WELL-OFF: Ottappath

He came to Botswana from India in 1992 with nothing but his accounting qualification. Fast forward to 2012 Ramachandran Ottappath better known as Ram is now counted amongst Botswana’s most successful businessmen. Being one of the major shareholders and chief executive officer of Choppies, Ram says he is not worried about making it into the Forbes magazine and being counted amongst the richest men in Africa but if anything, wants to be known as the best retailer in the region.

Though denying that he is a millionaire he admits that he does count a few millions in his bank account once in a while, quickly adding that riches and wealth should not be based on material possession but contentment. If that was the case, he says yes he would be counted amongst the rich as he is content and happy with how his life has turned out to be. He speaks about this and his alleged new found love, the media and more in this interview.

Q. You are sitting in this office as the major shareholder and CEO of the biggest retail outlet in Botswana, did you see this coming when you left your home country?
It had always been my dream to run such a business and I knew it was a matter of time before my dream came true so really I am not surprised.

Q. So when you left India you told yourself that you were  going to start a business in Botswana, and what really attracted you to this country?
No, I came here to work as a chartered accountant for Mazars because I was offered a job while still in India. So I guess it was a question of fate because my friendship with Choppies or rather Westside Supermarket (Lobatse) as it was called back then started when I was doing their accounts and as they say, the rest is history. Maybe things turned out the way they did because I am a democrat and Botswana is a democratic country.

Q. You sound like someone who might be a politician one day
Never, I love politics but that will never make me politician.

Q. Ok back to Choppies, how many stores do you have at the moment both in Botswana and South Africa?
We have 51 stores here in Botswana and 14 in South Africa.

Q. And what’s your ultimate target?
We are looking at 100 in SouthAfrica and at least between 65 and 70 in Botswana.

Q. Looks like you want to push out other retail outlets
Not really, look our market share is only 30 percent and we have a certain target market. If we get everyone to buy at Choppies that would be good but it’s not possible.

Q. With all these stores and still more to come and the fact that you are now on the stock exchange, you must be filthy rich.
I am not rich but I am content with what I have and the support that we get from Batswana. Besides I don’t think it’s proper to count one’s riches based on money and material things. Being happy and content is what should make one rich.

Q. There are concerns that the hygiene standards and products sold at Choppies are not up to standard, your reaction to that?
Don’t know where you get that from but what I can tell you is that we have systems in place to check that our products are fresh, up to standard and still within their shelf life.

Q. And the hygiene issue?
Last month alone at least 4.8 million walked through our stores so really you can’t expect our stores to be always sparkling clean with this high volume of people, yes we try our best to keep our stores as clean as possible but it’s hard. Those that you presume to be very clean are probably like that because only a handful of people walk through their doors. One thing that you also have to understand is that we cater for the middle and low income earners who don’t have cars and always walk to our stores. We can’t expect them to dust off their shoes when they come to shop. Batswana have been supportive and we greatly appreciate that.

Q. Ok, back to the issue of your money, how do you spend it?
I finance my life like any other human being, pay bills, buy food, clothes and travel and of course invest.

Q. What kind of investments are we talking of?
The recent is the 12 000 square metre warehouse which cost us P44 million, the one which is next to us here ( next to Choppies head office in commerce park)

Q. Who is us, you mean Choppies?
No, I mean myself and Farouk Ismail (his business partner), it’s our warehouse, it does not belong to Choppies, we are already renting it out to various business entities.

Q. And Choppies of course, looks like you want to do everything for yourself seeing that you also have your products now.
Choppies has always had its own warehouse, just behind this office, you can stand up and see it. We also get stuff from CA Sales so I am not sure what you mean when you say we want to do everything ourselves. We built the warehouse to diversify our income and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.

Q. And the Choppies brands?
That is just for packaging purposes so that we can cut costs for the sake of our consumers. Our milk still comes from Clover, our mealie meal and flour from Bokomo and Bolux, it’s not like we own any farms or factories that produce anything. Our fresh produce is from here though we supplement it with some from South Africa.

Q. You didn’t mention your other investment because we hear you are one of the shareholders of the upcoming newspaper, The Patriot?
(Laughs) I didn’t mention it because I am not one of the investors.

Q. But it was there in one the local newspapers?
I know but it’s not true, they got their facts wrong or they got them mixed up. I bought a shelf company long back, can’t even remember its name because I never used it, fortunately or unfortunately the people behind the new newspaper bought that shelf company which was still under my name hence the mix up. I am not part of the newspaper and I have no interest in venturing into the media.

Q. But how come you haven’t  bothered to set the record straight?
I didn’t think it was necessary to do so because I didn’t do anything wrong but I have asked those responsible to put their papers in order and remove my name.

Q. Oh, ok there was a concern out there that you are greedy and want to be everywhere in terms of business
(Laughs) Like I have said, media is not my interest and if other newspapers were worried that we will no longer support them in terms of adverts, they mustn’t, we will continue supporting them especially The Voice as the best selling newspaper.

Q. Now let’s talk about you personally, are you married?
Yes I am

Q. And where is she and the kids?
My wife works here in the accounts department. My first son who is 20 years of age  is studying in the US and the second one is schooling at Al Nur.

Q. So your sons will eventually take over the reigns at Choppies?
My father gave me nothing except education and thats exactly what I am going to give my children, education. They have to earn everything they will own and not expect to be given things on a silver platter.

Q. How old are you by the way?
I am 48

Q. And with the investments that you have here, I guess Botswana is your permanent home now?
Of course, I never spend more than 15 nights in a row outside Botswana.

Q. But I am sure you still visit India
Yes I do, my mother is there so I visit her quite often because she doesn’t want to come here.

Q. How do you spend your time outside work?
I like travelling and reading magazines and of course spending quality time with my family.

Q. One last question, what do you want to be remembered for when you are long gone?
As one of the best retailers in this continent.

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