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Building dreams for millions

Navjeet Singh Dhillon, aka Bob Dhillon, was in his teens when his family migrated to Canada from Liberia, where they had suffered business losses. It was the mid-seventies and the future was uncertain, writes Pankaj Vohra.

delhi Updated: Nov 21, 2009 23:55 IST
Pankaj Vohra

Navjeet Singh Dhillon, aka Bob Dhillon, was in his teens when his family migrated to Canada from Liberia, where they had suffered business losses. It was the mid-seventies and the future was uncertain.

Today, Dhillon is a billionaire, probably the only Sikh billionaire in the world, a real estate tycoon who’s frequently referred to in the Canadian media as the ‘biggest Asian landlord’.

It’s been an extraordinary journey for Dhillon, who was in Delhi earlier last week as part of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s three-day official visit to India.

Dhillon, whose family originates hails from Tallewal village in Punjab’s Barnala district, claims he has always been fascinated by the country of his forefathers.

What’s more, he has a solution for India’s housing problem. India must tap institutional money, he says, and use technology.

But first, “it must amend some of its rules to suit foreign players. The ownership rights need to be redefined, there must be repatriation of capital and, above all, there must be clarity on landlord-tenant issues. Real estate operators here make houses only for the rich or middle classes. But once institutional capital becomes available, there can be housing even for those who now live in rural areas or are poor.”

Capitalism is his religion, declares the clean-shaven Sikh who was born in Kobe, Japan. India, says Dhillon, has a massive market.

“I believe that there should be cheap houses available to the common people, but not by incurring a loss. The policies need to be right. We can provide low cost housing, but people like me will come here only if there is something for us. In the US, their economy suffered because real estate crashed. In India, it can help in boosting the economy.”

Dhillon entered the real estate business soon after moving to Canada, and in his very first venture doubled his investment.

After that first success, there was no looking back. He was a millionaire at 21. Now at 45, Dhillon owns three companies, one of which, Mainstreet Equity Corporation, enjoys a top billing at the Toronto Stock Exchange.

His present obsession is converting a 3,000-acre island he acquired in Belize, a tiny nation on the Gulf of Mexico, into a world famous resort.

He hopes that the rich and famous from all over the world will want to buy space in this virgin territory which has reefs and where Dhillon has transported power through submarine underground cables all the way from the United States.

Madonna, Tiger Woods and Leonardo Di Caprio are already his neighbours in the development, which was virtually a swamp when he bought it. The Ritz may also follow suit shortly.

Dhillon is determined to make his ambitious venture a success. “I chose the spot since it is only two hours away from the US and is a heritage area.

It has turquoise water and unexplored beaches, and reefs where no man has ever stepped before’’.

His success and wealth have brought Dhillon tremendous clout, which he would like to use now to help India solve its low-cost housing problem. “I have the experience of turning even ghettos prosperous. I am sure that with Dr Manmohan Singh as the prime minister and Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia in charge of planning, the country can devise a good and viable policy.”