Third world poor to dollar millionaire - the story of business man Mark Katsonga Phiri - my dad
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Heather – What motivates you?
From…lots of people
I wrote a post a while ago sharing a four-hour conversation that I had with my dad. My initial sharing of the conversation was just as a story but I listened to the conversation again with a view to pulling out what I learned about life that has served me well in my journey towards financial freedom.
My dad is one of my best friends and inspiration.
A lot of my values, I got from him. For instance, he always taught me that his dad taught him that holidays weren’t an opportunity to do nothing, they were an opportunity to explore other activities and interests including ones that look a lot like work. Of course, you can relax too but the premise of this idea was that even some types of work can count as relaxation and you shouldn’t feel that you need to put a full stop to all productivity.
Another thing he always emphasized was to chase work not money, "Heather, don't ever chase money," he often tells me, "Chase work; if you chase work, money will start chasing you". I have always loved that one.
Anyhow, over 5 episodes I will give you access to recordings made in July 2010 - exactly 10 years ago - on his life and business journey. The setting was a drive to Neno Village where my father grew up. My dad was sat in the back seat with me and Harry, my then boyfriend now husband, was sat in the front passenger seat next to the driver. It was one of the most enjoyable times I have ever spent with my dad. If you haven't already maybe this will inspire to capture your own parents' life story in this way.
My dad went from a relatively poor village boy to creating not one, not two but three businesses in Malawi all of which were multimillion dollar businesses and his success obviously meant I have never had to deal with many of the character building challenges that my dad encountered.
He was very careful not to spoil his kids though and while I always had everything I needed, I knew that in order to get the comforts I really want, I had to work for them because they most certainly would not be handed to me, of that my dad was very clear. My dad is very meticulous in setting expectations – he would only pay for a first degree, he would never buy anyone a car, he wouldn’t buy imported treats if he didn’t have to, “support local industry” was an important maxim in our house.
My dad has lead such a productive life, I don’t think there is anything I can do to surpass his success or make him think wow, all I can do is record his journey and continue to be inspired by it.
In the first recording of five my dad takes me through some of his earliest years in the village. Sorry if you think I keep butting in too much but this was the very first time I had had a conversation like this with my dad and I didn’t want to miss details like the context or how he felt emotionally about situations. It’s very African to gloss over things like feelings but being a father-daughter conversation this was of the utmost importance to me.
Without further adoo… enjoy this journey through the life of a serial entrepreneur before that was even a thing.
What did we learn?
In this episode I picked up:
Before he's sixteen my dad has already experienced 3 businesses:
You’ll note I asked whether he had black teachers. I asked this because I myself was sent to a private primary school in Malawi that only had white teachers. I grew up in a 1980s Malawi where "good teacher" meant "white teacher". I don’t know why the “Life President” of Malawi who was in rule when I was growing up decided to make this a thing but it was; colonial mentality, I suppose. My best teacher in high school was a black Malawian so things did begin to change but colonial mentality was a big thing when I was growing up and it still hurts us today.
I note that he says he wasn’t bright but when it comes to business and street smarts and general with-it-ness, I know no one smarter than my dad.
His years in the police, at Southern Bottlers (SoBo) and his decision to go Zimbabwe for further education. Dad's brief stint as a houseboy (about 2/3 months).
In episode 1 we found out that, my dad was walking about town with a friend and his friend saw a job ad for police recruits. He asked my dad to accompany him to inquire about the job. When they entered the police station the officer on duty laughed at the guy and said he was too short but that his friend (my dad) looked about the right height.
My dad had no ambitions to be in the police but when he told his family about the opportunity they essentially forced him to do it because he needed a job. He decided he would do it for 6 months before moving on but on his first day he discovered that as soon as he was sworn in he was committed for four years.
After lunch he pretended to be sick to buy himself time - that cracked me up. It bought him a month of time because the ceremony was only held once a month on the 5th of the month.
