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‘People Refused To Come And Meet Me Because I Am Indian’

It was a 7,559-kilometer journey from India to the heart of Africa through tough times, hatred and taxes.

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Arun Chadha has done well for himself far from home. He overcame racism, built a company from the ground up and now runs a steel exporter that employs 300 people and turns over billions of rands, in a cutthroat business, in Johannesburg.

It all began in India, 7,559 kilometers from Johannesburg. It was humble fireside teachings from his father, who worked for the government, that led him to a career that took him to Africa 28 years ago.

“The one thing my father gave us was good education. I did my chartered accountancy, took up a job in the Middle East and then moved to Zambia in 1988,” says Chadha.

He was poached by another company and transferred to South Africa as an expatriate. It was here where trouble began.

“I came and took over as the Chief Executive of a British company. I faced a lot of problems because people refused to come and meet me because I am Indian. I used to get phone calls from people threatening me because of the color of my skin or cars following me,” he recalls.

It was hard but Chadha was harder. It took him just three months to show people skin didn’t matter to him.

“Surprisingly these same white guys became some of my closest friends as soon as they realized that our blood is all red, it’s not the skin that makes the difference, what makes the difference is the approach to things and the important thing is work.”

In 1994 he was transferred to New York. He decided South Africa was a beautiful country and he came back, became a permanent resident and Allied Chemicals and Steel, a general export business, was born.

“I had no problems setting up the company, getting a VAT registration or opening a bank account, none at all. I got all my approvals within three weeks,” he says.

Running his own business wasn’t easy. The first year’s turnover was R9-million ($656,000) but profit was a mere R20,000 ($1,500). This wasn’t enough to sustain the comfortable life he was used to as an expatriate.

“Life as an expatriate is very cushy because your house, car, furniture, children’s education and everything is paid for by the company. All of a sudden when you resign and start your own company, you have to pay for everything yourself,” says Chadha.

Expenses rose. He had to cut back. With his wife, they moved to a small rented flat for R3,500 ($250) where they stayed until the year 2000 when they bought their first home.

“Everything that was earned went back to the company to grow the company. What you see today is from those beginnings. The one [thing] that was there, which was on my side, was education… You might not use your education but it’s a stepping stone towards your next level,” he says.

In 1996 the company focused on its core product, steel. The business grew at a rapid rate. From the year 2000 to 2008, they touched a turnover of over a billion rand ($73 million).

“The problem thought though was always that I am a trader and not manufacturer. Sooner or later, someone will override me or overstep me and I will not be able to compete with them.”

In 2010, Chadha bought a piece of land, near Vereeniging, south of Johannesburg, to build a steel factory.

“That’s when I met Warne Rippon, he used to have a company called Steelrode and we decided to merge the two companies because we were not conflicting with each other. One was exporting into Africa and the other was focused on South Africa,” he says.

It was a long process. It took six months for the merger to be approved.

“From the days of 1994 where it took me 24 hours, it took us six months to get a VAT registration. That’s some of the frustrations new business people are facing now. I do not understand why it takes so long…,” he says.

The merger was finalized on March 1, 2013, giving birth to Allied Steelrode, which employs 300 people. The company has tripled its turnover in the last three years; but not without problems.

As an export company into Africa, it deals with emerging markets, some suffering from a cash crisis and others with unstable politics which weakens the economy.

“In Zimbabwe we are facing problems because the people we export to have the money in the banks but the banks can’t remit the money to us. We now have to accept money in pounds, euros, US dollars, and whatever is available… The devaluation in Zambia has been great. But after the elections are over and [President Edgar] Lungu has come in, it has been fairly stable.”

For Chadha, the biggest problem in Africa is the falling commodity prices.

“We hope the commodity prices start looking up in 2017. We see that oil has gone up, gold prices have gone up and that’s why steel prices are shooting up at the moment. I have a feeling 2017 is going to be a better year than 2016.”

It is optimism, steadfastness and kindness that led him to the top at the end of a 7,559-kilometer journey.

Entrepreneurs

Masai Ujiri’s dream of harnessing untapped African talent

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The President of Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, on his adoration for Africa as a continent filled with unlimited potential and talent.


The tall man in sport, Masai Ujiri, is a name in professional basketball far beyond the borders of Africa and his native Nigeria.

