A success story

HE LOOKS very ordinary. Run-of-the-mill striped grey shirt, khadi dhoti, medium-rimmed glasses and well-oiled hair, combed back. But, hang on. Ordinary people do not leave secure jobs in the Ministry of External Affairs to run libraries, which is exactly what Luiz John did.

Owner of the Eloor group of libraries, John does not have the slightest resemblance to the popular image of the stressed out businessman. He appears so relaxed that you start wondering what kind of yoga he practises. However, he is quick to set the record straight; it is a matter of good organisation.

"I have a system in place that takes care of the day-to-day running of the libraries. I do not feel the need to go to my libraries to check on things," he says. Although he lives in Chennai, he has not been to the local Eloor in T-Nagar for six months.

In fact, John's success formula - what he is willing to divulge- can be broken down into two basic components: organisation and sincerity. If organisation is the cornerstone of his business, then sincerity is its bedrock. John says that had he not been committed in setting up good libraries, he could not have taken Eloor to where it is now.

Twenty-one years ago, he started the first Eloor library in Ernakulam, Kerala, in his wife's name because he was still with the Ministry of External Affairs as an Assistant Passport Officer. Every single paisa for the project was borrowed. John was driven by the unshakable faith that the need for good libraries existed.

"I would have been so happy to have a library like this when I was a student," he says. "If I wanted to do some real reading, I had to buy books or borrow them from friends. Public libraries always have the problem of low budgets. There is also so much damage to books by users who are unscrupulous."

John admits that Eloor is expensive because the reading fee is 10 per cent of the book price, up to a maximum of Rs. 60, but he defends this. If Eloor was not expensive, he contends, it would not be viable. It is not easy to run a commercial library.

It took about three years before John's first library even had a decent turnover, let alone profits. A year after, in 1983, he quit his job at the Ministry of External Affairs and registered his second Eloor library under his own name in Thiruvananthapuram. Since then, there has been no looking back.

It was mostly by trial-and-error that his library system took shape. "I don't know what library science is all about. I made my own rules. For instance, the books at Eloor are arranged by the authors' first names. People said it was wrong and that I should change over to the last name. I asked why, but no one gave me a convincing reason. So, we stick to first names," he says.

Based in Chennai for the last few years, much of what John does now is provide general management. His staff takes care of the rest. His analogy for his role in Eloor comes from gardening. "You plant a sapling and see that it has taken root. You water it until it's strong and healthy. Once you are sure of that, you move on to the next place." The next place John currently has in mind is Delhi.

In spite of everything, John says he has declined many franchise offers. "I have never prayed for worldly success."

Whatever he may claim, John is not untouched by the success of his libraries. As for most people who break the rules and make it on their own terms, his success is emblematic. "I will sprout in any work. If I could turn a non-business venture into a thriving business, imagine what I could do with a conventional business," he says.