Meet the Boss is a How we made it in Africa interview series in which we pose the same 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
1. What was your first job?
I started my own car [dealership] at 22. I was very fortunate [as] my late father gave me startup capital… he obviously had confidence in me. It was a very simple agreement… get through university, come out the other side [with] the highest possible grades and then he would give me startup capital. It was a nice way of making sure that I was looking at that as an incentive to grow up because I think we all believe that once we come out of university we are all grown up.
[He gave me] a lot of money: £440,000. [This was] in 1986. He said: “You can blow it or you can make it.” There were conditions and he put in certain control mechanisms like trustees and I could only invest in legal and moral activity. I decided in my mind, as any hot-blooded male at the age of 22 does, that I was going to retire at 40. So, I missed the mark… a lot because I haven’t retired and I am 50. I ran my business for 22 years and… built it into a fairly substantial business and then sold out at 44.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
My father because he gave me startup capital. He was a very humble man but a very clever man. He started off on nothing. He came from a large family and he married my mother – unlike most Indian families against both parents’ wills. He worked in the UK in the 1950s for the Ford Motor Company, then Fiat back in India and when he came to Kenya in 1960 he was the boss of sugar companies. He was very humble, clever and a huge family man.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
None. I have lots of worries but I do know one thing: if you stay up at night, you won’t perform during the day. I sleep because I am a disciplined person. I just go to sleep. I have just trained myself that if you sleep well, you work well.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
You have to be humble. I would like to say I am humble, but I am not. I think you have to be a realist. First quality is humanity… second, and I am not preaching, but spirituality. I don’t mean spirituality by saying I go to the temple, or I go to the mosque or I go to church. I love animals for example, and I feel that when I feed an animal I feed many souls. So, humanity and spirituality first and foremost.
5. What are the best things about your country, Kenya?
The best thing about Kenya: friendly people.
6. And the worst?
7. Your future career plans?
I said to myself I would not work in the car industry [after selling my business at 44] and I would take a year off work – I did neither. I am afraid I might fate my future plans if I make a statement. I intend to be in this seat as long as I do this job to the satisfaction of the shareholders of this company and, of course, the satisfaction of the business needs. I intend to be in this seat for some time to come.
8. How do you relax?
I spend time with my wife and, when my daughter is over, with her and my pets at home. I am a bit of a home bird. I like my home. Unfortunately or fortunately, I travel a lot, depends on how you look at. People think it’s glamorous that you are hopping on a plane doing this [and] doing that. Frankly speaking, I have to do it for my job. I don’t really like travelling, per say. I enjoy being at home.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring businesspeople and entrepreneurs?
Research… is the first thing you should do to understand what is selling in the market place, how much it is selling for [and] who are your competitors. [You should] spend as much time as possible finding people who are passionate to run that business. The first and foremost bloodline of a business should be passion. My advice to anybody who is starting now, be passionate and surround yourself with passionate people.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
I think we should recognise that we are part of one continent and borders are really there to have your territory so much like having your home in a really nice development. You have your fence and you have your gate but you are neighbours. If you have too much electrical wire between neighbours, you are never going to meet. In my opinion, [Africa should] open up the borders, trust each other and trade with each other.
Sanjiv Shah is the CEO of RMA Motors Kenya, a subsidiary of Thailand-based RMA Group, one of the world’s largest Jaguar Land Rover dealers with businesses in over 64 countries. Shah has been in the car business for 28 years and has worked with leading auto brands in different executive positions.