His uncle gave him a right bollocking for messing about so he went to the village to tell his mum so she could back his decision not to join. Unfortunately, he told her the story in front of another villager who said - "Ntchito imeneyo ndi yabwino, posachedwa pano akhala kopulo" (That's a great job, very soon he'll be a corporal). His mother was sold. My dad cried tears as he felt sorry for himself!
In this episode he also reveals what an astute saver he was. He received 18 kwacha per month in the police: Mwk5 was spent on foods that have a long shelf-life (sugar etc.), Mwk5 was sent to his mum in the village to help her with household items, Mwk5 was banked to fund the education of his siblings and Mwk3 was his pocket money.
Over the four years in the police his salary grew to Mwk24.
He says some of his fellow police officers would borrow so much money through salary advances that at the end of some months their salary was negative but he stayed disciplined. He did not go to the staff tuck shop even once in four years.
He still had the business bug and was operating a fruit business as a sideline whilst he was a policeman although that was not allowed. He got caught a mere 6 months before 4 years was up and was punished by being made to become a uniformed police officer after being in his civilian clothing for a long time. It didn't sit well with him and added to his reasons not to renew his contract with the police a few months later. I say it was fate.
For about a period of 3 months my dad worked as houseboy for a white man for a salary of Gbp3 - about Mwk6.
Dad became a salesman for SoBo after leaving the police. From a salary of Mwk24 he started earning Mwk56 then Mwk65 once he was confirmed plus sales commission. He would earn over Mwk200 in some months because he was so good at selling.
At around the time he had about Mwk2,000 in savings an incident occurred where he was being forced to go to work in Chikwawa but he didn't want to go there because he had contracted Malaria on a recent stint there to the point of being hospitalized. He quit the job.
What did we learn?
In this episode I picked up on the importance of :
Living in Zimbabwe including visa issues faced in Zimbabwe and working for Unilever.
In episode two of this series, the last episode, my dad had just arrived in Zimbabwe on a flight from Malawi and in this episode he picks up from there. He left our home country (Malawi) without any knowledge of exactly what would happen when he got to Zimbabwe. As it happens, he met a kind man on the flight who let him stay at his house for the night.
I'll give a summary at the end for those that miss some things because they were in the Chichewa language. Two tips on language:
The objective of dad's journey to Zimbabwe in 1975 was to realize his life-long ambition of furthering his education. He bought a one-way ticket to Zimbabwe for Mwk39. On arrival, a kind Malawian stranger that he had met on the flight allowed him to stay over at his house for the night.
When he got to his college he was shocked by the living conditions. Four men shared a room and slept on mats (mphasa) with limited amenities. Now that he had worked for a while and had lived better than this throughout his time in the police and as a salesman it just felt horrid but it was all he could afford.
As fate had it he had the address of an uncle in Zimbabwe - the man had married his mother's youngest sister but they had never met before. He visited him very early one morning (before 7 a.m.) to introduce himself. After he told his uncle where he was staying, his uncle told him it wasn't a good place; he instructed him to collect his luggage and come to live with him rent free.
His uncle wasn't rich either; in fact he had to share his room with my dad to accommodate him. His wife was stuck in Malawi at this time so he was essentially just living with his daughter. Living with his uncle allowed my dad to take even more courses at his college because he saved money by not having to pay his uncle rent.
From my dad's story, race relations between white people and black people in Zimbabwe were not as friendly as they were in Malawi. My dad went to Zimbabwe on a tourist visa and after 3 months had a lot of trouble with the Zimbabwean authorities. Ultimately, they gave him a "stupor" which basically required him NOT to live in any Zimbabwean town; he was relegated to the village. I found this insight into colonial life mind blowing because I can't imagine being allowed to only live in certain areas and having access only to the blue colour jobs - how ironic that my dad worked a job in a poultry farm, couldn't hack it and about 25 years later ended up owning a poultry farm perhaps that job was his inspiration! I haven't asked yet but I will.
Anyhow what did I learn in this episode?
From unilever to a trade contact business and a tailoring business which he sold for a surprisingly healthy profit while he worked at Old Mutual to his candle business (Candlex) that led to his name becoming a household name.
