Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Warm heart, great success

Trail-blazer forges new connections between India, Manitoba

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Hemant Shah has the classic personality of a trader and salesman.

His gregarious nature and aggressive good cheer (some might even say he's "pushy") would probably have made him a success wherever he was in the world.

But Shah, 58, came to Winnipeg in the late '70s determined to establish trade linkages between Manitoba and India -- at the time, not an obviously winning proposition.

Born into a prominent agri-business family in Bombay (now called Mumbai) -- his extended family still owns one of the largest gum producers in India -- he came to Winnipeg because that's where his older brothers were. (One brother, Vijay Shah, is in the retail business, the other, Dr. Chandu Shah, was the long-time head of obstetrics and gynaecology at Victoria General Hospital).

He may have had a privileged background, but Indian laws of the day prevented him from taking money out of the country and, like many other immigrants, he paid his dues working as a parking lot attendant and in an Indian restaurant in Winnipeg.

But he was determined to make a successful business career in his new country.

Since the family business background was in agricultural processing, it was a happy coincidence that there were agricultural industries in his adopted home to whom he could offer his international trade services.

Between Shah's irrepressible energy, impressive political and commercial contacts in India and various opportunities in Manitoba, a unique immigrant success story was created.

"I've done business in agriculture to aviation," Shah said. "There's nowhere else in Canada where you could do that."

Like many new Canadians, Shah has become intensely loyal to his new home.

"I always tell people in India: In Manitoba we may have cold hands but our hearts are warm," he said.

Over the years, there may not have been any other single individual who has done more flag-waving for Manitoba in India than Shah has.

That loyalty and Manitoba pride was partly instilled by the welcoming business relationships he found when he was an inexperienced new Canadian looking for a break.

For the past decade or so Shah, has been the full-time Asian sales manager for Cubex, the family-owned Winnipeg underground drill and municipal equipment manufacturer.

But before that, Shah blazed a trail for many Manitoba companies interested in doing business in India.

Over the years Shah cajoled, badgered and sometimes came to the rescue of local companies testing the waters in the massive emerging market of India.

When the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce was approached to establish relations with a chamber in India in the early '90s, Shah was contacted to forge the connections.

He became chairman of the chamber's India trade commission before India was associated with the fast growing BRIC (Brazil Russia India China) countries.

"In some ways, Hemant was ahead of his time," said Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce president Dave Angus. "Back then, India may not have really been ready to do a lot of international trade. Certainly it is now."

Shah is the first to acknowledge the challenges that Angus is suggesting.

"It's true," Shah said. "For many products there was 150-per-cent import duties."

That was the case with Shah's first Winnipeg customer, Kipp Kelly, the manufacturer of gravity grain separators.

Shah was given the chance to represent the company in a tender bid for 32 gravity separators with the Indian government's National Seed Corp. in the mid-'80s and he won it. (Unbeknownst to Shah at the time, his father owned two Kipp Kelly machines at his Bombay plant.)

When he got back to Winnipeg and met Bob Kipp, instead of the negotiated five-per-cent commission, Shah got a cheque for 15 per cent.

"I had told Bob Kipp that if we won the tender, I wanted a dinner at Dubrovnik's and he had lined up a special vegetarian dinner for me," Shah remembered. "That's what Manitoba is. That's how immigrants are taken in in Manitoba."

For Bob Lafond, vice-president sales at Legumex Walker (formerly Roy Legumex), Shah supplied the kind of international sales assistance that only someone with deep contacts could provide.

Twenty years ago, Lafond was left high and dry in a deal involving about 20 containers of Manitoba yellow peas.

"We typically did things with letters of credit," Lafond said. "But there were some political issues in this one deal and our Indian customer talked us into shipping with open terms."

But that was a mistake. The customer would not pay the $200,000 that was owed. After about a year of trying, Lafond called Shah.

He got on a plane, met the chairman of the bank involved -- another old family friend -- and within 48 hours, Lafond finally got paid.

"He certainly knows his way around," Lafond said.

In that case, Shah said it was not so much his connections as his reputation as someone who regularly does business in India.

All through the years in his business as a trade consultant, Shah has preached the importance of maintaining ongoing relations.

"I am known as someone who has been back to India for 35 years," he said. "That is sometimes the problem here. Businesses do not want to take the time to develop the relations."

In May, Shah is co-chairing the India-Canada Business Opportunities Conference-2012 Complementing Economies; Availing Opportunities in Winnipeg.

He said it will be the culmination of his career in international trade.

But he'll continue selling drill rigs for Cubex and doing his duty as a grandfather to his Manitoba family.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2012 J15

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