Rakesh Sardana: From souvenir seller to Austrian millionaire

November 9th, 2008 - 1:26 pm ICT by IANS  

Vienna, Nov 9 (IANS) Rakesh Sardana, Austrian millionaire of Indian origin, prefers to talk less about business and more about times when he was as poor as a church mouse.The 55-year-old Dehradun-born businessman recalls winters when he used a hair dryer to keep himself warm in a stone cold room in this Austrian capital.

“My only wish then was to have a kitchen full of food,” Sardana told IANS at the posh Caviar House situated in downtown Vienna’s most fashionable street corner that runs into Mostly Mozart, the country’s most popular chain of souvenir shops.

Today Sardana owns both Mostly Mozart and the franchise for Austria of Caviar House, a chain of restaurants, shops and seafood bars.

With an eye on the entrance and a smile for all those who step into Caviar House, the soft spoken Sardana talks about himself against the background of shelves stacked with fine Iranian caviar, smoked salmon and vintage champagne.

The reigning lord of retail, his empire includes 29 stores at Vienna’s international airport including Caviar House, Body Shop, Tie Rack and Swarovski. Since 2002 Sardana has had 16 outlets at New York’s JFK airport and two at Boston airport. He continues to buy prime property in the heart of Vienna.

Sardana was brought up in Pondicherry (now Puducherry). At the age of 21, he hitchhiked into Europe to fulfil his yearning to see the world.

Sardana stopped in Vienna to visit his sister whose family had come here after immigrants of Indian origin were expelled from Uganda in the mid-1970s.

His dream destination then was the US, the place of birth of his idol Elvis Presley, and the land of endless opportunities. The next five years were spent in trying to get out of Austria, a landlocked country with a different culture and language.

Sardana sold silk scarves and jewellery at the Prater, Vienna’s gigantic, open-air amusement park. To make both ends meet he manned a souvenir shop at Vienna’s annual Christmas market. But the money was never enough to buy a ticket to the US. He rented a small stall at Vienna’s International Airport instead.

“In 1983 the dollar was high and I sold Austrian souvenirs. I was delighted to find American passengers swarming around my stall,” Sardana said.

The airport authorities were naturally delighted with the profit as they receive a cut from the sales. Sardana leased a second stall at the airport. Around this time the airport reported a record rise in the number of passengers, including from the formerly closed world of Eastern Europe. The number of long haul flights to Asia had increased and also the number of low cost carriers.

Sardana’s fortune soared as air travellers blossomed into big time shoppers and retailers decided to go global.

Today Sardana cannot imagine trading his home in Vienna for anywhere else. His experience is that anyone who plays it by the rules here is readily rewarded by the unique working culture of his adopted country.

The vision of Barry Gibson, former group retail director of British Airport Authority (BAA) was a huge inspiration to Sardana. Gibson is responsible for bringing the High Street concept to Heathrow that transformed shopping at airports into a multi-billion dollar business.

Sardana counts Russians and Asians as the biggest spenders at airports these days.

“It is all about brands. Money is not an issue with today’s traveller who finds it sexy to buy Italian brands at an international airport without having to travel to Italy,” says Sardana, claiming that he is not as crazy about brands as his customers.

He is happy to drive a 10-year-old Audi that makes a lot of noise and to have his clothes tailored at an unknown, inexpensive shop.

The immediate dream of Sardana who spends a good part of his time flying around the airports of the world is for an African Safari where he craves to be with animals for a change.

(Mehru Jaffer can be contacted at mehrujaffer@yahoo.com)

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