Vimal Shah is the chairman and co-founder of Bidco Africa, a company he founded with his father and elder brother in 1985.
Vimal stepped down as CEO of the $400 million (annual revenues) edible oils manufacturer in April and took up a new role as Chairman with Thiagarajan Ramamurthy, a former executive at Nakumatt, taking over as CEO.
Ever since the Shahs founded Bidco Africa in 1985, Vimal has served as the company CEO while his father Bhimji Depar Shah has served as chairman at the company while Tarun, Vimal’s brother, has been a director.
Vimal Shah and his family were once listed in Forbes’ annual ranking of Africa’s richest people.
The businessman spoke to Sunday Magazine about the 14 lessons business has taught him.
1. Life has no certainties
The first thing you need to know in life is that nothing is certain. Many people are looking for certainty. They will say, “I have learnt all the skills I needed; now I need experience.” However, when they get into a job, they become risk-averse.
People who branch out on their own and stand out are not risk-averse. Be prepared to take risks. I don’t mind risking everything to make my dreams happen. Winners have a ‘can do’ attitude. It helps you face whatever comes.
You are part of the two or three percent who have gotten that education. Your job should be creating more jobs if you are a leader. You should be creating an enabling environment where people are able to either create more jobs or employ more people.
3. What employers really look for
Many people look for jobs in prestigious companies so that they can work for one or two years and have that name on their CV. They try to build their CVs with three or four multinationals. Newsflash, employers aren’t looking at that anymore. They’re looking at your value.
Will you be an asset or a liability? An asset means that you increase the company’s value. When someone is doing something passionately, you notice straight away. They do not just work; they go out of their way to make things better and perfect. It’s attitude. They take on more responsibility because they love it. Those are the people who rise much faster.
If you are in a job in which you are miserable, I would advise that you help yourself and get out of it. People really love titles, but what does a title do? Titles have no meaning – it is about the job that you do and the satisfaction that it gives you.
4. The crucial three
Three things I look for when hiring; knowledge, skills, and attitude. Knowledge is what you have learned in the past. Skills is the specialised knowledge in a particular area. This can also be acquired on the job. Attitude encompasses your attitude to work and life. It is very crucial.
If your attitude to life is negative, you’re always cringing rather than getting things done and you will fail. Having a selfish attitude, meaning you are not a team player will not get you far – we look for attitude more than anything else right now. Certain credentials are required for certain specialised jobs, but after that it’s much more about attitude.
5. Don’t waste your mistakes
I learn lessons every day. If I make a mistake, then besides the pain, I should come out smarter. We once did a product launch that we thought was right and for the right market, but our timing was all wrong.
We were the first to launch products in sachets about 15 years ago, but at that time people were looking for plastic and rigid packaging, and it was a painful and expensive flop.
All the machines we had bought then, lay to waste. Today, the market is going towards sachets because people are trying to save more money to spend on airtime, betting and other things. We learned the lesson.
The importance of market research. And now we know better and do better. Use that in your life. Whatever mistake you make should make you so much wiser.
6. Chase smart goals
Don’t pursue success. Pursue your goal. The biggest people make is not having a goal. Not knowing where they are going. Many people don’t know where they want to go, so they do not have smart goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.
They just say, “I want to do something.” They come to me and say, “Give me a job, I will do anything for you.” I tell them to first find out what they want to do, then come back. Begin with the end in mind. Define success. What will success mean for you?
If you have a dart board, you aim for the bull’s eye. Don’t throw a dart in any direction and expect it to land on the bull’s eye. A lot of people are like that. Achievement is 80 percent planning and 20 percent execution.
In a day, we have eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work and eight hours of leisure or social time. Starting a business means sacrifice that will eat into your sleep and into your social hours, and that is something I have had to do.
Sometimes I have done 16 and even 20 hours at work. Your work becomes much more than those eight hours. That is where a strong support system comes in if you have a family. I have a very supportive wife and child who have been very understanding when I have had to put in lots of hours.
8. Read and you are halfway there
Read a lot to improve yourself. I get up at 5 am and read for two hours every morning, so I get through about four books per month. I am currently reading a book called ‘Hit Refresh’ by Satya Nadella. I really recommend ‘Who Moved my Cheese?’ for people who are stuck in life.
9. ‘Busy’ is just another excuse
This word called ‘busy’ is an excuse. When you want to do something, you do it. You make time for it. If somebody says, ‘I am too busy’ and somehow a relative dies, they go for the funeral.
How did they do it? They made time. You make time for what you prioritise.
10. Use the P/E ratio
I use the P/E Ratio, where P=Performance and E=Expectation in any relationship, whether at work, with customers, in my marriage to find out what I am expected to do. If I know the expectations are say 2 and I am performing at 1, 1 out of 2 is dissatisfaction.
If I am performing at 2, that is satisfaction. 2 out of 2 is satisfying their needs. If I am performing at 4, you delight them. If it is in business, that customer won’t go elsewhere and you will get success.
11. Never say “I’ll try”
Be true to your word. If your audio and video mismatch, I will know. Whatever you say, you should do. If you won’t do it, don’t say it. Too many people make false promises and then they default with many excuses.
If you can’t do it, say you can’t do it. Remove the phrase “I will try” from your vocabulary. To others and to yourself. Make commitments to yourself. Don’t say, “I will try to be better”. Decide, “I will be better.”
That way you will not make excuses, you will make sure you get it done. Make every day better than the last day. Have continual improvement. Improve, sustain. Improve, sustain. Do that every day. A lot of people improve and then they go back. They aren’t improving and sustaining. Continual improvement is a big problem for many people.
12. Stay positive, no matter what
You don’t work on building your legacy. Other people are the ones who see your legacy. Just keep doing your work and making a difference in other people’s lives. Don’t just keep getting. Your happiest moments come in giving.
Happiness is momentary, but what goes up must come down. The important thing is to stay positive mentally and spiritually. Look at every single challenge as an opportunity. If you make a mistake, it doesn’t matter.
Learn from it and don’t be scared to make mistakes, otherwise, you will never progress. Be amenable to change
13. Find your reason
What is your raison d’être? That is, what is your reason for existing? When you wake up in the morning, what do you wake up for? If you do not have a job and you have nothing to look forward to, why do you wake up? If you have no reason to wake up, then do something about it. For instance in business, there is so much you can do.
When you look at the local level, the family itself, everybody needs some goods and services. Everybody needs to do something or the other. As long as there are humans around, they need food, clothing, and shelter, basically.
You need your environment and surrounding. You need cleanliness. You need to have transport and logistics, you need services. You need shops. There is so much one can do to cater for all these. Ultimately, why do you go to educate yourself in school? It’s to be prosperous in life and to lead a happy life.
14. Don’t compromise on your principles
Have your values clear. You should decide that there are some things in your life are non-negotiable. Face the truth and reality as they are.
Values are like kerbs on the road. If you go off them, you will hurt. When you compromise your values, your conscience will bite you. Keep your values intact and don’t compromise on them.
Your integrity is not for sale. Knowing who you are is important. What has helped me is having clarity in who I am and being decisive on issues. Once you have clarity on issues you can articulate them in the right manner.