Born in England but having grown up in Zaria in Africa’s most populous country, Ujiri’s adoration for Africa sees him on the continent often, inspiring the youth.

“Africa is no more afraid. We are not afraid of anybody anymore. The continent is bold. The people are bold,” says Ujiri, when FORBES AFRICA meets him in Johannesburg in November at the Africa Investment Forum in which he participated.

The continent has a special place in his heart.

The President of the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association (NBA), also founded Giants of Africa (GOA) in 2003, as a way of harnessing budding, untapped talent.

“As long as I am in a position where I am able to, we have to give the youth a chance. We have to pave a path for them and there is nothing I can’t do. I have to do everything, it is an obligation, I have to be an example for them by creating that pathway,” he says.

Ujiri, who started playing basketball at the age of 13, travels to Africa every August to visit the GOA camps across seven countries on the continent, training young boys and girls to be leaders in both sport and everyday life.

He says he draws inspiration from each and every country in Africa, and the feeling is inexplicable.

The history and culture are a constant reminder of his years growing up in Africa.

Whether it is in Kenya, where his mother was born, or the lasting friendships in Rwanda, Senegal or Nigeria, each country holds special memories.

Apart from the numerous trips in and out of the continent, 2018 granted Ujiri a rare once-in-a-lifetime moment.

This was in July when Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, visited Kenya, and with him, Ujiri opened a basketball court in the country.

Ujiri’s outreach program GOA launched it at the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resources and Vocational Centre in Alego; familiar ground for both leaders.

Managed by Auma Obama, Sauti Kuu, much like GOA, is focused on youth development.

“To spend that time with somebody that Africa means so much to, meant so much to me and so much to Auma. We are trying to inspire youth, we built a court that is going to impact the youth and that was special,” says Ujiri. 

Being able to scout African talent is what is imperative for Ujiri, and it all comes down to building facilities to help the youth play basketball.

Ultimately, his dream for Africa is not only to see material wealth but for talent to go beyond what he has achieved.

“My dream is to have one of the youth become bigger than me, and bigger than everybody. People think I always dream of building this and doing that but I want one of these kids to take everything that they learn and do better in each and everything.

“I love the continent; I love the culture of different places. I am almost like Anthony Bourdain [the late American celebrity chef], that is how it really is with basketball, with the culture, the people and the food,” says Ujiri.

Staying true to his African roots, when we meet him, Ujiri speaks about his favorite yam and stew dish that he says reminds him of his childhood.

It’s such memories that see him taking the long-haul flight out of Toronto to Africa each year.

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Brewing Success: Lessons From A Beer Baron

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Canadian John Sleeman shares his entrepreneurial lessons with Africa.


cis not your typical textbook entrepreneur. His belief in what it takes to be an entrepreneur is so controversial that his advice is no longer welcome in MBA classes. The white-haired charismatic brewer, who re-established his family’s brewing business in 1988 as one of the most successful in Canada, offers sage advice to African entrepreneurs, although he has no plans to expand in Africa – yet.

Nonchalantly, in his automated beer manufacturing plant in Guelph, Canada, surrounded by people enjoying his craft beer, Sleeman says he believes entrepreneurs are born, not made. He argues that unless you are prepared to go bankrupt, work over 80 hours a week, lose your friends, face the prospect of divorce, put your house on mortgage and miss meeting friends for drinks on Fridays, then entrepreneurship is not for you.

He should know. This is the toll he took to restart his family business. It had lost its licence and was banned from the market for 50 years in 1933. This was for smuggling beer during the roaring 1920s by brokering deals with bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone when prohibition set in in Canada.

Passionately, the beer baron, who plans to open a micro-distillery later this year, and is considering expanding his business in either the eastern or western parts of Canada, tells FORBES AFRICA: “If you want to be an entrepreneur, be very focused on what you want to achieve and don’t let people talk you out of it. If it is a dream, pursue it until you are successful.”

He attributes his success to surrounding himself with the right people. They will make or break your business, says Sleeman. You should be ready to change your business model if the current one isn’t working, he adds.

In his own case, he did this after his colleague advised him that rather than opening up new breweries across Canada, he should buy existing ones that share Sleeman Breweries’ crazy passion for beer and authenticity.

