Profiles

Rashmi Shah: 40 years of building cross-generational business

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Rashmi Shah, Founder/CEO of C&P Shoes during an interview at his office in Mombasa Road on April 20, 2023. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT | NMG

Rashmikant Shah knows a lot about shoes. That is what he has done for over 40 years, running C&P Shoes, a company on Nairobi's Mombasa Road.

That is what made him his fortune. But he also knows something about running, which he has been doing for 25 years now.

He and a few other members of Parklands Sports Club belong to a running club called Sunrisers because, well, they wake up early and run from the sunrise.

He is turning 70 years old next year and he is only firing up the cylinders. A few years ago, he ran the Berlin and London Marathons with his son.

This year, he plans to climb Mt Everest and if time and health allow, run a major marathon with his grandson.

“Anything that can be physically achieved should be achieved,” he says. “It’s a test of mental strength.”

Where did you pick this running bug from?

I think from my school days in Jamhuri High School. That school was excellent in academics and also sports. I was there between 1966 to 1972 and we would pay Sh450 per term, which covered the cost of exercise books, textbooks and other stuff.

You are a second-generation Indian?

I’m second-generation. My father migrated from India around 1945-ish. Let me tell you why. During those times there were droughts in the northeast parts of India and so some people started crossing the Indian Ocean in dhows, trading with the East Coast.

You know how Arabs used to do it? So Indians used to do that from that side. And then stories came back about opportunities in this new virgin territory.

That’s how the migration of the Indians started around 1870. Some of these guys were blown by the wind and ended up in Mauritius or Zanzibar.

Imagine that, the wind determining your fate. [Chuckles]. So yes, my father didn’t come to work on the railway, he came to trade.

Did he talk about that early period?

Yeah, he talks. My father is alive, he’s 95. I’ll show you a photo. (Shows photo)These are four generations of my family, that’s my father, my son, my grandson and of course myself.

He’s 95 and his great-grandson is 18 months. My son is 38, we ran together in the Berlin Marathon. I have three sons, my eldest is 42 and the youngest is 32.

Anyway, I went to the UK to study accountancy, I trained as a chartered accountant. If you cut my veins my blood group is business.

I, together with my cousin, have been running C&P Shoes since 1982 and also CP Solar Resources. My business partner is now 80 years old, I’m turning 70 next year.

Last year, we went into a very exciting venture doing internet fibre optic cables. That is going to be another thing that’s going to take us to another level.

Your children are established, and you have run a successful business for over 40 years. You talk of another level, what is this level you still aspire to be at?

(Chuckles) When I say level, I don’t mean that we are excited about the financial gain. It is more of satisfaction of success, that we’ve done something.

Like solar, when I read about climate change and green energy, then I feel yes, I’m doing my part in the world.

And for optic cables, connectivity has come a long way. You know when we started the company, our communication was via telex. You know telex? (Chuckling). And then came the fax machine.

Now we have the internet, so we have been through this communication revolution. Amazingly, we are part of this. I’m enjoying this new challenge also, with a young partner who is running around.

How have you maintained such a lengthy business and personal relationship with your cousin?

Most people just start a business, make money, start fighting, and then break up.  My cousin was probably 40 years old when he became a partner.

Our families go back many years. Now, one important thing which we always preach, and I truly believe in, is that you can’t do anything single-handedly.

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Rashmi Shah, Founder/CEO of C&P Shoes during an interview at his office in Mombasa Road on April 20, 2023. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT | NMG

We learned from folktales when we were very young that you can easily break one stick but not a bundle of sticks put together.

We have always kept that in mind. Imagine 40 years of this, of course, we’ve had disagreements but the partnership has worked beautifully because we understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

And our next generations are also all linked in this family tree.

Oh yeah?

Yes. We have diversified into different businesses but under one pot, one tree.

Because the new generation comes with different thoughts and ideas and might want to take the business in a different direction, how do you make sure that they have the same culture that you want to cultivate?

I think I am a bit of a dictator that way. (Laughter) I have put in place my structure in such a way that they can’t escape it even if they wanted to. If you don’t give them too much independence in terms of ownership, then it works.

In terms of freedom to work and remuneration, they can have some latitude. But if you have a good structure in place, then there is no escape from ownership. 

We call it a constitution, and it’s binding. We have learned that if you are bound by your ownership in such a way that everybody has a share of the pie, they can’t move away from the pie unless everybody decides.

It’s a trust structure that binds all of us together.

What do you teach the younger generation about wealth?

Firstly, be very ethical in business; do a legitimate business. You can make money legitimately in many ventures.

I teach them to never ever cheat a partner. Honesty is the number one thing that keeps you together. The greed for money is what brings businesses down.

Lastly, all you have is your reputation. If you ruin it, you won’t make any money. These are the principles we want to pass on to the next generation.

Seeing that you are two partners who started this company, how do you dissolve disputes as founders? Do you ever involve a third party to arbitrate?

We solve disputes through understanding and tolerance. We’ve got to understand each other. It’s almost like a marriage.

Two people are usually not compatible but you learn to understand each other’s shortcomings. And you have to accept that two people are not going to be the same.

Share your strengths and tolerate each other’s habits. Sometimes the policy of good cop and bad cop works. (Laughs)

Do you think you’re successful as a human?

I’m pretty content with what I have, what I have done in my years. At around 55 or thereabout you start analysing yourself, at this time you could have achieved business success and what you might call material success.

You’ve got your car and your house and everything that you have dreamt about. Your family is fairing on well. Then you start asking yourself if the pursuit of more financial success is important.

At this stage of my life, if I added another zero to my wealth it will literally mean nothing to me. It will not change my life. It will not change me.

So what is important now is to be content with what I have and give back to the community. I started giving back 15 years ago and even though we are advised not to pronounce when we give, I can say that it’s [charity] what I do a lot of now.

I have been extremely lucky in my life; my business has thrived and so has my family.

What have you learned about selling shoes in 41 years?

That hard times will come. For instance, when the Chinese brought in cheaper shoes we had to change or perish because we couldn’t compete with them.

So we simply shifted our target and started making plastic shoes, gumboots and those PVC-coated fabrics like handbags for the bottom of the pyramid, the mass market.

We have also diversified our business portfolio as I mentioned earlier. You have to adapt or you die.

Why do you run?

To keep fit. I also run because I love it. I joined this club in 1978 and played squash for a while but stopped when I turned 40 because it’s not good for the knees.

I’ve probably been running for about 25 years or so, pretty regularly. I ran my first major race in the London Marathon in 2008.

In 2019, we did the Berlin Marathon and our running group, The Sunrisers, raised over $12,500 (Sh1.7 million) toward providing free cleft surgery through Smile Train, the cleft charity.

This year, we’re going to do Everest Base Camp. We are going to climb from Nepal, from about 11,000 feet. In April next year, we are doing the London Marathon.

I want to go to Antarctica one day also. All these things are on my bucket list.

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