Bhumitra’s journey from Indian boarding school to Palos Verdes prominence
Arun Bhumitra’s day begins at 4:30 a.m. at the Equinox gym on Silver Spur Road with 15 to 20 fellow, type A businessmen and businesswomen, among them Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems president Tom Vice.
“When I was a young engineer at Northrop, the president was a god. And now I work out with him,” Bhumitra said, still marveling, at 66, at his good fortune.
After working out, Bhumitra goes to Sea Bean at Terranea Resort for tea, then back to his ranch style Rolling Hills home, designed by Cliff May, the architect who created the ranch style home.
After breakfast and a 20 minute nap, Bhumitra leaves for his office at Arjay Plaza on Hawthorne Boulevard, at the foot of Palos Verdes. Arjay is a combination of his daughters Arielle’s and Jaya’s names. After meeting with his assistant of 18 years Carla Morgan, whom he credits with holding together his many projects, Bhumitra checks in with his tenants.
At the end of the day, Bhumitra runs on the beach, or returns to the gym, or boxes with a trainer at his home gym. He stays up to watch Jimmy Fallon on the “Late Late Show,” then sleeps for three to four hours.
Bhumitra opened his first cell phone store in 1987. Today he and his brother Maxy, who lives in New York, own 200 cell phone stores with 800 employees in 18 states, plus a cell phone store in Brussels and a software company in Ireland.
About five years ago, Bhumitra began stepping back from the family cell phone business to focus on real estate development in the South Bay, philanthropy and politics.
On a recent morning he stopped in to see George Mavro, owner of Blue Salt Fish Grill on Artesia Boulevard in Redondo. Mavro recently opened a second Blue Salt Fish Grill in Arjay Plaza. It took six, frustrating months, largely because of Los Angeles County Health Department delays.
As an example, Mavro was ordered by a health inspector to put a lock on an air conditioning unit. But the manufacturer said drilling holes for the lock would void the warranty.
“This is one of the reasons I’m stepping back from opening new cell phone stores. I’m tired of fighting the county,” Bhumitra said.
But real estate development brings its own set of bureaucratic challenges, Bhumitra noted. It took him six years to get a grading permit from the county for a single family spec home he built in Rolling Hills. The delays turned his anticipated $1 million profit into a $1 million loss.
Bhumitra’s mechanical engineering background helps explain the intensity of his frustration with government’s systemic failures. It also helps explains why he was a California delegate pledged to Donald Trump at the recent Republican National Convention.
Three months ago, Bhumitra received a phone call from Donald Trump’s California campaign manager Tim Clark asking him to be the 33rd Congressional District delegate at the Convention. The once illegal, Indian immigrant readily accepted the offer because of his appreciation for Trump’s business acumen.
“I saw what Trump did on the Riverside South waterfront project in New York. He stood up to the bureaucrats. He pacified the unions and the mafia and helped resurrect New York. He’s good at schmoozing and knows how to deal with people.
“A year ago, when he began his run for president, is when I was having my problem with the county building department,” Bhumitra added.
Bhumitra is not an ideologue, nor a partisan.
Over the past 20 years, beginning with $500 he contributed to the John Kerry presidential campaign, Bhumitra has made nearly 100 political campaign contributions, most under $1,000, according to OpenSecrets.com.
He was 4th District Supervisor Don Knabe’s election co-chair four years ago. But this year, instead of supporting Knabe’s anointed successor, former Manhattan Beach councilman Steve Napolitano, he is supporting former Los Angeles city councilwoman and current 44th Congressional Representative Janice Hahn.
“I support whoever I think can get the job done. I don’t care about parties. I don’t care about issues like gun control, though I don’t think people need assault rifles. That’s asking for trouble,” he said.
South Bay State Assemblyman David Hadley is currently a tenant in his Arjay Plaza. The Republican Assemblyman’s sign on the side of Arjay Plaza, in 5-foot tall letters, is seen by the 150,000 cars that pass by daily on Hawthorne Boulevard.
Bhumitra’s previous political tenants have included Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger, John McCain, and Craig Huey and Democrat Betsy Butler. A brag wall in his office has photos of Bhumitra with President Bill Clinton, former New York governor Rudy Giuliani, and President Obama’s chief of staff William Daley. In 2006, Bhumitra served on a Clinton trade delegation to Ireland.
Bhumitra has no illusion about his modest financial contributions buying him political favors. If they could, he notes, he wouldn’t have needed six years to get a grading permit.
His political contributions, he said, are an expression of his appreciation for his adopted country.
“Politicians have the power. If we want change, we need to change the politicians,” he said.
Bhumitra was born in Jaipur, the famous “Pink City” of northern India. His father had a good job at Indian Airlines until his unexpected death. Bhumitra was 14 and about to enter Bishop Cotton School, a boarding school modeled after the prestigious Harrow School in London.
His father’s death left his mother financially destitute.
“She camped out in front of the headmaster’s office for two days, until he agreed to grant me admission. Then she camped out another two days until he agreed to give me free tuition and lodging. Then she told him I had three brothers, who also needed free tuition and lodging.”
