Standing in his opulent two-storey roof top office, where tall glass doors lead out to balconies that look down on to Piassa, one would not believe how humble the man behind the empire is. His non-descript brown suit and his simple old model Nokia phone – still with the original Nokia ring tone – sit at odds with the spacious planning, wood clad interior and bronze doors. Sabir came to Addis at the age of 21 from his home town close to Tullu Bollu, about 100 kms from the capital. In order not to go back, he would do whatever he could to help out his uncle who was hosting him.
He started by helping out at a shop in Mercato. As he became better, his uncle gave him a shop until he got one himself. He saw what his suppliers were doing and, once the Derg regime was ousted and the market liberalised, he slowly got into it. Now the sole agent for Kiwi, Bic, Energiser, Colgate+Palmolive and various stationary brands, he had started out with a product that invaded all of our homes – B29 Soap.
We questioned him about his life now compared to 20 years ago:
Fortune: Key Priorities
SA: The most important thing to me back then was work. I wanted to trade as much as possible.
What Tickles the Taste Buds?
SA: I don’t make too much fuss about food, but qocho and aibe were my favourite. They still are. My tastes haven’t changed much.
Evolution of Earnings
SA: By then, I had owned my own shop in Mercato and was just starting to import. So, I made about 1.5 million to two million Birr a year. Now, as chairman of the AL-Sam Group of Companies – beneath which are AL-Sam Plc, Repi Soap & Detergent S.C and Lina Plc – last year’s profits amounted to 50 million Birr.
Splashing Out on Fashion
SA: I’m not a flashy person; I’ve never cared much about what I wore and didn’t pay attention to labels. I wear suits a lot, as it’s good for business, but I hate wearing ties. Twenty years back, that used to cost me about 2,000 Br. I remember we used to buy them around the fasting season for the holiday. Nowadays, it costs 5,000 to 7,000 Br.
SA: I didn’t have leisure time back then; life was all about work.
These days, I spend my leisure time with my eight kids – the oldest of whom is 34 now, and the youngest, 14.
SA: I wanted to overcome the struggles and succeed very badly. I aspired to get big contracts and acquire lucrative partnerships.
Now, I want to create a centre that helps the community in agriculture and industry; and form a fund that will help those who can’t afford education and medication.
Perception of Death
SA: Twenty years ago, I never thought of death. My head was focused on the business. Now, I know death could come at any time. So, my concern is leaving a legacy, something strong enough to continue without me. I want to leave a positive reputation behind.
In Your CD Collection
SA: I love the radio; I used to tune in for information and enjoy the music that came with it. I used to love all of Neway’s songs. I still love them.
SA: Competition! It inspired me then and still inspires me now. I always like surrounding myself with people who do better. That way, I learn from them.
Tipping the Scales
SA: I used to weigh around 78-80 kg back then. I’ve now been 89kg for a while.
SA: I don’t pay much attention to brands. I don’t even notice the labels on what I wear; I certainly don’t have a favourite. But I’ve always loved Rado watches. I love them. The one I’m wearing now was a gift from my son.
SA: I miss spending time in the countryside with my old friends
SA: Ramadan used to be the biggest holiday I celebrated. Not just the day of the holiday, but the whole month. I fasted and tried to do good and give back. I have a special place in my heart for the whole month.
I still celebrate Ramadan like that, but nowadays I also celebrate the Ethiopian New Year. I have a good time with my family then.
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