Gafoors has become a household name in Guyana, but standing tall behind this empire is a simple, private man, who has braved many storms to become one of Guyanas most successful businessmen, turning a small business of two employees into a conglomerate deserving of national pride. Reservedly, he agreed to share his climb to success with the Times Magazine . Born in 1941 at No. 59 Village, Corentyne, the Executive Chairman of Gafoors Industries Limited, Sattaur Gafoor is the eldest of seven children, and received his early schooling in Berbice.
Seeking better educational opportunities for their children, his parents came to the city in May 1953, around the same time the British Guyana Constitution was suspended, and he was enrolled at the Central High School where he completed his secondary education after sitting the Senior Cambridge and Higher Senior Cambridge Examinations of the time.
Upon arrival in Georgetown, his father opened the doors to the first Gafoors store on Lombard and Sussex Streets, which employed a clerk and a porter.
For Sattaur the choices after school were limited, because it was expected of the eldest child in those days that he maintain tradition and join his father in business.
From humble beginnings to corporate giant
In November 1959 when he left school, Sattaur joined the business, he revealed, every bit as enthusiastic as he was when he started.
“ Being in business in those days, one was constrained by a number of difficulties because the hardware business was controlled by the large corporations – all of which were expatriate – owned, and it was very, very difficult to carve a niche in those days,” he reflected from his Huston Complex office.
But the Gafoors lucky break came in 1957 when Premier Cheddi Jagan abolished the licensing requirements for the importation of most goods, and Gafoor imported directly from then Socialist blocs, such as Romania, Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany.
His business flourished and was extended to two other locations within the city, at Broad Street and Sussex Street.
Then in 1971, then Prime Minister, Forbes Burnham imposed licensing restrictions, which banned the importation of finished goods without a valid import license.
“ With the stroke of the pen, all the agents in those days who represented foreign companies were simply wiped out, and that led to a mass immigration of the business class, mainly to Canada,” he recalled.
Coincidently, Gafoors started manufacturing certain items such as corrugated sheets, and this carried the business for a while. But eight years later, according to Gafoor, the company fell into problems with Burnham, and in 1980, the business shrunk to a meagre operation since it was not granted an import license, even for the importation of raw materials. With his business virtually closed, he left Guyana’s shores.
Gafoor resettled in Barbados and with the aid of his Japanese business counterparts, started a “ similar business there and soon spread his wings to other small islands such as Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica and St. Lucia.
“ The greatest change I had to make is when I went to Barbados, because I was leaving behind over 28 years of hard work and developing a business; but on the bright side, I was exposed to a different concept of business in Barbados.” His business progressed, but his patriotism, coupled with urgings from the new President Cheddi Jagan in 1992, brought Gafoor home, and he soon set up shop at Land of Canaan with a manufacturing complex.
“ It brings great satisfaction to me to know that I can make a contribution to my country, more particularly to employment opportunities for Guyanese,” he declared.
The business grew steadily and in January 2002, all operations were centralised at the Huston Complex, which now boasts the administrative block and a modern shopping mall. The company has also established retail outlets at Parika and Rose Hall, and he says, “ I am somewhat proud that at each of these locations we have air- conditioned shopping facilities, a wide range of products at reasonable prices and customer service.” Gafsons Industries Limited is run by a Board of Directors, which includes no Gafoor family member, and has plans to start a middle- class housing complex of more than 200 homes across the Demerara River. The company has also just completed a $ 1.5 billion modern housing facility at Cummings Lodge, which is being rented to members of the diplomatic community.
Giving back to the country
A strong believer in education as the key to improving ones status in life, Gafoor himself did not have the opportunity to further his studies having been involved in the business. This is perhaps one of his greatest challenges, as he recalls the constraints of not being able to marshal ideas to bankers as he sought to develop his business in the early years.
It is for this reason that he remains a strong advocate for education, and has established a Toastmasters club for his employees, the first company in Guyana to do so. It is compulsory that every senior employee attend for at least six months to help with speech delivery, self confidence and planning their careers.
He is involved in numerous initiatives to give back to his community, including the Small Business Development Fund ( SBDF), which facilitates small loans to entrepreneurs looking to start a business. The Guyana Government and the British and American Embassies have also contributed to the Fund.
“ One obtains a satisfaction of degree and pride when you help someone who has an idea of gainful self employment, but has failed to obtain the finance to commence the business, and this is where we play a role,” he said.
The company also has a Fund from which senior employees with more than five years service can benefit.
It also contributes to a pension scheme through SBDF. The SBDF has gained international recognition, and the International Financial Corporation has agreed to contribute US$ 300,000 to enhance the programme.
Republic Bank of Guyana is also negotiating a partnership with the organisation.
Gafoor, the person
Chairman of the Alexander Village Mosque, Sattaur Gafoor is a Muslim who observes the tenets of Islam, and even though he now sits at the helm of a multi- billion dollar corporation, he was not ashamed to admit that he came from humble beginnings.
“ My mother was a housewife and my father a rice miller, and then he did sawmilling in the North West District… but I am not ashamed to say that I never wore a pair of shoes until I got to Georgetown when I was 11- years- old… never in my wildest dream did I think I would have been so successful.” But what is responsible for such a gamut of success for this rural boy? “ he said, but was quick to point out that it would not have been possible without the understanding and support of his wife.
However, in spite of climbing such heights on the corporate ladder, Sattaur Gafoor says he remains a normal person, who listens to music, plays sports and exercises in his leisure times.
On July 29, 1963 he took the steps down the aisle with Ameena, whom he met in High School. This union, of which Mr Gafoor speaks with pride, has borne three sons, the eldest of whom has a similar business in Barbados , while the second is a medical consultant in London, and the third son a surgeon in Jamaica; however, none of them have expressed an interest in joining the local business. Sattaur has neither sisters nor daughters.
He lost his father in 1973 and mother in 2002 and for him, these are his greatest losses. “ If your parents are still alive, treasure them,” he advises all.
For the young, he was quick to urge that they, “ Stay away from drugs and alcohol and keep your books as your greatest friend,” and if you are an entrepreneur: “ never give up, life is always a challenge – work 12 hours a day, six days a week.” Even though he is semi retired, he still spends most of his day at the office.
Recalling his early years in Georgetown, Gafoor said that the environs were cleaner, the young people more respectful, particularly of teachers and policemen, elders were more esteemed, greater civility with people looking out for each other was present and there was a notable absence of racism.
“ Unfortunately, racism raised its ugly head from the late 1950s,” he said.
However, he added his optimism for Guyana’s future, particularly in light of infrastructural growth such as the Takutu and Berbice River Bridges, and the increased competitiveness of Guyanese products. He is hopeful that it will only get better if the country can manage to set up hydropower as a source of electricity.
He was bestowed the Cacique Crown of Honour ( CCH) in 1998, and named among the Who’s Who of the World in the 1999- 2000 Global Edition. He also participated in the crafting of the National Development Strategy, and is Pakistan’s Honorary Consul to Guyana.
Sattaur Gafoor’s quiet but deserving success stands as an inspiration to Guyanese everywhere.
… this year will be 50 years since I have been in business”
Because the company’s philosophy has been built on the belief that its greatest asset is its human resource, and every effort is made to train our people not only in the aspects of selling, but also in the importance of self development,” he said, adding that the company has more than 1,000 employees locally.
“… lots of hard work, and at the same time, a process of learning to ensure that I understand every aspect of my business so that when I speak to a banker, an engineer or a technician, I am able to follow what is said. That is the only way, I believe, one can direct a business,”
Article sourced from the Guyana Times