Many tumbles, but with experience comes wisdom

Vimal Shah during an interview at his office in Gigiri, Nairobi. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

At 60, Vimal Shah, the chairman of Bidco Africa is not about to slow down or hang up his hat. A believer in the power of intuition, he shares his top life and entrepreneurship lessons, writes Peter Theuri.

If you expect Vimal Shah to be suited up on a random, slow Wednesday afternoon, spotting his usual sharp look in a collarless shirt and sitting in front of his laptop, winding up a meeting and readying for another, then you are not in for any particular shock.

He turned 60 last month but runs through meetings with the agility and aplomb of someone way younger, probably the way he did it when he was 25, when Bidco Africa Ltd, a manufacturer of fast-moving consumer goods was founded.

And he is not retiring, because the Shah family does not retire: they step-up.

“There are four levels in the business,” says the Bidco Africa chairman, “and we can only step up to the higher one when we are ripe enough for it.”

The four levels are operations, management, directorship, and shareholding.

“In the eventuality, you are a shareholder, and this is a level in which you could invest elsewhere. Here, you advise those below you. You have been there; seen it.”

Operations are zero feet above the ground, he says, where, in a plane, you could pick out the dust on the runway. The management level is 5,000 feet, and the city buildings are well visible just below the plane. When you are a director, you are 10,000 feet up and the city could be picked out in its entirety from that vantage point.

“But at 30,000 feet, you have the whole country well in your view, and the city is just a point in it.”

That is where he is to sit once he is not a director anymore.

Vimal Shah was born in 1960 in Nyeri to Bhimji Depar Shah, who was also born in Kenya. He started schooling in Nyeri before an Africanisation wave brought him, and his family, to Nairobi in 1969. He was in standard four.

Africanisation was a plan to replace non-citizens with citizens in key areas of the economy.

He went on to study in the city, joining Jamhuri High School and then the United States’ International University (USIU).

“Born, bred in Kenya. One hundred per cent Kenyan,” he says almost subconsciously.

His father had run a clothing factory since 1970, and when Bidco started 15 years later (Bidco is short for B D Company- B and D are his father’s, Bhimji Depar, initials) they were diversifying.

“We did weaving and realised that although from the cotton we obtained lint, the seeds were going to waste. Crushed, they could give oil, and the residue could be used as animal feeds.”

The fashion industry did not quite have the potential, and the dynamism of the industry did not help matters either. There was too much dead stock once fashion trends changed, and the cycle-time was considerably longer. It took three to five months to get returns from a product. In oil, one.

As a relatively unknown company, Bidco took a dive into a competitive market.

They were battling East African Industries (EAI) - now Unilever Kenya- and Bidco had a hard time convincing customers that the new company was worth their attention.

“Shops that stocked EAI products did not want to sell our products. No one was ordering the products anyway. We spoke to some of the garment manufacturers and they kept our stock on a consignment basis.”

Consignment is a business arrangement in which a business, also referred to as a consignee, agrees to pay a seller, or consignor, for merchandise after the item sells.

 They also had another sly tactic to use.

Their people went to shops asking for Bidco products, after which retailers, wowed by a sweeping demand for Bidco products, started stocking them.

Bidco also employed tens of salespeople and increased their national reach.

Grossly underfunded and competing against giants, young Vimal, together with his brother Tarun Shah and his father, approached many companies for funding, finally ending up at the doors of The International Finance Corporation (IFC).

It was something that the IFC told Bidco that remains his guiding statement to date.

“Start small. Inch your way up. In doses, keep going until you get there,” he says with the characteristic smile of a man that has followed professional, and helpful, advice.

Bidco thus started small, producing one tonne of soap per hour, 20 tonnes per day, 6, 000 tonnes per annum.

At around 29, Vimal made his first million. Did he buy himself a vintage watch, or did he hop to Paris to pose in front of the Eiffel Tower?

“We were always quick to reinvest. I did not have the scarcity mentality and thus was not really after cheap thrills. Of course, I enjoyed the money- it was an indication of progress. But I was not too ecstatic.”

Typical of Mr Vimal, who does not believe that wealth is in material things. Bodily gratification barely obsesses him. Rather, he says, nourishing the soul which, unlike the body and the mind, does not die, is real wealth.

And he is enraged by anyone who gravitates on talk about his wealth, because in the end, what matters is that the soul is contented, and helps others achieve contentment and satisfaction.

He started young in business, so does he have anything he could pass to the youth as advice? 

