By Choice: How Jose Thomas scripted a success story for Choice group


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When a 17-year-old boy from the reputed Olassayil family was asked to fill in the shoes of his late father OC Thomas with his two brothers in 1972, he was foolishly optimistic. He was confident of taking his father’s legacy Choice Canning Company, a shrimp export firm from Kannamaly in Kerala’s Kochi, to dizzying heights. It was this ludicrous self-confidence that helped this teenager metamorphose into JT (acronym for Jose Thomas) of Choice Group — a multi-million dollar business conglomerate dealing with seafood export, processed food, real estate, shipping and education.

‘By Choice’, a biography written by veteran journalist Vinod Mathew, provides a peek into the tumultuous and unconventional journey of one of the most successful and brilliant strategists, Jose Thomas. His journey — from Gillette Jose, a school boy who sold razor blades for pocket money, to Chemeen Jose in Chennai and later to the Shrimp King in the US and finally into a brand called JT— is an exciting read.

An aerial view of The Choice School in Kochi. Photo courtesy: Website/

A story of failures
“It’s a story of failures than successes,” Vinod Mathew writes in his author’s note, quoting JT. In fact, this quote sums up the book. Unlike most biographies which highlight success stories while glorifying the struggles of the protagonist, ‘By Choice’ boldly celebrates JT’s success story by highlighting his choices that went wrong.

When he took the plunge to launch Choice Airlines spurred by the liberalisation era in the 1990s despite the misgivings by his dear ones, he lost everything. The loss of Rs 900 million was more than what Choice group could bear at the time. But unfazed by the crisis, the Group rose like a Phoenix under JT’s leadership. His uncanny ability to pull a Houdini act in any Catch-22 situation even impressed billionaire industrialist Gautam Adani.

Reading about the young entrepreneur’s colossal failures is sure to leave one dispirited if they did not know of JT’s success story beforehand. His firm resolve to establish a foothold in Madras despite the multiple failures and strike a deal with the Japanese irrespective of his embarrassing encounters are cases in point that show that Jose Thomas was born to be a businessman. It is this risk-loving behaviour coupled with grit and determination that allowed him to establish the Choice Group headquarters in Chennai years later.

Jose Thomas, CEO, Choice Group. President, Choice Foundation. File Photo: Manorama

Dream, diversify and never miss an angle
Walt Disney once said, “Dream, diversify and never miss an angle”. One could argue that this was the secret mantra that guided the entrepreneur in JT. The book speaks of how JT ventured into a wide array of businesses — shipping, airlines, construction, ready-to-consume food products, education and performing arts — instead of sticking to the seafood business handed down to him. Over the past 50 years, JT travelled far and wide, and anchored on the shores of Maldives, Colombo, Sudan and finally New York to achieve his dreams.

Though diversification into shipping through Maldives Shipping, US Lines, Ceylon Shipping Corporation etc may be considered a natural progression for a seafood exporter, many of his other ventures were in no way connected to his existing lines of business.

While the yearning to dream big and diversify cost him dearly when he chose to pursue ‘Choice Airlines’, the same drive persuaded him to launch ‘Tastee Choice’, a retail brand of ready-to-consume food products in the US.

The biography speaks of a weird entrepreneurial ‘spirit’ taking possession of JT at various junctures. In fact, the fear of limitations never held back this ‘spirit’. His educational qualification (or lack of it) did not hold him back when he launched Choice School, one of the most reputed education institutions in Kerala, and the conservative real estate market in the state did not prevent him from starting a venture for luxury living — Choice Constructions.

Corparate office complex of Choice Group in Kumbalam. File photo: Manorama

JT, the art lover
One of the best things about Jose Thomas is that he is unapologetic about living a life of luxury. Jose’s meticulously planned, lavish parties at the Taj Malabar Hotel and adventures within the Willingdon island during the toughest of times detailed in the book show that the entrepreneur discovered the importance of networking way before conservative Kerala was exposed to the marketing strategy.

The biography also speaks of how the man put in efforts to maintain ties with politicians, actors, sportspersons and businessmen. It was his close ties with former India cricket captain Kapil Dev that saved Choice Constructions’ first ever venture. He also enjoys close ties with Malayalam actor Mohanlal. Writing the foreword for the book, Mohanlal calls JT a ‘resilient, dynamic, street-smart person with enormous courage’.

Jose Thomas with Mohanlal at the inauguration of a Choice Constructions’ project. File photo: Manorama

The fact that the Malayali entrepreneur conceptualised the Jose Thomas Performing Arts Center (JTPac), years before the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NKACC) became the talk of the town for encouraging performing arts in Mumbai, shows how JT was nothing short of a visionary. Over the years JTPac has emerged as a popular spot for cultural events in Kochi featuring the likes of Pt Ravi Shankar, A R Rahman, Shobana, Osi Bisa and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan.

In short, the book on the life and times of Jose Thomas can be a delightful read for business students looking for inspiration or an ordinary soul looking for a dose of motivation.

By Choice: How Jose Thomas scripted a success story for Choice group

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