Africa > West Africa > Ghana > Forewin Group Ghana ‘We see crisis as solid roots to success’

Ghana: Forewin Group Ghana ‘We see crisis as solid roots to success’

2017/08/11

In this interview with The Worldfolio, Mr. Ghassan Yared, CEO of Forewin Group, discusses the role of the private sector in Ghana’s economic increase, how Forewin Group has managed to diversify into one of Ghana’s biggest conglomerates and their new venture with Actis, “The Exchange” project.

Like the rest of the world, Africa remains uncertain about what is approaching next world geopolitical shifts like Trumps election in the US or Brexit in the UK. How can Africa take chance of this world landscape and gain investor confidence?

Let me go back additional than 10 years at the same time as we started talking about emerging markets. Before the world economic crisis, everybody was putting attention in Africa; the next is Africa; the people of Africa; it’s going to happen in Africa. And people started preparing business plans, visiting aggressively, but in the back of their mind, in my opinion, the reason why they did not succeed since again is that all the international and multinational companies were coming with their ideas which they wanted to execute as learned in Europe and in the US and implement it in a market in the African continent, not considerate that this is a different environment. There is a different way to do and conduct business. And a lot of of them turned back and went back home. Until the crisis started and everybody lost interest because they had their own concerns and own worries to take care of. People kind of forgot about Africa.

Presently things are changing again. Economies are getting better, multinationals want to go additional multinational, there are mergers and acquisitions, and everybody wants to be part of the large cake, and the large cake is presently Africa.

I think that Africa is a good option for the US to replace China in the short, medium, and long-term. Don't forget that China’s economy is booming but most of their raw material is coming from Africa. So If Trump´s relation today with China and the Far East is not as it should be, in my opinion, African leaders should take chance of this to get together and make their environment attractive enough to nations like the US or for whole continents approaching. To tell them, we have a fertile environment, come and help us to provide you with alternative to reduce your political pressure.

With Brexit, UK wants to improve their bilateral relations and trade relations with Africa because they need something to replace Europe and tomorrow maybe an extra country will emerge and South Africa will want to expand, and North America will want to expand, so where do they expand? They look for a similar environment; similar weather and again they can find it here. For example, I know Peru and Ghana have a lot of similarities. Similar environment, weather, and opportunities of increase in agriculture, mining and energy.

So having said that, if you put everything together, there is a great opportunity for Africa as a continent. Presently, do our leaders see this as an opportunity and what are they doing to capture this opportunity or to create an environment to bring those investors and make them feel comfortable on a medium and long-term.

Let’s acknowledge. Africa is the place. Africa is an alternative. Africa, if I was a world leader, it would be my best option to move into a different innovative direction.

What I can say is that our new president has started to create a clear vision. Working on the code of conduct of its people. Putting some guiding principles for his ministries, playing by the rules, creating trust part organisations of the ministries where there are no additional overlapping responsibilities that are creating delays to doing business; and no hiccups and uncertainties for investors.

I think he knows exactly what this country needs. He is building trust part people, organisations and ministries, to give a good image and give trust to attract those investors approaching and say presently, this is a sound environment. We are here. We can invest. It’s for the medium and long-term.

Over the last decade Ghana has been one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, and despite the economic increase has slowed sizable over the last few years the truth is that Ghana today with a growing middle class, an energetic start-up scene and a new pro business government looks to become Africa’s fastest growing economy once additional. How can Ghana recover its leading position?

Educate people initial. Make the people respect the rules. Make people understand that they need to bring trust. They need to bring a trust-powered system for investors approaching. Just imagine, you know, Ghanaians, in general, they have a good attitude. It’s a positive attitude. They are friendly.

So we do have the people. Presently we have the leaders. Up to a certain extent, I’m very satisfied with the choice of ministers. They are experienced people and they mean business. Of course there will always be some funny stories that you hear, but in general I am completely satisfied with this and positive that with the Akufo-Addo leadership, things will move in the right direction. So there are preparations on the ground. At the same time he is showing those people that you need to behave in such a way but as well there are lots of opportunities. Opportunities, you know, he came with this back yard farming. You know, back yard farming is a perfect alternative to import. Is a perfect alternative to create a balance in the economy.

But as well for this you need to educate them, you need to train them, you need to give them some seeds, you need to give them some skills. Once you start farming you have the use of the farm. If you take it you need to sell it. If not it will be rotten. So at the same time he came with this one factory, one district thing. But one factory, one district is too easy to talk about but it is too difficult to implement. Because it’s not about ‘come my friend, bring your money and put the factory here.’ No, it’s a supply chain. You have to go through the model from the beginning. And model from the beginning we start from those farmers that own lands or those lands that are to be farmed but they do not have the material to farm them in such a good way to produce for you a good return on their investment .

