Rasik Kantaria: What the man blessed with everything fearsFriday May 19 2023
Most great stories of successful business empires in Kenya start with a brave Indian boy getting on a boat bound for Africa. Rasik Kantaria's grandfather was only 16 when he got on a ship from India in 1896.
In Kenya, he toiled with his brother in a duka in Limuru, which yielded a sawmill, charcoal, and a move to Nairobi to start a spare parts business [Empire Auto Spares] and many other businesses.
In that respect, Rasik has seen men in his family build things with their hands, and that apprentice eventually led him to start Prime Capital and Credit Finance company in 1988, which later became Prime Bank, where he is the chairman.
He also co-founded First Capital Bank in Malawi, the first private bank and then a bank in Botswana.
Rasik is 80 years old and has gone through the winding and treacherous gamut of business and life.
Every morning, like clockwork, you will find him at Parklands Sports Club, shuffling around the walking track with his best friend, another oligarch whose father was on a different ship at a different time.
Rasik wants to talk about something other than business. He'd rather talk about giving.
"Ultimately, it's not making [wealth] that counts for success," he says, "it's giving that crowns success."
Do you recognise the boy you were in the 1940s and your journey to get here?
It is a long history that starts with my grandfather, father, and my uncles. These men saw opportunities and pursued them.
They started selling stuff in dukas to workers in factories around Redhill and then got into the timber business before moving to Nairobi to set up a spare parts business because they were operating logging tracks, hence the need for spare parts.
One of my uncles said, "I can do that." They also realised that the next generation needed a good education, and Nairobi offered that.
My cousins and I lived on Forest Road. We were 16 of us in one house that our parents built. From age seven, I was already going to the shop to help.
The shop is where we were groomed for life. I left for London to study Economics and returned to join the family business at 22.
The family business had by then diversified into manufacturing and real estate. We had an aluminium factory in Mombasa.
In 1958 we set up the East African Building Society. We started a chemical business that dealt with fertiliser. We also grew flowers. Of course, I started a financial company that later became a bank.
So yes, my childhood, you could say, was an informal business school. I have three children; two boys and one girl.
My two boys are with me in the bank now. My daughter is an architect. She went around the world, returned, and settled down here. [Grins]
She was the architect of the Radisson Blu Hotel. But all these are not things that should be given a lot of time because anybody with grit and hard work can build a business.
What should be given a lot of time instead?
What you do with what you build. That's the true test of success, no? I'm clear about charity and business; they should go together.
We do a lot of work with organisations like Lion's Hospital, where we donate. We have donated to MP Shah over the years.
On Tuesday, I was there to see 200 children being attended to. Surgeons from the UK operated on 39 children with heart defects for free.
In Kenya's South Coast, where we own the Leisure Lodge, we put up a boarding school for girls.
I hear a lot about collaboration with Indians at the family level. You all get in the business together; cousins, uncles, and children. How has modernity affected that sort of collaboration?
It really has. First, whatever happened in Uganda [expulsion of Indians in August 1972 by President Idi Amin] reverberated here.
It affected how the subsequent generations operated. Because when some of them migrated to the UK, they had children who got Western education and influence and ultimately saw the world differently because they are now professionals, and some just don't want to join businesses that their parents started.
That's how things start changing.
Why do you think giving back is such a big thing for members of your community? Where does that come from?
It's our culture. First, it starts at home; we always help our distressed immediate family members, then the extended family.
My father always believed in doing things for people, not only for the Indian community or family but for people in the broader community.
He even hired lawyers for some of his workers detained during the Mau Mau uprising and bailed them out. He then gave them money to buy shambas.
To this day, their children and I still have a relationship, some work with me. When you see your parents and relatives giving, that's all you know as the right thing to do, so you also give.
As a chairman of a whole bank, what's your attitude towards money?
The main difference between the old and new generations is that the new wants to move quickly and make money fast.
They totally disregard the process of making money. You don't make money fast; you make money from the bottom.
You start small, and then you grow. That way, you develop respect and appreciation for money and how you acquire it.
You see families throw it all away in cases where fathers leave big businesses to their children whom they did not groom.
