The tale looks straight out of an outworldly story – one that would usually come true only in lands ‘far away and long ago.’ But the protagonist of this tale, Ollur native Ramachandran, has pulled off a rags-to-riches life and lives to tell the tale. So, here is how it started:
Ramachandran was just 10 when his poverty-stricken family suffered a major loss. Ramachandran's elder brother, 17-year-old Balakrishnan, died of a snakebite in 1973. The family, of five siblings, could only watch helplessly as their father, a weaver, drifted into drinking and despair after the tragedy. A young Ramachandran was quick to realise that the burden of the family was on him.
Cut to present: 57-year-old Ramachandran now owns and operates Choppies, a Botswana-based retail multinational. The company’s IPO in 2012 was the largest in the Botswana Stock Exchange and raised Pula (Botswana’s currency, indicated as BP) of 350 million. The shares were then oversubscribed by up to 400%. In 2011, the group made over BP124 million in after-tax profits, as per available reports.
Ramachandran keeps a low profile and may not even be recognised in Kerala like some of the other entrepreneurs who are, rightfully, celebrities. This is despite the fact that he visits the state half a dozen times every year to meet his 87-year-old mother. He has also facilitated the employment of hundreds of youngsters from Kerala in Botswana, where his business empire is headquartered.
Those familiar with his functioning know that Ramachandran replies to emails typically within an hour and is always accessible over the phone. So, why does he stay away from media and glare in Kerala? “Maybe because I don't have any plans to invest in Kerala. I have good returns from my business in Botswana. Why would I split my returns and happiness?” he says.
Ramachandran's journey from Ollur, an old commercial town in Thrissur district known for its tile factories and wood industries, to Africa was eventful. Ramachandran worked hard as a student and cleared his chartered accountancy examination in the first attempt. His chance encounter with a stranger during a family function altered his career. On a job offer, he reached Botswana, a landlocked country in southern Africa, in 1992.
“Just like any other Indian, for me, Africa and Botswana seemed like another world back then. All I knew about the place was its abundance of elephants and diamonds. While leaving Kerala, I assured my mother that it was a short-term contract and I would be back soon. Little did I realise then that this alien land would turn out to be my second home,” he said.
An ailing firm called 'Wayside Supermarket,’ founded by Farouk Ismail of Chopdat family from Gujarat, was one of the clients of the audit firm which had hired Ramachandran for the Botswana assignment then. The Wayside Supermarket was waiting for liquidation when Ramachandran entered the scene. His encounters with Farouk for work evolved into a relationship of mutual trust and respect. Eventually, Farouk gave him a free hand and entrusted him with the task of saving the business.
Ramachandran proposed ‘simple steps’ to turn the supermarket around but those were tough in terms of practicality. For instance, one suggestion was to keep the other members of the Chopdat family away from the cash chest. “I asked Farouk to replace them with local people. It was a difficult decision for Farouk as it threatened family bonds but was a quick win. Next was to diversify the range of products,” he said.
What gave him the confidence to take up the huge responsibility when the business was almost written off by everyone? “I was not afraid to fail. I was not concerned about my job. Even if I failed, it would have little consequence on my career. It gave the confidence to move ahead,” he said.
He made personal connections in the country, which helped in expanding the retail chain in 1998. A person whom he befriended in Botswana invested heavily in the business after inheriting a fortune from his father. “It was difficult for outsiders to start a business due to the conservative lending policy of banks. So, when he invested money on the assurance of 30% interest and return of principal in 24 months, I was confident. We gave back the money in time and even made him a shareholder,” he said.
Even before renaming the brand as Choppies, the retail chain bought the franchise, ‘Friendly Grocer,’ from a multinational named Metro during 1999-2003. In 2004, Botswana devalued its currency to manage its budget deficit, causing the collapse of several local businesses. This time, Ramachandran and Farouk managed to buy several stores at throwaway prices. In the meantime, one of the major stores, 'Score Supermarket,’ run by South African firm ‘Pick n Pay,’ decided to shift to Australia after closing its chain of stores. “That was a major turning point. Just when we heard the news, we knew that this was going to be a major opportunity and started opening shops wherever Scores closed its stores. By 2009, we were able to pay all our debts,” Ramachandran said.
Now, Choppies has 166 stores across southern Africa and the total turnover is Rs 7,000 crores. It is the number-one retail chain in Botswana, number two in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and has started expansion in Namibia.
Supporting local community
Choppies kept the interests of the local communities in mind. Choppies allows local farmers to sell their products weekly twice or thrice to them. “We buy around 75% of vegetables produced in this country. Sometimes, we pay money in advance to support them. We also support the women community by providing exclusive rights to make some products. These include a particular snack of dry meat called 'Biltong.' it is made of beef or game meat and also the parotta-like eatable called Diphaphata,” he said.
Even for consumers, local diversity is taken into consideration while stocking products. “For example, there is a difference in the type of maize people use. People in the north prefer coarse maize while those in the south need a finely powdered one. We stock according to their requirements. We have Halal stores in Muslim majority areas,” he said.
Botswana has the biggest population of wild elephants and the country allows culling. Ramachandran often entertains his friends in Botswana with tales of domesticated elephants in Kerala. “Here, it is one elephant to every 20 people. That is why the government gives licence to kill wild elephants. I would show them pictures of my elephant 'Kuttishankaran' which I own back home in Thrissur,” he said.
Ramachandran says he was always inspired by Apple founder Steve Jobs. Little did he realise that a similar fate would await him. Jobs was fired from Apple, the company he co-founded, at one point. Ramachandran was suspended from his position as CEO of Choppies in May 2019 on the allegation of accounting irregularities raised by its newly appointed auditor PwC. “Choppies was listed on the Botswana Stock Exchange in 2012. With the partnership of Singapore-based Standard Chartered Private Equity Firm, we began expanding to South Africa and other places. Later, they decided to stop the partnership and replaced their board members. I had a fallout with the new board. Local financial institutions sided with the board members, mainly because I was an outsider,” he said.
Ramachandran fought the case and the court directed the convening of an ‘extraordinary general body meeting.’ “Being the majority shareholder, I was sure that things will turn in my favour. Other shareholders stood with me. Everybody, except me and Farouk, was kicked out from the board. Issues, which began in January, were sorted out by September 2019,” he said. Ramachandran still continues his legal fight against PwC.
The Wikipedia page on Ollur lists 3-4 film actors but Ramachandran finds no mention. “That is because I want to be peaceful when I come home,” he says.
Choppies covers only 30% of the businesses owned by Ramachandran. Botswana’s second-largest property firm FAR (acronym of Farouk and Ram), medical distribution firm Kalahari Medical Distribution, clothing store JB's, liquor shops, fuel stations, and a host of other businesses are run by him.
Ramachandran's family consists of wife, Jalajakumari, son Balram Ottapathu, and daughter Bhagyasree Ottapathu. Balram is the managing director of Kalahari Medical Distribution. His elder sister and brother and their families are also in Botswana while his younger sister and brother stay in Thrissur.
And, the astute businessman says he wants to own a bank in Botswana; that much for future plans...
(Jisha Surya is an independent journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram.)