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 prospering. At some point in his youth days he was one of those young lads who would walk around the cities of India carrying political placards written “Free Mandela”.
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.
The P250 million National Petroleum Fund (NPF) saga that has been before court since 2017 seems to be losing its momentum with a high possibility of it being thrown out as defence lawyers unmask incompetency on the part of the Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP).
The Gaborone High Court this week ruled that the decision by the State to prosecute Justice Zein Kebonang and his twin brother, Sadique Kebonang has been reviewed and set aside. The two brothers have now been cleared of the charges that where laid against them three years ago.
The United States (US) will on the 3rd of November 2020 chose between incumbent Donald Trump of the Republicans and former Vice President Joe Biden of the Democrats amid the coronavirus pandemics, which has affected how voting is conducted in the world’s biggest economy.
Trump (74) seeks re-election after trouncing Hillary Clinton in 2016, while Biden (77) is going for his first shot as Democratic nominee after previous unsuccessful spells.
US Presidents mostly succeed in their re-election bid, but there have been nine individuals who failed to garner a second term mandate, the latest being George W H. Bush, a Republican who served as the 41st US President between 1989 and 1993.
Dr Mark Rozell, a Dean of the School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia describes the complex US electoral system that will deliver the winner at the 3rd November elections.
“The founders of our Republic de-centralised authority significantly in creating our constitutional system, which means that they gave an enormous amount of independent power and authority to State and local governments,” Dr Rozell told international media on Elections 2020 Virtual Reporting Tour.
Unlike parliamentary democracies, like Botswana the United States does not have all of the national government elected in one year. They do not have what is commonly called mandate elections where the entire federal government is elected all in one election cycle giving a “mandate” to a particular political party to lead, and instead US have what are called staggered elections, elections over time.
The two house Congress, members of the House of Representatives have two-year long terms of office. Every two years the entire House of Representatives is up for re-election, but senators serve for six years and one third of the Senate is elected every two years.
For this election cycle, US citizens will be electing the President and Vice
President, the entire House of Representatives and one third of the open or contested seats in the Senate, whereas two thirds are still fulfilling the remainder of their terms beyond this year.
An important facet of US electoral system to understand given the federalism nature of the republic, the US elect presidents State by State, therefore they do not have a national popular vote for the presidency.
“We have a national popular vote total that says that Hillary Clinton got three million more votes than Donald Trump or in Year 2000 that Al Gore got a half million more votes than George W. Bush, but we have what is called a State by State winner takes all system where each State is assigned a number of electors to our Electoral College and the candidate who wins the popular vote within each State takes 100 percent of the electors to the Electoral College,” explained Dr Rozell.
“And that is why mathematically, it is possible for someone to win the popular vote but lose the presidency.”
Dr Rozell indicated that in 2016, Hillary Clinton won very large popular majorities in some big population States like California, but the system allows a candidate to only have to win a State by one vote to win a 100 percent of its electors, the margin does not matter.
“Donald Trump won many more States by smaller margins, hence he got an Electoral College majority.”
Another interesting features by the way of US constitutional system, according to Dr Rozell, but extremely rare, is what is called the faithless elector.
“That’s the elector to the Electoral College who says, ‘I’m not going to vote the popular vote in my State, I think my State made a bad decision and I’m going to break with the popular vote,’’ Dr Rozell said.
“That’s constitutionally a very complicated matter in our federalism system because although the federal constitution says electors may exercise discretion, most States have passed State laws making it illegal for any elector to the Electoral College to break faith with the popular vote of that State, it is a criminal act that can be penalized if one is to do that. And we just had an important Supreme Court case that upheld the right of the states to impose and to enforce this restriction”
There are 538 electors at the Electoral College, 270 is the magic number, the candidate who gets 270 or more becomes President of the United States.
If however there are more candidates, and this happens extremely rarely, and a third candidate got some electors to the Electoral College denying the two major party candidates, either one getting a majority, nobody gets 270 or more, then the election goes to the House of Representatives and the House of Representatives votes among the top three vote getters as to who should be the next President.
“You’d have to go back to the early 19th century to have such a scenario, and that’s not going to happen this year unless there is a statistical oddity, which would be a perfect statistical tie of 269 to 269 which could happen but you can just imagine how incredibly unlikely that is,” stated Dr Rozell.
BLUE STATES vs RED STATES
Since the 2000 United States presidential election, red states and blue states have referred to states of the United States whose voters predominantly choose either the Republican Party (red) or Democratic Party (blue) presidential candidates.
Many states have populations that are so heavily concentrated in the Democratic party or the Republican party that there is really no competition in those states.
California is a heavily Democratic State, so is New York and Maryland. It is given that Joe Biden will win those states. Meanwhile Texas, Florida and Alabama are republicans. So, the candidates will spent no time campaigning in those states because it is already a given.
However there are swing states, where there is a competition between about five and 10 states total in each election cycle that make a difference, and that is where the candidates end up spending almost all of their time.
“So it ends up making a national contest for the presidency actually look like several state-wide contests with candidates spending a lot of time talking about State and local issues in those parts of the country,” said Dr Rozell.
High Commissioner of the Federal Government of Nigeria to Botswana, His Excellency Umar Zainab Salisu, has challenged President Dr Mokgweetsi Masisi to move swiftly and lobby Africa’s richest man, Nigerian Billionaire, Aliko Dangote to invest in Botswana.
Speaking during a meeting with President Masisi at Office of President on Thursday Zainab Salisu said Dangote has expressed massive interest in setting up billion dollar industries in Botswana. “We have a lot of investors who wish to come and invest in Botswana , when we look at Botswana we don’t see Botswana itself , but we are lured by its geographic location , being in the centre of Southern Africa presents a good opportunity for strategic penetration into other markets of the region,” said Salisu.