It's almost always the case because you need to be groomed on how to make money to look after money.
My son went to school with rich children in St Mary's Schools. Unfortunately, the parents did not have time to groom them properly. So they have the degrees, and the money but lack the experience of how to look after that money.
Looking after the money is more challenging than making money. Don't bring your ego into money matters.
Stay humble. I don't see myself as better than them because I have more.
Which part of your personality do you struggle with?
Embracing show-offs. People who borrow to sustain a lifestyle they can't afford.
What's the most important thing you learned from your mother?
Kindness. Nobody who came to our home would ever go without food. She loved people. And she loved children.
She was a mother to me and my cousins, a mother to all. That is the type of love she used to give.
Out of curiosity, do you know how much you're worth to the last cent?
I never count my money. (Chuckle)
You are like this Maasai man I once interviewed, and when I asked how many children he had, he said, "We don't count children".
[Chuckle] You see, the moment you start counting money, it will go to your head, and then it will go to your children's heads. Do I have to work when I have money?
I don't work for wealth; I work now to help society. To create employment, educate children, and help sick children get medical care. That's why I work.
Look, at Prime Bank, we only make about Sh3.5 billion in profit a year…[shrugs]...what will I count?
What's the one business you will never touch?
Anything that involves beef or meat processing, obviously. That and gambling or nightclubs. It's just not for me.
Is there any particular business that you wish you did?
Because beer is just 80 percent water. That's it. I had a friend I studied with. He started a brewery in Mysore, India.
He was very successful at it, and when I would visit him, he'd tell me, "Why don't you start a brewery in Kenya?" I should have.
What have you ever failed at terribly?
Trusting people. [Laughter] Just lousy judgment.
Is that your failure or the failure of the people you trusted?
No, it's my failure. I once trusted somebody who was in the coffee business here. He was a friend, so I trusted him with money, and he gave me guarantees.
He ended up letting me down badly. I lost a lot of money, which ate me for a while. Then one day, I let go of it. I realised I was more disappointed with him than about losing the money.
When you let go of such bad things, you save the good you have and the good that will come to you.
Do you still appreciate the value of money at this stage of your life?
Money is as good as how you look at it. What do I need in life? I have a car, a house, and food on the table, and I have more than money if I have good health.
If I don't have good health, my money is not good.
Would you appreciate your good health if you were very poor? If you couldn't feed your children?
[Pause] Oh yeah. I would.
How does it feel to be 80 years old?
You have an acceptance that the years you are living are bonus years, and you only get a bonus so that you can do something substantial with it, things that fulfil and make you proud.
And that is service to others. We have been running this project called Jaipur Foot for the last 34 years, where every month, we fit 100 prosthetic legs to people who need them, free of charge.
I'm the chairman of the trust. Every year we give about 500 wheelchairs free of charge. These things, changing lives by extending my good fortune, fill me with purpose because why live for this long for yourself?
What do you fear at 80?
I'm chairman of a bank, an insurance company, and many other businesses. I'm blessed with everything, and I pray I keep a stable and peaceful mind. I fear going senile when there is still so much to do.
What's your recipe for success? Yours, not something from a memoir by a successful businessman.
Hard work and education. That's the only recipe. Work hard and make your money in the light, not darkness. Don't cut corners; it never ends well.
Where are my Indian counterparts who got into shoddy deals with the government? I don't lend politicians money as a general rule, even though I might be compelled to contribute to their harambees.
You want to avoid mixing business with politics.
Have you had any sort of addiction in life?
[Laughs] Addiction, yes. A big one. I come here to the sports club every morning. I've been a member longer than you have been alive. [Chuckles] I'm out of bed by 6 am daily and come here to exercise. I'm addicted to it.
And how do you reward yourself for all the hard work you have put in since the 1950s?
I go on a cruise every year. I have gone on a cruise every year for the past 34 years. I do one month in the sea. Last time we went from Athens to Singapore.
I love cruises; I relax, I read my books, and when you're with friends and family, it's a good time to interact. Even if you go with your children, they cannot run away from you on the ship.
They cannot say, "Dad, I will come to see you." They are there with you. They can't escape. [Laughs]