‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series where we pose 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
Francis Grogan, co-founder and CEO, Zambeef Products
1. What was your first job?
My first job was milking cows for my uncle. He was a dairy farmer in Ireland and it was kind of a holiday job. My first real paying job just after I graduated was working for the Irish government, valuing land. I was 22 or 23. But my first job in the meat business was working for United Meat Packers and I was there for four years from 1987-1991 before I came to Zambia.
2. Who had the biggest impact on your career, and why?
My business partner Carl Irwin. He has been a huge inspiration to me. We have always gotten on fantastically… His strengths and my strengths have married very well over the years and that has probably been why the business has been a success. His vision and the fact that he was born and raised in Zambia have played a part [in growing Zambeef].
Carl is also very good at dealing with the different ministries, and obviously his financial skills have been a huge help. You can’t set up a business without money, and he has been the financier there. He organised the bucks from the banks to build a butchery and buy the cattle, and then collecting the money on the far side which is just as important – there is no point selling beef if you can’t get paid for it. So he was very good at the financial side and I was good at the operations side of producing the meat and products. Our strengths complemented each other.
3. Which parts of your job keep you awake at night?
I sleep very well. Nothing major keeps me up at night, to be honest.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
We really focus on our business. We work hard at it… and I think the word is passion. You have to be passionate about something in order to do it properly. If you are not passionate about it and you see it as just a ‘nine-to-five’ job, just to get a salary, I don’t think you’ll do that well. To be very successful you have to be passionate about what you are doing, and not worried about whether its Monday or Tuesday, Saturday or Sunday. You need to really put all your effort into it and if you do that, you will do well.
I don’t look at the clock. In farming and the kind of service industry business we are in, our busiest time of the week is Sunday morning. You need to be able to work the hours that demand it. That’s important.
5. What are the best things about your country, Zambia?
I think firstly the people. The people here are exceptionally friendly, easy going, relaxed and they embrace different cultures and are open to new ideas. They are also very welcoming people – I think that’s important. It’s important that the people you work with are pleasant and welcoming.
The business climate is very good here and enabling for business; and the climate for growing crops is also fantastic… There are always some frustrations but the country really does work. There is good rule of law, the judiciary is very strong here, the financial and communications systems are good, and infrastructure is improving almost every day.
6. And the worst?
I don’t think there is anything I want to change here. I just wish the currency would stay stable. That is probably the biggest problem and something that is totally beyond our control.
Zambia is getting there. Things have improved in leaps and bounds over the last 10-15 years, like you cannot believe. For example communications, roads and the accessibility of Zambia to the outside world has improved. Yes, there is a bit of congestion on the roads, but you get that everywhere.
So I think we have a fantastic economy. I think we have a very good enabling environment for businesses like ours. There is no other country I would rather be in to be honest… So in the big picture, I have no complaints.
7. Your future career plans?
We want to do what we do better, and keep improving. The business has become very diversified and diversification is great, but you do risk losing focus on certain parts of the business and we don’t want that to happen. We would also like to focus on improving our skills and human resources. Keeping up management skills is a constant challenge.
8. How do you relax?
My wife plays the piano very well and I like to listen to her. And my daughter is now learning too. Look, I don’t have many hobbies really, but when the business is going well I’m relaxed.
I go to Ireland every year for a few weeks and I also like going into the bush to see the game. Zambia has fantastic game parks and beautiful natural resources. So there are a lot of things to do outside of work.
9. Your message to Africa’s young business people and entrepreneurs?
Do what you are good at, but do it well. If you like tuning pianos, set up a piano-tuning business. If you like baking bread, then do that – but whatever it is, do it well.
You must also like what you are doing. I remember I used to say years ago that I would do this job for no salary. You need to love what you do. If you hate your job, you are wasting your time.
And don’t look at the clock for knock off at 5pm or 6pm. You have to work whatever hours are required in order to be successful.
In Africa – with all this opportunity zooming around its growing economies, and so much going on here – I think whatever you do, do it well, and you will do well too.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
Create an enabling environment for business. Politicians should be accomplished businessmen really. If I had a say in it I would say let business people with a proven track record and experience run the ministries. They can be paid well but they must be accountable…
And tax everybody properly. If companies come in here to compete, they must pay their taxes because it’s not fair on the local businesses already here if they don’t.
There also needs to be a stronger focus on agriculture. In Zambia we are way better off than most African countries in that we are self-sufficient in wheat, maize and soy, and almost beef… But Africa in general should be feeding itself, and we don’t. We need to fix that.
Francis Grogan moved to Zambia from Ireland in 1991 after applying for a meat factory management position he saw in the newspaper. He soon started working with Zambian Carl Irwin who had just qualified as a chartered accountant, and in 1994 the two started Zambeef. Today the company has grown into a US$300m plus business, and is a market leader in the production, processing, distribution and retailing of beef, chicken, pork, milk and dairy products, eggs, edible oils, stock feed, flour and bread.
Zambeef runs 122 retail outlets throughout Zambia, including Shoprite’s in-house butcheries, and has three wholesale depots. It has also set up operations in Nigeria and Ghana on the back of its partnership with Shoprite. Over the years the group has continued to diversify its offering, and is listed on both the Lusaka and London stock exchanges.