It’s a gloomy Monday afternoon in the leafy Johannesburg suburb of Greenside, South Africa, but inside the photo studio where we are, the mood is festive as Madagascar-born Ylias Akbaraly transforms himself from a humble, down-to-earth entrepreneur in modest casual wear into a stately capitalist wearing a nifty-grey Italian designer suit, dark tie and light-blue shirt.
Madagascar’s wealthy businessman, who estimates his worth at just over a billion dollars, has come to share his story of how in under 30 years, he turned a small family business with a turnover of almost $34,000 and employing 20 people, to an empire with revenue expected to exceed $265 million in 2019 and employing 3,000 staff.
The multinational conglomerate that he created through discipline, hard work and seizing opportunities, now has tentacles beyond his island state extending to Mali, Ghana, Mauritius, France and soon the United States (US) and Canada, to name a few.
A phone-call to his parents was all it took for the silver fox to embark on this transformative journey.
The ebullient 59-year-old describes the moment: “It was a very special situation. I was doing very well in the US, I was living in California – can you imagine, beautiful state, beautiful weather, good friends. I could work there. I had some opportunities to work at the Bank of America at that time, so I called my parents and said I am going to stay in the US, it is better.”
His parents were saddened by his decision, they asked him to return and join the business.
In 1992, he did.
“I decided to come back and be with the family and thank God I decided to come back. I don’t regret it, I am very happy, and they were very happy,” the man who calls himself a spiritual person tells FORBES AFRICA.
On his return, Akbaraly worked for Sipromad, a small retail business focused on detergents that his father, Sermamod, the son of Indian immigrants, established in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, in 1972 after a stint selling shoes, shirts and ties.
Warmly, Akbaraly says: “I came back, I saw a very small business, but my parents were happy, they had a very peaceful life, and things at home were very nice and joyful.
“I worked with my father, I assisted him, I wanted to change things but I was facing a generational conflict in business. But my father is very intelligent so step-by-step he let me change things.”
Full of fresh ideas from his time spent working and studying in both France and the US, Akbaraly began to give his personal touch to Sipromad. He created a team, and hired new people and professionals.
The company started doing a lot of research; it went to see some local suppliers who asked Sipromad to change the packaging, pricing and color of its products, which it did. It extended its product lines.
For example, instead of offering its products in big boxes, it offered them in medium and small, so that it could target different consumers, says the man known as one of Madagascar’s wealthiest.
“At the same time we had our ear to the ground, we went to see retailers and our customers to find out what they wanted, as the buyer is king,” Akbaraly adds.
From this exercise an important lesson was learned.
“You have to adapt your product to the market, this is the base of an entrepreneur, to adapt his way of doing things.”
Through these changes, the business started growing its market share and diversifying. It now operates in several sectors including broadcasting, agribusiness, real estate, technology, finance, renewable energy, tourism, aviation and industry.
Akbaraly, a staunch believer in ‘free leadership’, becomes animated when he explains how Sipromad was able to see opportunities in these sectors.
“It is a question of opportunities, it is a question of courage, I believe a lot in teamwork because with my colleagues, we talk, we debate, we change, we decide together.”
“I believe that business is a creation,” he adds. To explain his point, he draws an analogy to an artist with his palette, who mixes his paint as he sees the potential beauty it can create.
Like the artist who mixes his colors, business is a creation of the opportunities you take, reckons Akbaraly.
“This is why understanding the market, understanding what is going to happen in five years, is important so that you can take decisions when you have opportunities in front of you, we are very proactive, very fast in taking decisions and we are not scared, we are not afraid because we work very hard,” Akbaraly says.
The rationale for diversification
What is striking about the clusters Sipromad operates in is that they are vastly different.
Akbaraly claims the rationale for this is that it comes down to the businessperson you are: “There are two types of businessmen. Some prefer to stay in the same sector, to invest in the same sector and develop in the same sector, to integrate. Our strategy was diversification. We thought about it and the outcome of our discussions and debates was to diversify the business as it protects you if you are facing problems in one sector.”
The architect of this multi-sector business also suggests the market demanded it: “Today, when we see how we became big and how we became so strong in business, it is because we diversified our business for different markets.
