‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series in which we pose 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
Meet the Boss: Adil Popat, CEO, Simba Corporation (Kenya)
1. Describe your first job
I came for a holiday from school in England and my grandfather unexpectedly passed away. So my uncle asked me and my cousins to help run the shop. My first job was selling construction material. I was 16 at the time and they gave us some pocket money as wages.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career, and why?
My father was a great icon in business in Kenya. He was very well respected and I thought of him as a university on legs. He taught us so many things which shaped the kind of person that I now am, in both business and in my personal life. He was a great mentor. I think the market had a very high regard for him, and so did I.
3. Does anything keep you awake at night?
Nothing worries me in terms of my business. I don’t worry too much. I think family worries you more than anything else. The one area where I am very concerned is making sure that my people are happy working at Simba. That is fundamental to me. If they are unhappy, then as a CEO I am not doing a good job. I want them to be happy because I think happy staff are very productive.
4. Describe the main reasons why you have been successful in business
The biggest quality that has brought me success is patience. One of the things we get wrong in this world is being impatient. Patience is a virtue because if you start rushing into things without thinking then you make lots of mistakes. I wasn’t always patient but am more today and it has really helped me. I like to get things done but understand not everybody is at my pace. When someone is not as quick but good at their job, then you need to be patient with them. Similarly, when you have someone who is too fast, you can be patient in order to slow them down.
Sometimes people seek quick returns but I am always patient knowing that if I do it right it will do well. There are so many examples where I have been told to get out of business because we were not making money. But today we are doing extremely well. I have taken my time to develop and make sure, patiently, to get it right, and then automatically it starts to.
5. What are the best things about Kenya?
The Kenyan people. I think you cannot get better people than Kenyans. They are the greatest people on earth. When I say people I mean everyday people are great, not the leaders. I look at our leadership and I think we are wanting. We need leaders who really lead. We have a shortage of leaders.
6. And the worst thing?
The worst thing about our country is definitely the leadership which I have already mentioned. I think we are seriously struggling with people who have only one motive in their minds: filling their own pockets. If they stepped aside and asked themselves whether they are creating a better environment for their own children I think most of them would not answer positively. I can tell you most of these people are creating an environment where their own children and grandchildren will struggle, for a short-term gain.
I always look at it and ask, “can we make our country better?” Yes, let’s profit out of it in a reasonable manner, but let’s also make it better.
7. Your future career plans?
What I want to do is create a very good business, step aside and let it run as a professional organisation. Of course I hope to be sitting on the board. We are very keen on giving back to society so we are now developing a foundation for Simba. I think that is my future goal. To really use that foundation to give back to society the good things I have been able to get out of it.
8. How do you relax?
I read a little bit, I play golf, once in a while I travel and I play bridge on my little iPad. My wife is a great bridge player so she and I try to compete.
9. Your message to aspiring young business people?
You need to work extremely hard in life, even if you are brilliant. This is one area where people tend to take shortcuts to make things easy. Take the harder route because it will make you a much better person. Integrity is fundamental; in your personal life, your business life and your professional life. Be honest and straightforward. People cheat and always want to make a quick buck but that never gets you anywhere because in the long-run people will figure it out and you will suffer for it. Lastly I would say have a lot of time for your family. That balance between work and family is extremely important. Do as much as you can to succeed without forgetting where your roots are from. At Simba we really promote family harmony.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
First and foremost we should remain African. We should not simply follow the west. There are some good things in the west but also some bad things. There are some social habits we are following blindly, and we shouldn’t be doing so.
The second thing is we should protect our natural resources. Our biggest challenge here is we are throwing them away. We don’t need to do that. We should be patient. We have it, people want it, they will come and get it, and they will pay the right price for it.
Third, we should provide good leadership and create an environment that is good for our children and future generations. All we are doing is forging ahead without thinking about what we are doing and what we are creating. I think it is very important for Africans to realise that there many challenges which can always be taken care of if we create the right environment. We have such good African traditions. In India too there are great traditions. But today India is going through the same social problems. Things that they used to do well they have forgotten about. Africa is exactly the same.
We used to have this concept of getting together as a community and deciding on issues but now we have forgotten it. Now all the dictators are coming to tell us what to do, and that is completely wrong.
Adil Popat is the CEO of Simba Corporation, a diversified Kenyan company with interests in hospitality, real estate and vehicle distribution, representing brands such as BMW, Mitsubishi and Mahindra.