K. Muraleedharan, MD of Southern Franchise Company, began his successful entrepreneurial journey in the UAE

In the early Seventies, with its spilling oil wells and growth of free trade, the United Arab Emirates was an El Dorado. Thousands of young hopefuls touched down on the ‘Promised Land’ seeking their destiny. Most of them struggled against hostile conditions, while some showed inherent entrepreneurial skills to build envious business empires.

Kesavan Muraleedharan, managing director and chairman of Southern Franchise Company (SFC Group), cut his teeth in business during those tough days going on to become an integral part of the transformed, modern, organised land that UAE is today.

Starting off with Southern Fried Chicken Restaurant in Abu Dhabi, an instant success, led to the establishment of several more related companies in the hospitality sector. Today, the SFC Group that Muraleedharan heads is a hospitality conglomerate in the UAE and India that includes hotels, restaurants, catering and life support services, dairy farming, real estate, and health care.

First outlet in India

The company launched the first outlet of the popular Southern Fried Chicken Plus (SFC Plus) brand in Kochi recently, which incidentally is the first in the country.

Muraleedharan’s life and meteoric rise reads like a story with twists, adventure, and toil. “I was just average in studies,” says this soft-spoken, confident entrepreneur, who hails from Anchal, Kollam. “My brother studied in Aligarh Muslim University. He had a Sindhi friend whose father had a business in Abu Dhabi. After studies my brother joined that business. In 1976, he took me along. I did not realise that it was going to change my life,” he adds.

Till 1990 Muraleedharan worked with K.M. Brothers National Co. LLC. He rose from an accountant to a managing partner of the company. That was when he decided to break free and start something on his own. “The only condition that my boss, K. M. Bhatia, had was that I should not turn a competitor. I promised him that.”

Muraleedharan opened a small coffee shop in a gas filling station. “For one year I did this. My contract was not renewed. I found that they had given it to an international fast food chain. I realised the importance of an international link, especially in the evolving business climate of UAE those days.”

Armed with training from London in the fast food system and procedure, Muraleedharan launched Southern Fried Chicken in 1992. Now re-launched as SFC Plus, this quick service restaurant chain has managed to take on the other brands in this sector head on, “perhaps more popular than them in the UAE.”

Ask him why it took so long for him to move into his home state and Muraleedharan turns a bit bitter. He had made plans to invest in two projects but had to withdraw. “The first was an amusement park, Southern Fun City, with American know-how, and the other was a five-star resort in partnership with Hilton, at Vizhinjam. Both of them did not take off beyond a lot of preliminary work. A lot of money and man hours were lost. Issues kept cropping up despite assurances and clearances. I was fed up. I had a taste of the problems that an investor faces in the state.”

Ironically, a Jaipur based organisation honoured Muraleedharan with the Nexzen Excellence Award for his role in promoting Rajasthani food and culture. His India Palace restaurant chain that has outlets in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah, is ‘authentically Indian’ with Mughal and Rajasthani décor, music, art and food. “I pick artisans, folk artistes and cooks from Rajasthan and that has done wonders. And we have a faithful clientele.”

SFC Group also runs the luxury Avenue Hotel, Deira, close to the Dubai International Airport.

Once a month Muraleedharan makes sure he comes to Kerala where he oversees numerous charity and philanthropic projects he has initiated. “There’s so much to do. I have always maintained that if one cannot see the person near you there are chances that you will not see the Creator. Sharing with the needy gives you so much satisfaction. Like my mother at home in my village, there are so many mothers who wait for me to come to them. And I do that unfailingly.”

In these days when self-financing educational institutions have mushroomed and made the ‘owners’ millionaires, Muraleedharan sets an example. Founder Chairman of Vidya Academy of Science and Technology (Thrissur) that has achieved academic excellence in a very short span, Muraleedharan chose to step down after 10 years as chairman and leave the management to professionals.

Catering

He cherishes the smile on the faces of the labourers of the oil wells in the Gulf where his industrial catering unit serves them meals every sweltering afternoon. He also conducts regular medical camps for them.

Muraleedharan is certainly an ambitious entrepreneur but one who has his feet on terra firma, one who loves to extend a hand of help for those in need.