“Now things are changing because of this diversification, now we can synergize because sometimes our customers are interested in detergents, tobacco, soap, so we can synergize and propose many products to one customer because of our diversification. This is a big advantage because one customer is able to buy products from different sectors of our company.”
The growth was funded by reinvesting a 100% of the company’s profits back into the family empire, explains the mogul with an international outlook.
“When you don’t distribute your profit it means your profit becomes a strength for your company… when you show the bankers that your money is reinvesting and you don’t distribute your dividends and you tell them, ‘ok we have this type of investment, we can bring 30%, we can raise 70% from you’, it gives our financial partners very big security and they follow us. this is how we raised money to reinvest, diversify and buy equipment, buy raw materials and increase our business.”
‘Reputation very important’
But it wasn’t just Sipromad’s shrewdness in capital raising that allowed it to expand but its reputation.
Candidly, Akbaraly says: “We are very careful about our management. Reputation is very important, because of our serious work, our engagement, our products, our customers, our suppliers, we created a name and when you do that, you create your brand, and because of that, when foreigners come to invest in Madagascar, they come to Sipromad.
Those that have partnered with the company include Orange Money in mobile banking, Italy’s Tozzi Green in hydropower, Brink’s for the transport of money, and Apple, to name a few.
Last year, the global company did a joint venture with one of Morocco’s largest banks, Banque Centrale Populaire, to buy Mauritius-based Banque des Mascareignes and its subsidiary Banque des Mascareignes – Madagascar.
Analogue to digital
Akbaraly says the company’s reputation led to its partnership with Rohde & Schwarz based in Munich, Germany, and its purchase of Thomson Broadcast. These deals catapulted it to another level.
Akbaraly, with fervor, explains further: “As we have a very strong IT department, we set up Broadcasting Media Solutions (BMS), which specializes in broadcast, because of our reputation, we were approached by electronics group Rohde & Schwarz.
“They came to us and told us ‘we know you have a very serious business, you have a very good maintenance team, do you want to work with us in Madagascar to sell our products in broadcast and maintain them?’ Of course we did!”
From Madagascar, Sipromad partnered with Rohde & Schwarz in Mauritius and Morocco and subcontracted for the electronics group after it won a tender in Zimbabwe and Ghana.
In the process, Sipromad became a player in the broadcasting space. In 2018, BMS bid for a contract in Mali for the deployment of a nationwide, end-to-end digital terrestrial television (DTT) turnkey roll out, it lost to France’s Thomson Broadcast. Refusing to give up, Akbaraly discovered Thomson had financial problems and decided to buy it.
Thomson not only allowed Sipromad to expand into Mali but transformed it to a truly global business with operations in France, Israel, Cape Verde, Bangladesh, India, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.
Akbaraly says it is looking to expand to Pennsylvania in the US, to Canada, Angola, Sierra Leone and South Africa. In Africa, it plans to migrate countries from analogue to digital broadcasting.
The visionary says Sipromad’s dream is for a pan-African company to become a leader in broadcast.
But Madagascar will always remain his core. Full of love for his homeland, he speaks highly of it: “It is my center of energy, we call it plasma, I am here because of Madagascar, it was the source, the beginning, the start and my grandfather taught me, my mother’s father [who said] ‘don’t forget Madagascar because you have been protected by the flag of Madagascar, Madagascar was your protector, do the best, develop your business all around the world’, but the source, the energy, the key, the chi is Madagascar.”
The father of four believes his success comes from living a balanced life, surrounding himself with the right people, being spiritual and positive.
“If you want to be successful in life, you have to create positive energy, how you create it is according to your behavior, according to what you do, how you behave with others.” He reckons the energy was passed on from his family through education, their good attitude and transparency.
The martial arts veteran follows a very strict routine. It’s the reason he has been called the monk of business.
“My life is very well-organized, because I wake up in the morning between 4AM and 4.30AM and pray; spirituality first, then meditation, yoga, and take some water, fruit and then I go for my sports, usually I start at 6 o’ clock, for a minimum of one hour a day and then I go to the office.
“When you’re at a certain level of business, you have to be very well-organized, you cannot afford to go outside in the night to clubs, to sleep late. This is not possible, otherwise in the morning, you cannot wake up early, your day starts badly… that is why one day, one of my very close uncles told me ‘your life is like a Buddhist life, it is like a monk’. I think at a certain level you need to have this type of life. I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke, and I don’t eat meat.”
