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How I started a multinational without college education

HUSTLE
By Peter Muiruri | November 25th 2020

When a chance came for Bharat Thakrar to go to university, he passed it up. He was focused on his dream of building a marketing empire. He was busy learning everything he could from the jobs he took. And finally, in December 1982, he was ready to open the doors to his new firm; Scanad, a marketing and communication firm. His passion did pay off.

In 2006, the company was listed in the Nairobi Securities Exchange as Scangroup. After ceding the controlling stake to a British advertising firm in 2013, the company, now known as WPP-Scangroup has a physical presence in 25 African countries.  Still at the helm of the company as the CEO, Bharat shares with Hustle the hallmarks of a successful entrepreneur.

Why marketing?

My father was in the advertising business and so I got the entrepreneurship exposure at a young age. He did not tell me to get into advertising but as a young person I knew what I wanted to pursue later on in life. I picked up the marketing skills by watching what he and other workers did.

I would say I had the advantage of being at the right place at the right time. For example, some people go into music because a parent played music at home. Then the parent offered to teach them how to play. That was the case in my young life. Young people have this door opening for them, they may have the passion but not strong enough. It is all about how committed you are in what you want to be.  

Did your father approve of this path?

My father wanted me to pursue higher education and become a doctor. But medicine was not my passion since I could not even dissect a frog in biology class. I did not have the patience for medicine, but had a huge sense of imagination. That is why a career in advertising attracted me.   

What experience showed you that this was your path?

There was this company I was working for, actually a company that I had partnered with to make confectionery. At some point I did not like this job and so when I left, my friend told me to do some marketing for him. That was my first client. Then there was this company I was doing distribution for, Swan Industries that was making sweets and bubble gum in Kisumu.

I told them they will not succeed if they commoditize confectionery. They needed to sell them as a brand. I gave them the idea to brand their bubble gum using the iconic Safari Rally that was a hit all over the country back then. I came up with the concept of the Rally Gum, with stickers of about 60 cars in the rally.

Every time a boy bought the gum, the first thing they had to do was remove the sticker and see the car number. Imagine how much of the item you had to buy to collect all 60 stickers! That was my first marketing success story. Today, you can look at a current opportunity and revolve your business idea around it.

Do you think lack of a university education slowed down your growth?

Not really. You see, university education makes you a little bit more intellectual. Obviously you need it if you want to be a doctor or some other specialist. Of course, I did miss it and thought I should have done it earlier. To satisfy myself, I went to Harvard in 2009 for executive management courses and then I thought to myself, ‘with all the experience setting up the business, my life so far has been an MBA programme.’

Education is about rules, but application is all upon you. I have seen many academically brilliant people who are failures in life, while others never went to university but became the most successful. Again think of Steve Jobs. In business, university helps a little bit, nothing more.

How did your small business grow into a multinational?

I would like to answer that question with the story of a young boy who was employed as a waiter in a kiosk selling mandazi. He was a school dropout. One day the chef did not turn up for work. Then the kiosk owner tells the boy to go into the kitchen and make mandazi. He goes and makes good mandazi because he has seen how they are made, because he had developed an interest in making them. Then the boss later tells him he is no longer needed. He goes on the other side of the road and opens a kiosk. He hires others to work for him.  Then he sees another road coming up and knows the workers there need tea and mandazi, and so opens another kiosk.

That is my life. I learnt how to do it from others in the business. I worked for a small company till I saw an opportunity across the road. That is how Scanad was born in December 1982 and expanded to regional countries. And that is the story of successful entrepreneurship including Coca Cola, KFC and people like Steve Jobs who started assembling computers from the garage.

What are the secrets to business success?

I live by one of Bhagavad Gita’s fundamental philosophy espoused by the Karma Yogi. That of a person who keeps his head down, hard at work without waiting for a reward.  For example, a doctor does not wake up in the morning saying he will treat 50 patients but because he is a good doctor, he always finds patients in his clinic. They know of his reputation. A soldier too does not join the military to kill but the call was to defend his land. That is his duty.

Therefore, if you are good at something, try and excel in it. The rewards will take care of themselves. Be like that mason proud of building the wall, or the gardener who knows that plants need a lot of love. He will even talk to the plants. If he is clever, he sets up his own gardening business to amplify the good work he does.

The other day I was watching the guy who does some upholstery work on our sofas. We call him professor. He is so meticulous at folding the corners of the cloth, so focused on his job, and he is so good at it. I lead a similar lifestyle. I am 68 years and still in it. You only succeed by sticking to your strengths.

How has your business evolved to adapt to changing circumstances?

Change is a constant we must embrace. Every business, be it in entertainment, hospitality or aviation must evolve to survive.  You must be a visionary and see what the future will look like, what the trends are. Our business went digital in 2010 in a joint venture with an Indian partner. We now understand what the digital skills are all about. Keep honing your skills and business will adapt.

You have been at it for decades now. Why do you think many businesses fail?

1. Know where your passion lies and stick to it. Some businesses are not successful because they try to be jacks of all trades. Some people like to touch all spheres of the business world. You cannot be passionate in five different things.

2. Be sincere in your dealings. People like honesty. Never cheat. For example, if the boy in my previous example started making smaller mandazi to get extra profit, customers would start running away from him never to come back. The customer notices dishonesty.

How has the current pandemic affected your business?

We have had to get lean. It has been sad to see many employees leave. We had a workforce of 1,200 but now we are down to 700.

What next for Bharat?

Bharat is not going anywhere. If you are passionate about your work, you keep doing it forever. If you stop, your mind starts to degenerate and age starts to catch up with you.  

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