The headmaster acquiesced and Bhumitra and his three brothers repaid the favor, with interest.
The four brothers — Arun, Maxy, Shelly, who sells Mercedes in New York and Vijay who exports pharmaceuticals from India — established Bishop Cotton School’s largest ever endowment fund, which provides scholarships to underprivileged students. The brothers also funded the school’s computer lab.
Bhumitra traces his work discipline and his fondness for tea to his four years at Bishop Cotton School.
“We were up at 5:30 for tea in the mess hall. At 6 we ran, 6:30 was dress inspection. In winter we wore gray suits, white shirts and ties. In summer, we wore shorts, blue shirts, ties and calf-length, grey socks. After inspection we’d sing hymns, then go to class. At lunch there was a teacher at the head of each table who would counsel us. After school we had high tea, then we boxed, played field hockey, soccer or cricket. I played on the state field hockey team,” Bhumitra said.
Following graduation, he went onto Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology Nagpur, where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering.
At age 25, Bhumitra was one of 7,000 applicants for five managerial positions at the newly formed Bombay Marine, which had a contract to build freighters for Qatar.
His wife Marina was a medical doctor. But their financial situation was still not good.
“I made 700 rupees a month. That’s $10 a month. My wife made $8 a month,” he said.
One of the many lasting lessons from his classical education at Bishop Cotton is a fondness for inspirational, literary quotes. A favorite is from John Keats:
“I leaped headlong into the sea, and thereby have become more acquainted with the soundings, the quicksands, and the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea and comfortable advice.”
In that spirit, 10 months after landing the coveted, supervisorial job at Bombay Marine, Bhumitra boarded a plane for New York City. It was November, 1975. He had $3 in his pocket. In the mid 1970s, New York City was the murder capital of the country. Central Park was its ground zero, and despite it being winter, that is where Bhumitra slept his first week in America.
His youngest brother Shelly was already in New York, but Bhumitra resisted calling him until he found work.
“Luckily,” he said, “employers then didn’t worry about immigration papers.”
At the end of the first week, Bhumitra found a 3 to 7 a.m. job in a wire manufacturing plant. Then he found an 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. job in a machine shop and then a 4 to 10 p.m job at a sheet metal factory. His employers were all Long Island aerospace subcontractors. The Cold War was in full bloom.
By 1979, he had added to his resume an MBA from Dowling College.
“I was young and scrappy and hungry,” he said.
Marina followed him to New York. After completing her residency at Kent Oaks Medical School in Michigan she returned to New York for her psychiatry degree at Stony Brook Medical School on Long Island.
In 1980, Bhumitra was recruited by Northrop to come to California.
“I was always fascinated by California, with its year ‘round 70 degree weather,” he said.
A colleague recommended he buy a home in Torrance, He still owns the house.
At Northrop, he designed tools for making parts for the F 18 fighter bomber while also becoming an associate professor at UCLA, where he taught tool making.
But by the mid 1980s, the Cold War was cooling and defense spending declining. Bhumitra felt uncomfortable about the classes he was teaching.
“When I started teaching there was so much demand for tool makers that anyone who took my class could get $32 an hour and double for overtime. But then I saw aerospace going down and couldn’t in good conscience train people for jobs that didn’t exist,” he said.
He stopped teaching in 1987, and turned his attention to the newly emerging cell phone technology.
To learn the business, he took a 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift at Motorola in Fullerton. His Northrop shift, where he supervised 45 engineers, was 3 to 11 p.m.
“I wanted to learn how to manufacture cell phones. But I soon realized that was for the big boys. So I joined LA Celluar as a dealer,” he said.
In 1988, Bhumitra once again left a comfortable job for an uncertain, but more promising future. The early cell phones were the size of small toasters and cost $4,000.
“I made $1,500 a sale. But I had to make cold calls from Palm Springs to San Diego. People would say, ‘I’ve lived all my life without a cell phone. Why do I need one now?’ My customers were mostly doctors and lawyers. One day a vice president at LA Cellular said to me, ‘Why not concentrate on the South Bay, where there are plenty of doctors and lawyers.’”
Bhumitra took the advice, but for the first five years, business was shaky.
“Reception required line of sight with the cell towers and there weren’t many cell towers. The phones worked well in Torrance and the beach cities, but not in Palos Verdes because of the hills.”
Finally, in 1993, as the prices and sizes of phones dropped and coverage improved, business began to boom. His brother Maxy had joined him and over the next decade, they opened nearly 150 stores in 12 states. By the end of next year, Maxy plans to have opened 150 new cell phone stores in the Los Angeles area, adding to the 200 the family already owns across the country.
He described the Republican presidential convention as an inspirational experience where he was able to meet with figures such as the Indian Ambassador to the U.S., and San Diego Congressional Representative Darrell Issa, who once sold car alarms to Bhumitra. He said the convention left him hopeful that a Trump presidency will make government at all levels more supportive of business.
Bhumitra, despite his family urging him to slow down, continues to look for new challenges. But at least for a few weeks, he plans to follow his family’s advice. In September he will return to Bishop Cotton School for his 50th class reunion. PEN