“The youth are living in the best time ever. There is the internet, new applications coming up every day, machine learning and artificial intelligence is getting better by the day. The 25-year-olds are in their sunrise: they have a proper 75 years ahead of them, and only they can determine their destinies.”

For Vimal, at 60, he is edging closer to an inevitable sunset, he says.

“But the youth have to be ready to get out of their comfort zones. They need to unbox themselves and not restrain their potential. Limiting themselves by sitting inside a cocoon is never going to result in betterment.”

After all, he says, wisdom comes with experience. Experience comes with effort. Risk-taking, failure and success, ups, and downs. It is the cocktail of life, and he has been there. And, guarantee you, it is the way to go.

In 2004, Bidco invested in the IT industry and put up offices, and employed people, hoping to reap off a sweeping wave of technology innovations and automation.

They then placed bids in a tendering process where they were to start working on their first big projects but were told they had to be ready to pay 10 to 20 per cent of the value of the bids if they were to win them.

“I sat with my brother and we decided it was not worth it. We closed the company and lost Sh40 million in the process. We later sold it off. You see, our father’s most important reminder for us was that credibility is the most important thing to have in life.”

Vimal Shah’s father, now 88, is still part of the robust company and has continuously inculcated invaluable lessons in his sons. They do not take a bribe. They have never taken one.

But perhaps nothing set the company and the affable Vimal back like buying machines to manufacture sachets for their soap products well over a decade ago.

“This was already doing well in some countries such as India and so we thought it would work in our markets. It did not, people being used to solid containers for their soap.”

They stored away the machines and shut production off. Many years later, when the kadogo economy caught up with the rest of the world, Bidco bought new machines to go back to the route that had failed them.

This man simply doesn’t give up.

Being in business for years has also taught Vimal, who loves reading (he brought along a copy of Ikigai), swimming and listening to music, what to major in, and what to avoid. He is shrewd but humble and almost too modest to admit it.

The wisdom came with serious setbacks.

A Bidco bar soap called Saba Saba rattled Tanzanians as the words Saba Saba have a political connotation in the country.

Saba Saba Day, on July 7, celebrates the 1954 founding of the Tanzanian political party, the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU).

Yet another bar soap in Kenya, Kuku, which means rooster, was misinterpreted to mean that Bidco was supporting Kenya African National Union (KANU), the ruling party since independence until National Rainbow Coalition’s (NARC) dramatic 2002 power takeover.

“But you can only learn how the reception is, and the hits and misses, if you are deep into the business. If you are not afraid to try and to learn.”

Vimal is not a believer in fixing himself to specific trades and remaining stuck there.  Everyone should venture wide, as no one is limited, and anyone could do anything, and do it well.

As long as they do what they love. And love what they do.

 “You play so many roles in your life. I am a father, a son, a partner, a colleague, a mentor, a mentee. I do not struggle to switch from one role to another.”

Such is the ease with which people should transition into various roles, without any struggle. A blend of passion, mission, profession, and vocation, Ikigai.

“And also, if you receive four texts on WhatsApp, one from your brother, one from a colleague, another from a customer, and say one from a friend, you do not struggle to reply to each, and accurately.”

And Vimal (pictured) has learnt that concentrating on one thing at a time is fulfilling. And pleasant. Then, later, go to the next and concentrate on it fully. 

The most disturbing assignment in Bidco? Not just in Bidco, he says, but in every company, “Aligning the staff to the company’s ethos.”

Not everyone believes in the organisation’s ethos, the founders’ ethos. And trying to bring everyone to subscribe to a set of beliefs is the hardest thing one could do in a company. But if that is achieved, everyone pulls in the same direction.

One good thing about entrepreneurship is that a business person has the freedom to iterate, as he calls it. Try till it’s perfect.  

“You make a mistake, and you learn from it. Through iteration, you become better. You do not have to have decision inertia. Go all out. Take a risk!”
It is not a coincidence that he is now a top director; his work ethic and discipline have catapulted him to this level.

I do not exactly ask him if it is a coincidence he shares a birthday with his son, Soham Shah, 22, but the Bidco chairman, who insists people fail because they ignore their intuition, is not big on chance.

I listen to my intuition and ask him, instead, if he enjoys the view from his office window, The Tribe Hotel, and the leafy suburbs of Gigiri. He towers over me by the window and acknowledges the beauty without, before we stroll out, minutes to four, to alert his next cabal of guests, a couple of alumni from Jamhuri, that their meeting should begin.