Mon | Dec 18, 2017

From dream cars to dream homes - Manoj Ramchandani plans $2b complex

Published:Friday | October 13, 2017 | 12:00 AMHuntley Medley
Head of Dream Corp Investments Limited Manoj Ramchandani sits at the computer in his office at Rose Hall, Montego Bay.
Head of Dream Corp Investments Limited Manoj Ramchandani shows off cars on the Dream Auto car lot.
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Manoj Ramchandani made a pretty good living importing dream cars for a discerning auto clientele before broadening the business, in which he has invested some $200 million over the past four years, to include more 'bread and butter' models targeting a wider market.

Selling cars is his second venture after having cut his entrepreneurial teeth, so to speak, selling mobile phones and gadgets for nearly 14 years.

Now, the 36-year-old Montego Bay businessman and philanthropist is trying to make a major break in property development, with plans said to be on the drawing board for a $2-billion condominium development in the upscale Rose Hall suburb.

Already home to swanky resorts and upmarket homes, Rose Hall is also a stone's throw from the densely populated Lilliput land settlement community.

Ramchandani is keeping details of the planned development close to his chest for the time being, but told the Financial Gleaner in an interview that the plan is for 50 units, with a minimum price tag of $30 million each.

Construction is set for 2018, with the build-out being financed by a mix of bank loans and investors' own cash. He was tight-lipped on the number of investors and the investment split, but noted that his Dream Developers real estate company was the vehicle being used for the project.

He would not be drawn on his track record in the property market through Dream Developers, promising more details on that side of the business in the future, once the condos were on the market.

Dream Developers, Dream Auto and Tech City are subsidiaries of his Dream Corp Investments Limited.

Manoj is the only son of long-time Burmese immigrant to Jamaica Lachu Ramchandani and his Indian-Jamaican wife Bina. The couple also have three daughters.

Lachu, who came to Jamaica some 50 years ago, started work life as a 14-year-old wrapper in a Montego Bay department store. He later made a living as a travelling salesman peddling knick-knacks, before opening a gift shop with that name in the Rose Hall area.

In the early 1990s, the elder Ramchandani built the Blue Diamond Shopping Centre at Ironshore on Montego Bay's eastern outskirts and has been the franchise holder and organiser of the Miss Jamaica Global beauty pageant for many years.

Manoj followed his father into business, first opting for a cell phone dealership with Digicel. The business started out as Valu Cell and was later rebranded to Tech City, selling a broader range of electronics.

That business has seen its ups and downs - first expanding to some four locations in Montego Bay before consolidating into its current one outlet at the Blue Diamond centre. There, Manoj has paid rent from day one, first to another tenant who sublet him a small corner of the shop to sell the 16 mobile phones with which he started business, and now to his father.

It is in the sourcing and sale of cars that the younger Ramchandani, a former professional race car navigator and driver, really started making his corporate mark after a decade in the retail trade.

"I always had a passion for motor vehicles, and from I was a little boy I loved cars," he said. With a taste for fine fast cars, he soon developed a loyal clientele of persons who liked his cars and asked that he find and import similar high-quality rides for them.

Today, although his customer base has grown, Manoj says he feels like he is still selling cars to friends. "All my customers become my friends by the time the transaction is completed," he said.

At Dream Auto, Ramchandani does not try to be the cheapest seller of imported cars. In fact, usually he is not. He locates his competitive advantage in the personal service he is able to provide buyers, his eye for quality and knowledge of good, roadworthy models that are going to serve their new owners well for a long time.

"At times, I find that I am the brand. I buy and sell only what I love and recommend," he said, while noting that he spends hours each day questioning car makers, sellers and experts overseas and researching cars on the Internet.

Dream Auto's boutique car lot at the Bogue Industrial Estate is one of the few car dealerships that will boast a high-end Porsche, a Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, or a mid range Toyota CHR next to other regular Toyota and Nissan models. He sells both pre-owned and new vehicles sourced from Japan, Thailand, United States and select countries in Europe.

Dream Auto does not advertise and has developed a loyal band of customers from word of mouth, especially among first-time female car buyers, who make up the bulk of its customers.

"We play the role of adviser or the tax office, bank and insurance companies. We guide them through the process," said Manoj.

That process can be tedious and even nightmarish, with persons often having to take several days off from work to confront the bureaucracy that comes with buying and registering a motor vehicle. At one point, the businessman wanted to set up a 'sign and drive' service, where he took care of all the paperwork for customers, but said the hassle involved did not make that business model viable.

He is disappointed that doing business in Jamaica still has far too much red tape, but he believes the situation helps to limit competition and allows some businesses to stand out.

The Cornwall College graduate was a business major in school and earned an associate degree from Florida State University before a broken leg confined him to Jamaica where he continued his studies, earning a bachelor's from Northern Caribbean University and an MBA from Nova Southeastern University.

Business ownership for the young Ramchandani came after regular nine-to-five jobs as manager at appliance store ShopSmart and at the former United General Insurance Company. He is aware that he has bucked the trend in the Indian community of youngsters remaining in the family business pointing out that he has always wanted to do his own thing and establish financial independence.

Still, Manoj does help his father manage the elder Ramchandani's current real estate and is now chairman of the Blue Diamond strata committee. He says he will "transition back" into running the family business in later years.

Outside of business and as a Rotarian, the younger Ramchandani's pet philanthropic undertaking has been his club's project to retrofit the ophthalmology department at Montego Bay's Cornwall Regional Hospital and his personal $7-million initiative to purchase and donate 10 incubators to the neonatal unit at the hospital.

huntley.medley@gleanerjm.com