Sleeman reckons you shouldn’t grow so big that you lose your entrepreneurial flair, first-mover advantage and risk-appetite, but you also shouldn’t remain so small that you get knocked out of business or get bought out by someone who does not see your vision and wants to dismantle you, as it almost happened to his business in 2006. If you do sell, reminisces Sleeman, sell to someone who sees your vision, like Sleeman Breweries did, when Japanese company Sapporo saved the Guelph-based firm from a hostile takeover.

But that’s history. Since then, Sapporo has helped fund research and development and training for the business, whose humble, down-to-earth founder is now taking it on its next spirited journey.

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The Story Of The $3,000 Sneakers

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South African artist Conor McCreedy on creating what could be the world’s most expensive sneakers.


A literally stumbled upon a business opportunity.

The renowned South African artist, who only paints in blue,was one day at work in his studio, in a 600-year-old, four-storeyed building in Zurich, when he accidentally spilled some of the monochromatic pigment on to his white sneakers.

Who knew it would lead to a designer line of expensive sneakers.

The artist, resident in Switzerland since 2014, now sells the limited edition sneakers for $3,000 a pair. 

What helped that day was that the painting accident was shortly before a meeting with an art collector.

“This art dealer wanted some work for a private collection.I couldn’t get time to put my shoes on, so I went in my sneakers, and this guy just loved them… He opened up to me and said he likes the idea. ‘Try and take it further’, he said to me,” says McCreedy to FORBES AFRICA, on the phone from Switzerland.

Artist Conor McCreedy. Picture: Supplied

After spending four months finalizing the collaboration with an established shoe company, Ludwig Reiter, the concept sprung to life.

A regular pair of their white sneakers sells for $685, but with a splash of McCreedy, it costs almost five times more.   

“A lot of people can put paint on sneakers. We are not reinventing the world but putting the McCreedy blue on to a sneaker. It has a value chain,” he says.

Even before its launch mid-November, nine of the 200 limited edition sneakers had been sold to collectors from around the world.

“I love when people say that the splash looks like a kid’s.I actually like that, it has taken me 30 years to create that splash, that is a great story,” says McCreedy.

He adds the handcrafted sneaker will not only appeal to art lovers who are looking to collect, but even corporate titans and banking CEOs,and the uber-chic would want to wear it at cultural festivals.

In Switzerland, ultra-networth and high-networth-individuals are his customers.

“The beautiful part is that the sneakers are backed by my art, and compared to the art, they are relatively cheap,” says McCreedy.

Artist Conor McCreedy converted an old bank building into his studio and atelier in Zurich. Picture: Supplied

The tranquillity and stability the artist associates with the color blue led to the creation of his own pigment known as ‘McCreedy blue’.

McCreedy has used it to create most of his paintings since 2011.

But building a career through art requires more than just mixing color on canvas.

“Art is always considered a luxury; don’t let anyone fool you when they say it is not luxurious. People don’t just buy art, it is a luxury creation… If Picasso was alive today, he would probably have his own app,” he says.

His art inspired him to create products, from candles to a coffee blend on sale on the ground floor of his studio.

The space is curated so it’s an alluring odyssey for customers.

White walls are adorned with original McCreedy blue paintings, showcasing the artist’s work for prospective buyers, collectors and dealers.

The ‘Essence of McCreedy blue’ forms part of the luxurious elements the artist wants to reinstate in the art world.

It took the artist three years in Zurich, one of the global centers for banking and finance, to convert an old bank building into an atelier and studio. “It’s showing how people view the world through the eyes of an artist. It is about being part of the journey and the experience. It is about feeling what luxury is like,” he says.

Staying true to his African roots, McCreedy draws inspiration from Botswana, Nigeria and South Africa, which he expresses through abstract images.

“I love African and South African art. It is really stimulating for me and as a growing artist, I like to collect whatever I can afford. One day, I will create my own museum and show what I have from different parts of the world,” says McCreedy. Open to exploring more markets, McCreedy wishes to collaborate with African artists. He would not have it any other way.


Artist Conor McCreedy converted an old bank building into his studio and atelier in Zurich. Picture: Supplied

The world may present the artist with greater opportunities,but it cannot compete with the culture and the spirit of ubuntu [humanity]found in his country of birth, he explains.

“I miss good South African beer, I miss sitting on a Land Rover with no shirt on, drinking a beer. I miss the weather and the locals.”

But wherever McCreedy goes, he ensures his prized pair of sneakers is never too far away.

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