Philanthropy, education and inclusion
It is Akbaraly’s deep spirituality, love for his country and sense of justice that led him to use his wealth for the greater good of humanity. In 2008, he and his Italian wife, Cinzia, who shares and developed his spirituality, founded the Akbaraly Foundation.
The idea was conceptualized while Cinzia was in hospital for cancer. She wanted to do something for Madagascan women because they are the foundation of life, the center of energy, the plasma of the world, says Akbaraly.
In Madagascar, they set up prevention centers to assist women with breast and gynaecological cancer.
The country is among the poorest in the world, it saddens the philanthropist when he reflects on it:
“We are not happy because when you see people you know that are not in a good situation, they don’t have shoes, they don’t have enough food… you need justice, life needs to be fair. My dream, and I hope it will materialize, is to fight against poverty, to give a better life to our population so that they can go to school and have hospitals.”
It is for this reason that the foundation’s aim is to fight against extreme poverty. Its projects extend to health, education and sustainable development.
“Right now, we are in discussions in the US with MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. We would like to sign an agreement between MIT and Thomson, and one university of IT in Madagascar, to offer our young generation of Madagascans IT and maybe send them abroad,” says Akbaraly, who is a firm believer in the power of education.
In countries where Sipromad operates, it prioritizes corporate social investment. In Mali, for example, together with the government, it is investing in radio to transfer education to parts of Mali, Akbaraly says.
The foundation also makes contributions. In Rwanda, for example, it is contributing $100,000 to the launch of new hospitals, says the businessman.
His sense of justice doesn’t just extend to the foundation’s projects but also to his own organization.
Women and men are paid equally for the same work. More and more women are being placed in executive positions because they are very good, Akbaraly says.
His fight against poverty lives out in the projects his company chooses to focus on.
“That is why we are investing a lot in the industry sector; we just built the [Orange Telecommunication] Tower,” a 33-storey headquarter building, the tallest in the world’s fourth largest island, and known as the “pride of the nation”.
“We are doing so many investments, we hire people, we give them jobs. We are, right now, in another project for real estate, what we can do is to invest, to hire people, to fight against unemployment, to give them a chance to buy things, to go to the restaurant, to have good food and at the same time with the profit to share in the project of CSI, this is the positive energy, this is the karma, this is important in life because in life you have to be fair, you cannot accept that some people are in this situation while others are in a better situation,” Akbaraly reflects. Throughout his career, he has received accolades. The one he is most proud of is the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman from India in 2009.
Akbaraly is under no illusion he will hold on to power forever. He is hard at work preparing the next generation to take over Sipromad, because in a few years’ time, he wants to do something else, he tells FORBES AFRICA. “I want to do more for others. Really to share with others,” the monk of business says with a smile.
Akbaraly and Philippe Douste-Blazy, the Under-Secretary-General, Special Adviser on Innovative Financing for Development in the United Nations, have forged a friendship over the years. “Ylias is a self-made millionaire who started from humble beginnings,” Douste-Blazy says. “We’ve had many interesting conversations about geopolitics and other trends around the world.”
Douste-Blazy talks about Akbaraly’s humility and how he lets his work speak for itself. “He is very discreet. When you see him walk down the street, he is not loud about his wealth. He walks freely without guards or expensive cars.”
Douste-Blazy expends that Akbaraly’s business strategies have captured the attention of many. “Akbaraly is respected in France, his acquisition of Thomson [Broadcast] was very important….The assets that he has acquired show him to be a smart businessman.”
“I have much respect for my friend and peer Ylias Akbaraly. He is the textbook definition of a visionary entrepreneur. The transformation of his group of companies was single-handedly spearheaded by him.
“From their international expansion to endeavors in tourism, manufacturing, energy, real estate, they were all strategically invested by him. There’s much to take note of in this story.
“What many may not know is in addition to his many accolades, I must say his piety seeps through all his endeavors, both professionally and personally. His strong faith has propelled him to be even more grounded and thus become the successful businessman he is today.” – Mohammed Dewji, CEO, MeTL Group, and Africa’s youngest billionaire
-With inputs from Unathi Shologu