The 4th of September 2019 will likely be marked as a day of reckoning for Botswana’s corporate sector. Choppies shareholders will congregate not only to decide the fate of the country’s largest retailer but that also of its founding CEO Ramachandran Ottapathu.
The man who built what is arguably the Southern Africa region’s most ambitious retail brand will plead his case in front of shareholders to be reinstated as its head.
With the expected fire works, it’s important to establish how Ram and Choppies story begins.
In most cultures, there comes a time where every young man has to leave his mother’s embrace, his father’s house to make a living, and put food on the table for the family. Some dreams are captured and realized within shores where the human eye can see; some have a third eye that sees beyond current horizons to the unseen.
Many books have been published, many movie scripts crafted in order to understand that unique mentality that creates from nothing, nurtures and grows success. How do the successful people succeed? How can one create wealth from nothing?
What is the meaning of success? Are we born with the spirit of enterprise or is it thrust upon us from some Divine force as a favour, only to a few? How many brands at home grew organically to become a regional thrust creating an economic fulcrum that spread across diverse industries in the region?
When Geoff Bezos started Amazon at the back of a garage, the name of the brand suggested the scale of his ambitions. ‘As big as the Amazon’ he always said aloud. Today it is. At a time when putting credit card details online were deemed irresponsible he did it. There are many stories like this across the Atlantic but we do have our own.
There is a story that is rarely told. In many instances high poverty levels have led people traveling thousands of miles for greener pastures leaving their families behind and only return after a long spell of hustling.
Retail magnet and founder of Choppies Ramachandran 'Ram' Ottapathu has an inspiring story, which has gone to inspire a number of people from across the world. Today we try and understand his flaws within the context of the scale of his vision.
It is critical to understand his background and appreciate his achievements in order to understand his shortcomings and possibly usher a new era for the retail giant now synonymous with both the man and country.
The 55-year-old retail mogul hails from Kerala, a tourist destination in India. He took the long trip to Botswana close to three decades ago when a relative had found him a job as an accountant after graduation in India.
Being the oldest in a family of five children Ottapathu had to help his parents to put food on the table as they were not making much from their monthly wages. Ottapathu’s father was a handloom weaver, while his mother a housewife who did odd part-time jobs at a construction company.
“We suffered a lot. We were never able to make ends meet. The family had three full meals only about once a year. My aim was to get a job, it didn’t matter what job, to earn any income, and take care of the family. For me, everything revolves around family. There is nothing beyond giving a decent living to one’s parents and siblings,” Ottapathu previously said to the media.
It was only in the late 1990s when he moved to Botswana to work for Mazars as an accountant. He quickly found his feet and adapted to the new environment, which was very far from his native home of Kerala. The young Ram could feel the positive energy and that the young man from the dusty streets of India was doing something to make his parents proud.
With him the every touch was personal. He needed to ensure he was part of every detail. He believed that with all the efforts may be one day his mother would be proud. “I wanted to make her proud of her son. That’s why I worked so hard. The strong work ethic came from my parents. The unceasing ambition and zeal came from the hunger of making a difference,” he says.
His hard work earned him some shares at Wayward Supermarket, which was then located in Lobatse. Premised on finding solutions for the average shopper for basic grocery needs Choppies found a unique value frontier that established brands had left wide open. Any viable local farmer with produce knew that Choppies was good option to supply their hard earned harvest. The intricate network of value for suppliers, countrymen alike grew thus creating numerous entrepreneurs along the way.
The Accountant turned entrepreneur had done what few have ever imagined. He created a multi billion-pula enterprise, expanded it from Lobatse to a regional thrust with a presence at home here in Botswana, in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya with prospects to grow beyond.
As he looks across his offices he reminisces about his life back in the day, in his younger days. As someone who grew up in poor family Ottapathu had that hunger and wish of seeing poverty eradicated, communities liberated and
Having arrived in Botswana with P200 from India, Ottapathu hustled his way to the top to build a multi- billion pula enterprise that broke the record in 2014 making a turnover that had crossed P5 billion. The group currently operates more than 200 retail outlets in Southern Africa in countries such as Botswana, South Africa Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya.
“When we reached the 10 000 employee mark, we set our next goal to achieve the P10 billion revenue mark and I am pleased to report that we are almost on target. This is a watershed milestone for the company and for me, personally, as it marks the realisation of a long-held dream,” Ottapathu once stated in a statement in the 2017 integrated annual report.
In 2017, the company went on to generate revenue of P9 billion, which led the group to be a very competitive giant retailer. On Botswana alone Choppies uses over 1,200 local suppliers for different aspects of its business.
His vision and democracy mind is one of the reasons why the retail magnet developed Choppies, let it spread all over the country and the region so as to create employment. The presence of Choppies in the country contributed to the country’s economy as it created employment and also got listed on Botswana Stock Exchange in 2012.
Prior to Choppies’ existence the level of unemployment was high but Ram and his management have gone to employ people with different qualifications from accountants, IT specialists, till operators, chefs and fashion designers. A number of jobs have been created in the past 10 years,” says one of the Choppies employees who refused to be mentioned by name.
Despite his success and fortunes that the father of two has accumulated over the years Ottapathu’ does not forget his humble beginnings of coming from a poor background which is why he has fought for young Batswana to get employed at the various Choppies outlets.
“He has not only created employment in the country but through Choppies a number of events and organizations have received financial assistance from the retail magnet who considers this as a socio- economic development. Remember Choppies played a huge role during the Botswana Africa Youth Games in 2014, My Star and even sponsored local athletes when they went overseas,” noted a local print editor.
With all this glory, what went wrong? A local investment expert who is closer to the current matters highlights that Choppies and Ram are a sensitive issue at the moment and he can only comment on condition of anonymity.
“From the time of the listing there was no succession plan. As institutional investors we looked the other side or assumed it will be sorted over time but it never was. Choppies has given everyone a learning curve from its board whose oversight roles is questionable, institutional investors who let the entity list without a clear succession policy, one of the critical components of sustainability in governance, to shareholders,” the expert says.
Ram was running the business within the realm of his contract with the trust from all that he is the man and he is the brand. “The truth of the matter is that there is no Choppies without Ram. If he is out of the picture institutional shareholders and general shareholders will reap a storm that will turn into an uncontrollable disaster. They know it.”
“The best solution moving forward will be for Ram to continue as the CEO with an understudy to takeover in the next five years. The founder of Letshego did that and the business has been stable ever since no matter who is in charge. Given that the forensic report exonerates any illegal activities like money laundering Ram should continue and clean house where issues of governance are concerned,” he says.
Ram in his quest for greatness driven by zeal and ambition that drives men and women of his caliber, with only five multi-millionaires in the country created a giant that outlived his management methods. No matter how much he could try or desire Choppies could not be run in a way in which he is the epicenter of it all.
It has grown into a retail beast of over 200 stores in the region. In such circumstances governance issues under the strict watchful eye of listing become a concern. The board has something to learn here, institutional shareholders know better, succession is critical for any business.
In the next EGM, a lot is at stake, whatever his flaws, Ram has a role to play in the future of Choppies and with all parties involved there is a possibility of a great success if they all work together for the good. Tighter governance structures, a clear succession plan and an alert board should serve justice to Botswana’s most beloved brand.