‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series, where we pose the same 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
Atul Shah, managing director, Nakumatt Holdings
1. What was your first job?
My first job was as a shelf stocker and general shop assistant at my father’s shop in Nakuru (Kenya). In this role, I would basically help on all fronts from stacking sacks, making deliveries to customers and manning the till.
From such a background, I am an all-rounder retailer at heart and can easily serve at the till, drive the deliveries truck, stock the shelves and even stock-take manually.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
I owe my career path to my father the late Maganlal Shah’s passion for retail. My father taught me the ropes of retail trade and provided a solid grounding for my career. All through, I’ve worked very hard to live his dream and expand the horizons for retail trade in Africa.
The main reason for my passion in retail trade is borne out of the fact that the retail sector is a critical economic driver. In Kenya, the economic survey has just confirmed that the wholesale and retail trade sector grew at a comparatively higher rate last year and is ranked second to the financial intermediation sector.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
The desire to be the best retailer in Africa providing value for my customers across diverse markets keeps me awake. In actual fact that vision, which is embodied in our Nakumatt 2.0 strategy keeps me going. In addition, the inspiration I derive from the hard work put in by Nakumatt’s 5,500 employees, hundreds of suppliers and associates always makes my day.
I am also proud to be playing a key role in social development by engaging in various activities. This year I’ll be proudly representing east Africa at the London Olympic Games as an Olympic torch bearer. I was recently nominated through Samsung Electronics to help raise awareness on the positive aspects of this region including our entrepreneurial capacity.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I believe I owe my success and that of the entire Nakumatt fraternity to a firm belief in God. Our almighty God has guided our paths and our continued personal and corporate discipline firmly anchored on serving our stakeholders with integrity and respect. Personally, I am a Hindu but proud that no Nakumatt branch is opened for business without a word of prayer every morning.
5. What are the best things about Kenya?
I am a son of east Africa in heart and soul. The best thing about my region is its people. In east Africa, you have some of the most happy, polite, hardworking and intelligent people in the world. Despite the obvious political and economic challenges, we still maintain a sense of pride and innovation that is truly authentic. Proudly east African!
6. And the worst?
In east Africa, even the worst of situations are easily turned into positives. Our resilience is second to none.
7. Your future career plans?
My plans will revolve around nurturing the next generation of retail leaders across Africa. My dream is to facilitate the training of retail management graduates in all African countries in collaboration with respective business schools. I also wish to see the recognition of retail trade as a key economic driver through the formulation of national retail trade development policies.
8. How do you relax?
I rarely relax given that a walk through any Nakumatt branch provides me with a soothing and calming effect after a long day or week at work. However, I do spare time to relax with my family and also play a stimulating game of volleyball with friends. I also enjoy taking the stress out by taking long walks and engaging in challenging sports like mountain climbing.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?
Simple, my message is the virtue of hard work, honesty and persistence. By all means, nothing comes easy!
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
Africa can realise its potential by improving on its governance and leadership. This remains our biggest drawback in development. We have numerous natural resources, which we can exploit for our common good.
Atul Shah is the managing director of Nakumatt Holdings, one of east Africa’s largest supermarket chains. He was named by the Financial Times of London as one of the top 50 emerging market business leaders.