This fourth installment of the series on the life of Mark Katsonga Phiri is possibly the most exciting if you're into business because dad goes from pure struggling with the tailoring business and massive debts that he had no idea how he would clear to being so cash rich that even he couldn't understand what was going on.
Just to recap, in episode 3, dad returned from Zimbabwe in the late 1970s with his diplomas and secured a job at Lever Brothers, now called Unilever.
Whilst he was at Unilever, after work he started running a business called "International Trade Contact" in which he got the contact details of various suppliers and enabled people to fulfill purchase orders.
After that in 1981 he started a tailoring business. He invested Mwk1,500 in the business and hired a tailor to sew and someone he knew to run the operations and sales. He later discovered that the competition was extremely stiff so 1981 and 1982 were very tough for the business; he says he really struggled. He'd left his job at Unliever to do business full time but things got so rough he had to take on a job at Old Mutual selling insurance so again, business became the side hustle.
By 1982 the business had assets of Mwk5,000 and creditors amounting to Mwk12,000 - that's negative equity of Mwk7,000. He decided to sell the business so he could clear the debts.
After putting an ad in the paper he was surprised to get 12 offers, he hadn't expected to get any. Incidentally, because the Government had reserved tailoring businesses for Malawians there was huge demand from Indians for tailoring businesses that had licenses. My father didn't have one and the process for getting one was long and painful.
Ultimately, though he sold the business for Mwk25,786 plus Mwk4,000 for the working capital or work in progress. That bid of Mwk25,786 had been on the table for 2 months before he finally got the license and the Indian buyer was losing patience - there were quite a few sleepless nights for dad.
The day they drove to get the business license from Lilongwe my dad said he felt like that licence was pure gold. It was approved by Mr Malange, now my cousin's Grandpa but this was well before that happened.
After his auditors had paid all creditors (and themselves) he had Mwk18,000. He used Usd4,500 to buy a candle machine from Japan. This was a time when Malawi kwacha was still pegged to the British pound and was much more valuable than Usd. Usd4,500 was about Mwk3,000.
What happened next was pure magic.
Within 6 months of launching the candle business he had Mwk150,000 - we're not talking turnover here, we're saying saved up! Quite shocking when you consider that each candle was selling for just 10 tambala each and cost 4 tambala to produce. Keep in mind this is still 1983 - basically, when little Heather was born in November of that year business was booming, the sleepless nights were a thing of the past.
What did we learn in this episode?
You may well have learned different things to me but I learnt that:
In episode 5 we are taken through the early years of Candlex the booming business that was introduced in episode 4. It was his 7th business and still his most memorable as it made him. Although I never really understood this until I got to secondary school age and would often be introduced as the daughter of the owner of Candlex.
In this episode I ask my dad how he came up with the name Candlex and I also want to know why he didn't buy a Mercedes Benz the moment he was cash rich.
This is the modus operandi of the majority of guys I know who sniff the littlest bit of "big" cash. By the end of 1983 he had the funds to afford a Mercedes but he kept his little Datsun and didn't get a "flashy" car until 8 years of good business later in 1990.
Some people will immediately say, he was just lucky. To a certain degree, yes, he was and he says so himself by saying "I have always said my businesses are God-given because I don't know how the ideas come into my head" he also said, "I have made some very big errors by not doing proper research but a natural solution always came up". One thing that can't be missed though is that luck was generated by his own constant actions and hustle which meant that when the opportunity hit, dude was prepared to take advantage of it.
In the first episode you may remember that my dad's friends were mostly playing when he was 11 but he was helping with his mum's business.
Throughout his life story I can tell you that two things were almost completely absent: drinking and football. There was a brief period of less than a year when my dad took up wine drinking but in the end he decided it wasn't for him. He would have a glass at home and always allowed me and my sisters to have some too. In addition, my dad has never been a watcher of sport or films; he had a handful of VHS films.
As he said in his story after work he was always researching the next thing or working on a business. It took 20 years of practice before he got his lucky break but he wasn't working towards a lucky break. His ambition was to have a wife children a good second hand car and to own a home that was it, he didn't imagine that he was capable of much else...
Heather on Wealth
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