Presently, if you want to go with one factory, one district, those factories need raw material. Raw material is agricultural. I have been participating at a lot of summits, a lot of meetings, group meetings with the government. So we’re trying to look at different ways to drive, really this vision, to connect the pieces together. So you need not only the farmers to use tractors and equipment in each district but to have enough input for the industry and to have places like frozen/cold storage areas and warehouses. It can happen. But it can happen if you work on a million things at a time.

What role must the private sector play to achieve this?

The private sector is the ignitor of this economy. It’s not the government. One thing that we always repeat as entrepreneurs here is that we are not Government competitors. We are not Government enemies. We are partners with the Government. If we succeed within an environment, within an economy that will help the Government balance and invest in infrastructure.

How would you describe the business climate? What are the major challenges and what are the advantages of setting up a business in Ghana?

If we are talking about history, let me tell you: Africa is an environment that is very volatile, with ups and downs. And there can be a lot of hidden, unforeseen Government policy that comes overnight without being expected. Increasing electricity costs by 100%, interest rate increases, Ghana cedi devaluation. If somebody sneezes in Nigeria we, Ghana, are affected. So we live in an environment that is really like shifting sands, if you move to make an effort you go down.

Sometimes you better step back, sit and watch. Not to do anything. Because if you do make an action during this crisis you will go. And a lot of companies have gone. That’s where we come in. That’s why I succeeded. Time next time. Because each time there is a crisis I always take chance to adjust the model very quickly and very swiftly to make sure that I am maintaining my existence and I’m putting price to my offering, not price to my selling.

 

In 1993 you founded Forewin Ghana Limited, which quickly became a leader of reference in the field of distribution and marketing and today enjoys one of the majority diversified portfolios in the country. What have been the key elements behind Forewin Group’s success? What challenges have you had to overcome?

In the distribution company, at the same time as the crisis started back ’99, the trade here is based on credit. You give credit and again by the time you get your money, the cedi devaluated, you lose your money. So, my biggest challenge was how to convert my savings into cash. So I decided to invest in a chain of cash and carry outlets. In a period of twelve months I had opened 48 outlets and these outlets were selling cash. So I converted a good % of my savings into cash that limited my exposure to the cedi devaluation. We took some overdraft from the bank to balance it and again we went on with a fixed high cost, but with a fixed cost not a variable cost. And that’s how we survived the initial time.

Again while we were doing this other people were disappearing because they were losing their money and price of their capital from the devaluation of the cedi. And time next time, there’s always a way to move forward no matter how difficult the situation is. I have a very large tag line, I always say it: ‘we see crisis as solid roots to success.’ And indeed I always see crisis as a solid root to success. Because each time there is crisis we come out better and stronger from each situation.

Even the last two years. We have acquired a lot of brands that people lost. We keep on investing. And an extra secret of our success is that at early stages, you know, before the year 2000, I realised to survive in such an environment with lots of uncertainty and hidden surprises, you need to diversify in a lot of businesses. That’s why from distribution I went in to expanding my horizon. I took a licence for a free zone. I built in the free zone enclave back in 98-99, so I expanded my territory by creating a distribution centre to West Africa out of Ghana. It had nothing to do with the Ghana economy so that was a business that was booming. From there I invested and I took a licence for business-free. So I opened business-free shops on the borders. And again I started creating my private label because I thought that to be safe long term you need to own your own brands. So I created a private label and I grew up the volume of the private label until I decided that I have enough economy of scale to invest in industry. So I did. I invested in industry.

Today we have an industrial park in Tem where we produce agrofood and again distribute it on our own, on the local market and on the export market. And again we realised that the next is online. Amazon.com is taking the market in the US, so what do we learn from this? We established zoobashop.com and I went into a partnership with a friend and we can proudly say we are the initial online shopping website in Ghana. Presently you have the large giants from Africa that are coming here. We have plans.

And again from there I had a great opportunity four years ago. No matter how much the infrastructure we maintain, it is difficult. There’s always a lot additional to do in the infrastructure. So I have partnered with a Belgium company with 40 years’ experience in heavy machinery. We came with a portfolio of heavy machinery with large, big international brands. We have Bomag, for road construction, which is number one worldwide. We have Doosan, the Koreans and for mining and real estate. We have Bobcat. So from this company we serve road construction, mining companies, real estate developers, you name it we have it.

The reason why we are succeeding very fast here is because we are the only company with a large portfolio servicing all at the same time. With a very large investment and next sale service and workshop that we implemented from day one. So we are developing beyond the borders of Ghana presently. We have expanded in Nigeria and Sierra Leone; and we are as well expanding presently in other areas.

