meaning.”
But to climb, one must first start at rock bottom, and Haresh is someone who has experienced this at the tender age of 12. “My dad, Ghansham Ramchandani, passed away at a very young age, and at that moment, I had to become a man because I had to stand up for my whole family: my mum, brother, sister, and me,” he recalls. “Back in those days, my dad had worked 365 days a year, and he took no holidays. So when he passed, my mum, Renu Ghansham Ramchandani, took over, and I left school for a year to help her. Losing my dad was the most difficult thing, and I couldn’t accept it. It was also a tough time in my life, to leave school at that age, and when I came back a year later, things had changed socially. We didn’t have as much spending power – I could not have the best shoes, for example, and I never used to go to school dances because I didn’t have the clothes for them.”
However, he looks back on that time as the most transformational one during his formative years: “It’s one of the things that made me stronger,” he asserts. “I would not be who I am today if it weren’t for what happened.” Having been moulded by tragedy at such a young age, Haresh formed the tough skin he needed to push through all the other challenges life threw his way, particularly when his legacy family business had to close after two years, despite his and his mum’s efforts. “The whole set-up of Manila Enterprises started with my grandfather, Chuhermal Ramchandani, who founded the Manila legacy in 1931, when he opened his first retail textile shop under the name Manila Store. At the time, he was one of the first few Sindhis here,” he explains. “Unfortunately, he passed away the same year I was born, but our family spoke about him so much he became an inspiration to me. So it was doubly hard to let go of whatever my grandfather and father built at the time.”
Haresh refused to let this dim his go-getter spirit, however. After he graduated from secondary school at Ruamrudee International School, his mum put him in touch with Naraindas Navani, who he called a “very important person” in his life, and who got him a job at his company, Gulf Siam Trading. Haresh attributes most of his initial business and trading knowhow to Nairaindas, who taught him about exports while travelling around the Middle East. Despite his cushy position, however, Haresh never forgot about the family legacy he left behind and in 1991, he and his brother, Anil Ramchandani, decided to resurrect Manila Enterprises. Starting with garments, they now export garments and shoes to the US, the Canary Islands, and all around the world, with a particular focus on the Middle East and Africa.
But Haresh’s nose for entrepreneurship wouldn’t let him simply rest on his laurels, and hoping to create his own legacy, he ventured into real estate. He started with condominiums, then land, then Skyy Hotel which became very involved in medical tourism due to its proximity to Bumrungrad International Hospital and the Arab Quarter in Bangkok. The hotel also became home to a thriving watch business pre-COVID times, and I take this opportunity to ask him about his luxury watch collection that I’d heard much of, and he laughs. “Yes, from a very young age, I was into watches,” he reveals. “I remember my first watch, an Omega, which my mum saved up to buy when I was 13 years old, to make me feel better after the tough year I had. From there, I’d read up on watches, and when the time came, I started buying and collecting them, from Rolex, to Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe.”
The watch business is more than simply a restoration shop, he tells me. It’s a passion project: “It brings so much happiness to people for them to see, for example, an old watch that their grandfather had worn, come back to life. It’s more than just time in your hand, it’s history.” Another passion project that he’s recently started is his collection and restoration of classic cars, a few of which he showed us in his garage below the office. “I began by collecting a 1968 Volkswagen Type 3 Fastback and Notchback, and soon I had a Jaguar XJ6 and XJR, a Mercedes Benz W115 and W123, and a BMW E30 Coupe,” he enthuses. “I source them from all over – from eBay or areas in Bangkok that sell engines and machinery – and then my team and I drive around to different garages, look at the right colours, engines, etc. to restore them. It gives me a lot of knowledge about cars. And maybe I could eventually make some money out of this, too!” he adds on with a laugh. “I may not make much from it or I may even lose money, but I love it. It’s helped me realise that any business that I get into, I need to have a passion for it.”
This passion has helped keep him going despite the myriad obstacles he’s had to face as an entrepreneur over the years, most notably the COVID-19 pandemic. “I believe that any crisis teaches you how to keep a strong stomach and have faith that things will move on,” he says. “When people see a problem, many will jump ship. You need to stay on, stay calm, and stay focused.” And he emphasises the learnings he got from the pandemic in particular: “for me, it was one of the best things that has happened in my life. No, hear me out,” he says, when I express my shock. “Having challenges in your life will force you to change, and realise what exactly you need to do differently. The pandemic was that hit on the head that we needed.
