JULY 27, 2020, marked a new beginning for Botswana-based retailer Choppies Enterprises. The Botswana Stock Exchange (BSE) announced that Choppies securities would begin trading again on the bourse following the fulfilment of its obligations. The retail chain had been suspended from the BSE. Zimbabwe Independent correspondent Nkululeko Sibanda (NS) speaks to Choppies chief executive Ramachandran Ottapathu (RO, pictured) on this and other issues. Below are excerpts of the interview:
NS: Choppies is back on the BSE. How are you feeling?
RO: We are very happy and very excited about the development that has been recorded on the Botswana Stock Exchange. We are very happy because we have managed to put behind us an issue or hurdle that has been hanging around us for the last one-and-a-half years.
Thanks to the board and the entire management, we have managed to overcome and get this challenge out of our way. We are excited because we are back on the exchange and we look at this not only as a positive step but also one step that should take Choppies to where it belongs, at the apex of the retail industry in Africa.
NS: Your company has been off the bourse for about 20 months now. How did you navigate those months of suspension from the stock exchange?
RO: The 20 months have not been an easy period in our history. Each and every day has been a day where we have been hoping that we would get to finalise the assignment given to us by the BSE, that of finalising and publishing the audited financial statements for the period that has been outstanding.
Believe it or not, on a daily basis, we had reminders that we still had to finalise and publish the results. We did put all our efforts towards this as a team and, finally, we delivered on the task at hand. It has been a challenging environment but we can now look back with pride and look forward to a fruitful stay on the stock exchange going forward.
NS: Some analysts feel there was no need for Choppies to be suspended in the first place. What is your response to this?
RO: Perspectives differ from people to people. From our perspective, there were really no issues that necessitated the suspension.
Some of the matters raised previously by some people, who inevitably led to the delay in the publishing of the results as per BSE regulations, were investigated and I am happy to note that the investigations showed that the allegations had no basis. That is why the matters were solved and that is why we are still here. We have been mandated by the board to steer the company in the right direction, going forward, and that is what we are busy with at the moment.
NS: The previous board tried to get rid of you by initiating your suspension based on a set of allegations. Surprisingly, you bounced back after a vote by the board. How did this all happen?
RO: The board appreciated that I was standing on the true and correct side of issues. They knew that the allegations levelled against me which necessitated that supposed suspension would not hold for any longer than the time they were made.
It is indeed true that no matter how people try to accuse you of doing anything, no matter how small or big, the truth will always prevail and the truth will always set you free. That is my story. The truth, real truth of what happened, prevailed and the board saw no reason to keep me on suspension because I was clean.
NS: The 20-month absence from the BSE obviously means a very huge loss to the enterprise in terms of investment. How does Choppies hope to recover from this loss?
RO: We are optimistic that the good days associated with doing business with Choppies Enterprises will return very soon. We have dedicated ourselves to bring this company where it used to be, that is the stock exchange.
We have righted the wrongs. We need to focus our energies on the big task that lies ahead of us. That task is to ensure that the company is sound.
We, as the board, working with our valued management, will throw in all that we have to ensure that we restore the company to its previous glory and build on this in order to get to the success we desire for brand Choppies.
NS: What unique offering does Choppies have that will bring returns when trading on the BSE?
RO: In everything we do at Choppies, we believe that the brand offers anyone, be it a customer, shareholder, and anyone whom we do business with, great value for money. We are confident that those that we shall be dealing with will see the value of their doing business with us and add to that business that we have done with them.
NS: Choppies is a continental brand with footprints in most southern African countries. How has the business performed so far?
RO: We believe that we have remained largely in business because the brand has done well within the circumstances. We will continue looking at means and ways through which we can enhance the business and build on the foundation that we have set since we started expanding into the region.
It is indeed a competitive world, but we believe that with our offering to the market, we will be even better than what we have done so far. There is still room for improvement.
NS: What have been the challenges that you have faced as Choppies in your regional operations?
RO: Each and every country has a distinct set of challenges that affect business. We have had challenges in some of our branches in different countries. Some of the shops in countries such as Kenya and South Africa have not performed so well in line with our expectations, given circumstances that have been obtaining in those countries. We are happy there are some that have made positive contributions to the business.
NS: Choppies has been in the news with reports that it is shutting down some operations in Africa. How has this affected the growth trajectory that you had envisioned some few years back?
RO: Well, these shops that you have alluded to have tended to slow down our intended growth trajectory. The board took a very decisive step where it decided that those that were making losses should be shut down. That is why we have had to, like I said, exit some markets. This is aimed at addressing the issues that come with the losses I have spoken to earlier.
NS: What new investments is the business envisaging in the very foreseeable future whose purpose is to support growth?
RO: We are busy at the moment working on the restructuring of the company’s finances. This is a process that helps us look into the financial status of the business.
Once we have done this, we are able to see what resources we can dedicate to what aspect of the business. Once that evaluation has been done, we will be able to shed light on the next move we are going to take. I can assure you that these decisions we will be making will be for the best interest of Choppies and its shareholders.
NS: How is the business performing and how will you grow the Choppies brand in Zimbabwe going forward?
RO: Zimbabwe has been a good market for us. We appreciate the return on the business that has been registered so far. We appreciate that the circumstances have not been that good, but all we can say is that, within the circumstances, the market has been good to us, which is a good reason why we will maintain our presence on the Zimbabwean market.
NS: At some point, you mentioned that Choppies wanted to increase its stores to about 60. Is this still part of the plan? And if it is, which other areas are you looking at setting up shop?
RO: As you might be aware, Zimbabwe has had a peculiar challenge with the currency situation. It was difficult to forge ahead with the plans, given the situation at hand. We have made a decision to say we should await the stabilisation of the currency in Zimbabwe and the situation thereof. Once that happens and things stabilise, we would be in a position to forge ahead with our initial plans.
NS: You seem to be enjoying a fair share of the Zimbabwean market. What is the secret insofar as your Zimbabwean operations are concerned?
RO: Zimbabweans, like I said, have accepted the brand and all that has come with it. We have managed to bring shopping convenience to the people through our locally located shops where people access basic commodities within their localities.
We have broadened the products on offer and there are so many changes that we are bringing to their shopping arrangements. That is how they have managed to embrace the brand.
NS: The world is battling the Covid-19 pandemic. How has it affected your operations in all the areas where you have operations?
RO: Covid-19 has affected the business like it has affected all the spheres of our lives. It has affected big business and we have not been spared either. The advent of the virus has resulted in a drop in our revenues and we hope that, soon, the pandemic will disappear from our midst and, when that happens, we will be able to reset the business into its correct status.