Society

More than just a businessman

MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICES Jose Thomas   | Photo Credit: H. Vibhu

Last December, soon after The Choice School alumni meet, two young men sought an appointment with Jose Thomas, the President of Choice Foundation that operates the school. The young IT professionals told him that they wished to launch a business with him and pitched their ideas. Jose Thomas (JT) agreed to join them. They chucked their jobs and with JT created Choice Ventures, the newest in JT’s long list of business ventures.

“Nothing gave me more happiness and pride than associating with such a venture. Two brilliant youngsters, who studied in our school showed such pluck and maturity that it did not take me too much time to make a decision. This was the realisation of a dream—that bright and informed citizens from our school emerge to make a mark professionally and with social responsibility,” says JT, a second-generation entrepreneur who has built a business empire that ranges from frozen food and seafood to farming, shipping, construction and IT. The Choice Group has a total global turnover of 250,000,000 USD.

The Choice School is in its Silver Jubilee Year and now looks to expand to Thiruvalla and Kozhikode. “When I came up with the idea of a school that would be different from those around, many people asked me if I was mad. Looking back, I think it was a calling but it was also because I could not find a ‘proper’ school for two of my children at that time. Not blaming anyone, but the schools I went to lacked in energy, were dimly lit, there were those iron-barred classrooms and generally I felt children were not happy. My children went to one of these schools and this made me more impatient to get on with my dream project. And I decided to start The Choice School.”

The school, set in a 10-acre campus with an imposing infrastructure has around 2,500 children, 250 staff members, including teachers, helpers and bus drivers. “We keep adding and evolving with new ideas, facilities, equipment and concepts. For instance, every year we have teachers from abroad, who are paid salaries on a par with American schools, to teach our children poetry and story-telling. And we have 385 students studying free of cost. We provide them everything from uniforms to books.”

The school in Thiruvalla will become operational from the next academic year. It is already in the news for its innovative design and state-of-the art amenities. “The design has won a lot of appreciation. It is one of the six buildings in the Education sector nominated for the WAN Awards. The architects are Cetra Ruddy from New York and they have done an amazing job.”

For JT, the school and the state-of-the-art performance centre, JTPac, are not purely business. “I have not taken money from the school for even a litre of petrol. It is, like JTPac, a passion, a commitment. The school is my enduring contribution to society. When I die I’m certain that people will not remember me for anything else but the school—as my other businesses but the man who started The Choice School. JTPac is running on a huge loss. It was envisaged as a venue where Kochiites could experience theatre, dance and music in a world-class ambience. But I think Kochi is still not ready for it. If it was just business I would shut it down or simply make it a part of the school. With Mohanlal as its chairman, we still hope that there will be a change. Despite all our problems, we are still handing out financial assistance to for 20 artistes in various disciplines that runs to around Rs. 1 crore annually. And this will continue.”

JT was hardly 17 years of age when his father died and he had to take over his seafood business that had almost come to a halt. “I remember the tears in my mother’s eyes when she came to see me off to Japan. And there the Japanese refused to discuss business with a kid. Those early years were a struggle.”

JT began anew on from leased premises and went on to expand the Choice brand. He opened an office in New York, set up India’s first state-of-the-art shrimp processing plant in Kochi, exported ready-to-eat shrimp for leading US companies, set up a modern seafood processing plant at Nellore, moved into shipping adding many new lines to his fold and his Choice Constructions introduced to Kochi the concept of luxury high-rise living and gated colonies.

In 2004 he entered the retail food business launching ‘Tastee Choice’ across the US. And these meal kits, as they are called, became have turned very popular and are now set to expand to other countries. “Tastee Choice was first produced from Kochi. I had a small plant at Thoppumpady. We sourced farm-raised and ocean-caught shrimps, ‘exotic’ vegetables such as bell peppers, broccoli, zucchini, brussels sprouts, bush beans, carrots and baby corn from Ooty and Bangalore, imported pasta and with the famed Basmati rice and sauces we assembled a line of gourmet frozen skillet meals, in bright stand-up pouches. The regular red-tape and delays forced me to shut down production here and start anew in Pennsylvania, U.S.A. We used automated robotic technology here with only eight workers and production is running at 100 per cent. Now, we have 24 items under the Tastee Choice brand and the meal kits are literally flying off the supermarket shelves in the US. We will soon be expanding our business to Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Chile.”

Perhaps JT’s only dream that has not taken off soared is the launching of Choice Airlines. A qualified pilot, he made earnest efforts to get this flying, but the project hit air-pockets. “I have not given up on it. The high costs did put me off but I have begun work and negotiations to set it back are on track. This time I’m looking at small aircrafts and regional connectivity, say Kochi-Kozhikode three times a day. It will be a sort of competition for the railways. Hopefully, it will happen soon.”

Another project that JT would like to complete this year is a book that traces his life’s journey. Titled ‘By Choice’, it is written in association with K.L. Mohana Varma.


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Printable version | Oct 7, 2021 10:06:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/jose-thomas-of-the-choice-group-on-what-drives-him/article8331615.ece

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