‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series where we pose 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
Vimal Shah, CEO, Bidco Group
1. What was your first job?
When at university I got a job selling life insurance. I was paid based on commission. The success rate was 3% or 4%, so out of 100 people you met, only three or four would buy. Most people don’t want to talk about death and nobody wants to think they are going to die, so they would always postpone conversations about life insurance. But on that job I learnt how to penetrate mindsets.
2. Who had the biggest impact on your career and why?
My parents. When I was younger, from age 10, my father would take me to his garment factory to mingle with staff, study the business, go round the factory and see what they were doing. In my mind I knew one day it was business I wanted to do. So the space I hoped to be in as an adult was already clearly defined. I was excited by the idea of creating new things, making new products and became innovative, introducing new types of collars and suits. My parents having a business, and allowing us access to go there, made all the difference.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
Non-performance. When you set out a goal and say you want to achieve something then you procrastinate and you wait. That keeps me up at night. Why am I waiting?
4. The top reasons why you have been successful?
I am driven by vision and I am inspired by what I’m doing. I have aligned myself with what I believe is my reason for existence: to enhance ‘healthy happy living’ (the motto of Bidco). I believe in mutual respect, in not being arrogant, in developing new ideas and changing all the time. I believe in being customer-centric. When the customer’s needs change you must change quickly. That way you will never lose the customer. Give customers what they want and how they want it. So you need to keep changing your product all the time.
5. The best things about your country, Kenya?
I think everything in terms of logistical location, the weather and the environment. The best is human capital. The people here are brilliant. They have fire in the belly, they have hunger for getting things done, they are not lazy and they are driven by passion too. So the human capital here is excellent. The operating environment is far more liberal and civilised.
6. And the worst?
The worst thing is the lack of values among our youth and a lot of our people. They lack the values of integrity, of conviction and of getting things done. Having said that, there are still many who are very clear about getting the right thing done.
The only thing we need to work on is the insecurity problem, which, in my opinion goes back to values. In some places I think there is mediocrity. We don’t put the right people up front. There are mediocre people and therefore you see lapses in security or lapses here and there. Overall, I think it is a work in progress.
7. Your future career plans?
I mentor so many people. I love the energy of young people coming up with new ideas. I am an advisor to many of them and would like to continue doing that.
8. How do you relax?
I relax all the time. While I am talking to you I am relaxing. I enjoy what I do and do what I enjoy. Therefore I never work, I only have fun. I have aligned my passion with the business and with what I do. You can call me a workaholic because I work from 5am to midnight. But it is not because I have to, it is because I want to. It’s not work for me. It’s fun.
9. Your message to Africa’s young aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?
Have clarity in your thoughts. Have a smart goal and be persistent. The methods may change but the goal does not. Don’t shift goals all the time. Keep them clear and work your way there.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
Africa has always had a lot of potential. But potential alone will not put food on plates. The key is for Africans to get up, get going and to start maximising the potential here. It will not be done by foreigners. It has to be Africans themselves saying ‘we are going to do things differently’.
Secondly, we should not ape the west. We should find our own unique ways of building the continent. In a unique atmosphere of Africa – with 54 countries – we have regional economic blocs such as EAC, ECOWAS and COMESA. These regions need to unite faster. The borders need to go.
Bidco is East Africa’s leading edible oil, soaps and detergents, margarine and baking powder marketer with more than 40 brands.