Remembering entrepreneur Chain Sandhu, who worked his way from janitor to CEO – The Indian SCENE

Remembering entrepreneur Chain Sandhu, who worked his way from janitor to CEO

Inspired by President Kennedy's promise to put a man on the moon, Chain Sandhu moved to America and built a globally successful automotive supplier.

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In 1969, Chain Sandhu landed in Detroit with his wife and child. All he had with him was $6 and a singular vision to pursue the American dream. Fast forward to 50 years later: Chain, who died this spring, is an immigrant success story.

But his path to success was far from ordinary.

Growing up, Sandhu had to contend with a difficult childhood. He was born in Punjab in Pakistan to an engineer father and a mother who was illiterate. When he was four, bloody violence erupted around his family after the British announced India’s partition into India and Pakistan. His father was killed in the savagery that ensued. It was now up to his mother to bring up Sandhu and his two brothers.

He grew up poor, but worked hard to overcome the odds. In many ways, it was his upbringing that molded him into the person he would become. Sandhu was the first in his family to attend university. He studied engineering at Guru Nanak engineering college, where he was known for being a good student and an accomplished athlete.

“He was one of the most optimistic people I’ve known. It was his belief that if you were willing to work hard and set your sights on something, you can achieve it.”said Jay Sandhu, Chain’s son.

It was this belief that drove him to take the many risks he would take later in his life.

His initial choice for a career was not that of an entrepreneur. In fact, once he completed his education, academia came calling for him. He began his career as a professor, teaching electrical engineering at Punjab University in Chandigarh. It was while he was here that he first heard about the promise that America held. It was 1962 and John F. Kennedy had just delivered his speech on the moon mission. It inspired Chain and he decided to move to America.

“At the beginning, my dad didn’t have a vision of being an entrepreneur. It was just about getting a job and feeding the family,” said Jay.

Chain joined a group of fellow Punjabi immigrants in Detroit and set out looking for a job. He soon found one at GM where he started work as a janitor before quickly moving on to work in the assembly line. He rose through the ranks and soon became a staff development engineer at GM. His dream job was to be a plant manager, but the company had only 50 openings for the role in a year and Chain’s name was not on that list.

“At that point, in 1986, he left GM to work for a friend of his in the industry and it was there that he saw what being an entrepreneur looked like. That’s when the seeds were sown,” added Jay.

Coupled with his experience at GM, Chain was ready to take the plunge. 20 years after working at GM and three years after working for his friend, he purchased NYX, an auto parts supplier.

“I thought it was very brave because after nearly 20 years at GM he could have rolled it out and lived a very comfortable life, but there was a part of him that always wanted to do more,” said Jay.

“I keep telling people who want to become entrepreneurs that it’s about your risk tolerance and how much are you willing to risk and dad at that point was willing to put it all on the table,” he added

A first time entrepreneur, Chain learned the ropes by voraciously reading all things business—books and articles. He soon realized that for the company to survive and thrive, power structures had to be decentralized. With a great team, the business was sure to outlast the competition. With that belief in mind, he hired the best in the business for various roles in the company.

And this philosophy worked, said Jay.

When Chain bought NYX in 1989, it started with 30 employees, 1.8 million in sales and one facility in Livonia. Today NYX has about 4300 employees, does between 600 and 700 million in sales and has 15 facilities that it functions out of, including a plant in Mexico.

“He related incredibly well to every level of employee at NYX. Nothing gave him more joy at work than walking the floor and talking to the frontline employees and people who were making products,” said Jay.

“His door was always open to anybody and his style was to be accessible, transparent, and kind,” he added.

Chain held his employees to very high standards, Jay said. If employees didn’t meet the standard, they would know it. But he also basked in their successes and was always ready to lend a helping hand, including by paying many for their education, all in the firm belief that NYX was at the end of the day, family.

Chain’s generosity didn’t end with helping NYX’s employees. He was seen as a big pillar of support for the Punjabi community in Detroit, serving on the board of his gurdwara and endowing the Punjabi mela for 20 years. He also established scholarships at the Guru Nanak engineering college, and at Madonna College and Butler University.

“Dad felt like if you were given so many blessings then you had to give back, that you had to support the community so that it stayed strong. It was just core to who he was,” said Jay.

On May 16, 2020, Chain succumbed to cancer. He leaves behind a lasting legacy. He found the idea of a multigenerational family business inspiring and that was his vision for NYX. Today, both his sons and grandson work at NYX, fulfilling that long held dream.

by Lakshmi Sivadas

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