“There were initially a lot of problems – we had a lot of shipments that needed to go out, and all our customers around the world were worried. Our buyers couldn’t go to the bank to clear our documents, they couldn’t go to the shops, and our Thai factories couldn’t store any of the goods long-term, and our warehouses were full of goods. My brother and I had to sit down and decide what to do, and in the end, I said, ‘I don’t believe it’s the end. Pay all the factories and we’ll ship all our goods.’ Although we had to allow our buyers to operate on credit to support them, they were finally able to pay us all after their markets started picking up. We renegotiated our loans, we turned our hotel into an ASQ, and we held on to our property – as inflation starts hitting the world now, property prices are going up again, and so will the prices of goods from around the world, due to shortages.
“The pandemic made us fight to keep our livelihood. We weren’t just taking things easy anymore. We realised we had to stand up, we had to think, we had to find a way out. And it kept us humble.” Another example of a crisis that taught him much, he tells me, was during the Lehman Brothers crisis in 2008, when he lost a significant deposit on some land. “It took me time to understand, and that was the first time that I went to Vipassana, where I went for ten days without talking or eye contact. The road of improvement came after the loss.
“When you’re too comfortable, your ego can grow, but the pandemic made us understand that there is no guarantee in life, and through everything, you just need to wake up, dress up, and show up – that’s my motto right there.” And it is that desire to continuously show up and improve himself through tribulation that he says is his biggest accomplishment through the years, one that he still works on. “I’ve seen myself change a lot over the years,” he reveals. “My ego has gone down, and I don’t seek the spotlight, I just want to make sure the show goes on. Life is a journey, and winning or losing is just a learning experience.”
In the end, he tells me, that is what makes a good leader, one who leads by example. “People often think that they need a prefix in front of their name to be a leader. But for me, all you need are good core values, such as humility, compassion, honesty, perseverance, and finally, gratitude. When it comes to business, being a good leader comes down to how you handle your team and if you can unite them. You need to give them space to share their own ideas, especially if it’s their area of expertise.”
This mindset, together with discipline, is how he has managed to balance all his entrepreneurial ventures over the years. “Never forget who has helped you in life. I have mentioned a few names today because I believe gratitude is important. Whether you’re rich or poor, we all have 24 hours in a day, so allocate time for everything you do,” he says. “One of the keys to balance is to only invest in things you’re passionate about. Otherwise, cut your losses and get out.”
However, none of this success would be possible, he tells me, without the support he’s gotten over the years, primarily from his family. “My mum is the greatest person in my life; she’s the backbone of the family,” he says, a little misty-eyed. “She always taught us good morals and good family values. I would not be who I am without her.
“My father-in-law, Vinai Sachdev, really did a lot for me, and continuously encouraged me. He was the one who taught me to never panic. Of course, my wife and kids have always given me a lot of support over the years. Another person I want to mention is my uncle, Dhanraj Ramchandani, who, after my dad passed away, was the one who taught me about sports, movies, and chess, and even the game Monopoly, where I learned to understand the property market. He was the one who really inspired me to go on the path I’m now on.”
I felt like this was an apt time to ask about his avid passion for sports and interests outside of work, and he rhapsodises a little on the role sports has played in his life: “sports give me discipline,” he explains. “I used to play a lot more in my younger days, but till today, I still explore Bangkok on my road bike during holidays when there are less cars, looking for a new coffee place to have an espresso as a reward; I kick-box with my personal trainer; I jog nearly every day at the Polo Club, and even logged 2,750 km for the year 2021, while simultaneously achieving the all-time highest number of laps per month at the club (1,111 laps or 550km in a single month); and I’ve even done half marathons around Bangkok and overseas. Marathons are kind of like life – you start off with so many people, and as you keep going, there will be fewer people around you. Often, you’ll want to give up because your mind tells your body, ‘enough,’ or vice versa. But at the end when the mind and body agrees with each other, you keep going. When you apply this to life, you’ll find any problems in your life you can overcome.”
As for new horizons he hopes to explore, he talks about carrying on his tradition of ‘adventurous travel’ in a post-pandemic future. “Professionally, there are many more industries I’d like to enter – we get older, but business is always young! My daughter, Shirin Ramchandani, is into wellness, so I want to support her, and maybe get into the medical, wellness, and sports spaces more. I think what’s important is creating a space where people are happy after coming to you. Perhaps a mini village for the elderly in Thailand, for them to live together and have a good time – often they just sit at home and they can’t meet people, but this way, they can meet others in the community, talk to each other, and maybe even do business! It will bring so much happiness. That’s definitely something I want to explore in the future; selling happiness to people.”