At the same time as you go into a business and you are aware of the environment, this is one of the reasons that I found success. We know all different kinds of businesses, and again we connect them together and understand what’s going to happen from here and again we travel a lot and we understand what the next looks like. And again we try to be ahead and try to be innovative. We are lucky to have the financial power and the will to do so with a team that is very well experienced. This is why we are so much in the game. So presently we have developed a platform – an online platform. It’s called Mr Machinery. It’s a rental platform for heavy machinery. And this, we launched it in Ghana, and we are going to launch it, hopefully in Africa, within the next twelve months. It’s the Airbnb of heavy machinery.

We send you the machine. You use it 50% of the time. We can manage it on your behalf at the same time as it’s free. You have a project for six months, you finish your project, you have a project next six months, during this six months I manage it on your behalf.

It’s the majority cost effective way for any operator to buy and he has to buy from us to enable us to manage his machine and rent his machine and share the revenue of the machine. This is a model that is going to revolutionise the industry. And this is an extra way that we are moving.

We have reinvested and reinvested and reinvested. That’s why we have grown so much. And along with those investments, we have developed a lot of properties of our own. And it happened that I bought a very nice piece of land a few years ago and we wanted to do something with this land. And I was looking for a partner that will add price in developing this land. And luckily for me I was introduced to Actis.

As you mention, you have recently partnered with Actis UK to undertake the construction of the major mixed-use development in West Africa, “The Exchage” project. Can you share some details on this ambitious project and how it will serve to market Ghana internationally?

Actis are the major real estate fund in sub-Sahara Africa. I think they have close to four billion presently in investments. This project is the biggest single project they have done.

We went into partnership where we wanted to go in 50/50. So far we have 49%, they have 51%. We have equal seats on the board and I’m the chairman of the company managing this and I’m a director of this, along with one of the directors of Actis. The idea is very simple. We have created a destination in Ghana and our tagline is: ‘Your daily destination in Accra.’

This project is going to be the welcoming face of Ghana. This project is going to be the Mandela Square South Africa of Ghana. There’s no single visitor to Ghana that will not come and visit this project, simply because we are located in the proximity of the airport. It is a destination. We have a four-star Radisson Blu hotel. The initial Radisson in Ghana. It’s a business hotel. We have a very large food and beverage court inside the shopping mall. We have a high street shopping mall. We have a kindergarten, we have a very large gym, we have it all. Everything you want, it’s there.

We have four residential buildings, high end with total. It is designed by HOK from the UK, one of the large international firms. I think despite the crisis, despite the situation here, our timing is perfect for this project. This project is going to end at the same time as Ghana is booming and we are very well aligned with the timelines. This project is going to succeed because of our reputation and because of Actis’ reputation. We always deliver what we promise. This project is going to succeed because it is incomparable and because of its location.

How would you describe the relation from a business perspective between Ghana and the UK?

I think both understand the importance of the other party. There is a long-term relation, with Ghana being an English-speaking country. We have a very active embassy and I think we are at a additional advanced stage in the relation with the UK than most of the other West African nations.

You have as well been fundamental in attracting investment into the country partnering with a lot of international firms in your different business ventures. What investments are available at Forewin Group for UK foreign investors and why is Forewin the perfect partner of choice for UK companies seeking business opportunities in Ghana?

I’ll tell you honestly. We are by presently very much diversified, but there are still areas where I see room for development or opportunities where we can go in. Agriculture is a major area of development. I mean, you can’t go wrong with agriculture if you have the right people with the right investment .

Because you can’t go and do agriculture today and again sit down and pray for the rain approaching. You need to set it up properly. So you need experts in the field that have plans approaching to Ghana. The lands, we have a lot of lands. Lands are available. The Government today are ready to assist in providing the lands and even though I just read this morning that the JIBC are by presently discussing that for investors, they’re open to give the Ghanaian nationality for investors.

So is a large area of investment . I still see a large area in aquaculture here. You know, Ghana, we import a lot of frozen fish. So why can’t we farm our own fish? This is an extra area. Poultry is an extra area. So our strength is that we still have the appetite as a group to invest time and money. Invest in JV’s and partner with experts in the field of agriculture, aquaculture, poultry. I would as well mention, probably, real estate, not on the short term but on the medium term.

But other than that, tourism. But it’s not our field. Tourism is an area where I see potential in Ghana but the problem is that they need to do a lot of adjustment and I’m not sure that the Government is ready to do that today.

We’re looking for large, experienced partners that want a local group to double up with them. I think with our reputation today – if I partnered with Actis I can partner with anyone else.

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