BY VEENA RAO
In the bustling world of entrepreneurship, where success stories often emerge from trials and triumphs, Jose Thomas, or JT as he is known, stands as a beacon of resilience and determination. As the CEO of the Choice Group, a conglomerate spanning diverse industries including shipping, construction, education and pre-cooked meals, Thomas’s story is one of relentless pursuit and the embodiment of the spirit of “If he can, I can.”
The tenth son among 11 siblings, Thomas’s entrepreneurial journey began at the age of 16 as he navigated the intricacies of a traditional Christian family in Kochi, India.
“I thought I was the best, but my dad, who had grandchildren older than me, did not recognize my talents. He wanted me to go to school, focus on studies, and not think about business at such an early age,” Thomas says.
The father that Thomas admired and looked up to from a distance passed away when he was just 16. Thomas speaks of the loss of his father as an incomplete death, a vision left unfulfilled, compelling him to step up and carry his legacy forward.
“I sometimes feel that my father incarnated into me,” he says.
Amidst family conflicts and opposition, Thomas dropped out of college and took the reins of Choice, his father’s seafood business. It wasn’t an easy path, with older siblings wanting to sell the business, but Thomas’s determination prevailed with the support of his mother, who was just 48 at the time of her husband’s passing.
In 1966 at the age of 17, he faced his first major setback. Scheduled for a meeting with Mitsubishi in Japan, Thomas found himself waiting at the company’s office for hours before an older Japanese gentleman enlightened him about their policy against engaging in business with minors.
“We don’t do business with children,” he was told. Although crushed with the rejection, Thomas returned home and committed to mastering the Japanese language, understanding the culture, and specializing in their system, turning adversity into an unwavering determination that would shape the trajectory of his entrepreneurial journey.
Thomas credits this experience for his future business expansions. Drawing inspiration from the Japanese business model, he strategically split divisions, diversifying from seafood to shipping, construction and education.
The Choice Group’s story took a global turn when Thomas opened his first office in New York in 1986. The experience of standing by the World Trade Center ignited a spark, inspiring him to enter the construction business in India.
In the early 1990s, driven by a sense of responsibility for the town that molded him, Thomas established the Choice School. An 11th-grade dropout himself, Thomas recognized the need for an educational institution that prioritized holistic development over mere academics. The Choice School has since evolved into one of the country’s premier educational brands. With over 3,000 students, the school boasts a stellar record of producing doctors, engineers, and even placing students in prestigious institutions like the United Nations and NASA.
Then came Tastee Choice, his pre-cooked meal brand in the US, which is now available at over 48,000 retail and food-service locations across the country.
“Tastee Choice was born out of my desire to break away from middlemen and offer better value and quality. I learned from experiences like dealing with Contessa, a leading company in California, and decided to create my brand in 2000,” says Thomas who now divides his time between India and New York.
Thomas’s philosophy extends beyond business, emphasizing integrity and ethical practices. Despite facing the temptations of corruption and shortcuts, he says, he has held firm to his principles, building an organization based on doing the right thing. He shares a pivotal moment in his life at 17, where a brush with the law shaped his commitment to honesty and integrity.
“It was a time when the Reserve Bank of India tightly regulated foreign travel, and obtaining permission to leave the country was a cumbersome process. Desperate to attend a business meeting in Japan, I had spent months pleading with the Reserve Bank for the necessary approvals,” Thomas says.
However, the journey took an unexpected turn. A well-intentioned acquaintance handed Thomas $400 in cash, urging him to keep it safe for his travels.
“Little did I know, this seemingly innocent act would lead to a confrontation with the law,” Thomas says. “As I went through the customs and immigration process, a wave of fear washed over me. The officials, suspicious of a young traveler, bombarded me with questions about my destination, purpose, and, most critically, the amount of money I was carrying. In that crucial moment, fear gripped me, and I uttered the first lie of my life – I claimed to have only $500, conveniently omitting the additional $400 tucked away in my pocket.
The situation escalated as customs officials scrutinized my belongings. This experience left an indelible mark on my young mind, and the fear of being on the wrong side of the law became a guiding principle in my life.”
“I vowed to build my life and business on the foundation of integrity and righteousness. The ordeal taught me the importance of ethical practices, and I carried this lesson with me as I navigated the complexities of business in India and beyond.”
With five children actively involved in the business, Thomas envisions a legacy where his principles and values continue to guide the Choice Group.
What is Thomas’s definition of success?
“Success is not just about money or power but about recognition and acceptance. True success, in my eyes, is when people remember the positive impact you made on their lives. It’s the legacy you leave behind, and for me, success is an ongoing quest, not a destination,” he says.
And his recipe for success?
“Knowledge, innovation, adaptability, technology, human resources, capital, commitment, and a never-say-die attitude.” These elements, combined with a strong commitment to ethical practices, have been the cornerstones of his success, Thomas adds.
His memoir, “By Choice,” published by Harper Collins India, will be launched at the Indo-American Arts Council’s 2023 Literary Festival. The event is scheduled for Saturday, November 18th, at 5:00 PM and will take place at the Conrad New York Downtown.
Attendees will receive copies flown in from India and can get them autographed by the author. Thomas will also receive the IAAC 2023 Trailblazer Award at the IAAC Annual Gala, which will be held on Sunday, November 19th, starting at 6:00 PM at the same venue.
“I wanted to share my journey with my children, hoping they would read and learn from it. The aim was to inspire a change in mindset, encouraging people to earn their success with righteousness and ethical practices,” Thomas says.
The memoir also serves as a guide for the next generation, emphasizing the importance of integrity, commitment, and the never-ending pursuit of excellence.