The name Machipisa is one of the names that pops up when Zimbabwe’s earliest black entrepreneurs are mentioned.
By the 1970s, Philemon Machipisa Murambiwa owned at least 20 houses, some of which he sold, reportedly at the insistence of the new government at independence in 1980. He used some of his earnings to buy 20 000 hectares of farmland.
However, it is his retail business that he is known for most. Together with brothers – Wilson, Rishon and John – he set up his first shop as Machipisa Stores at Highfield in 1954.
Below is an interview Philemon Machipisa gave to the German writer Volker Wild in his 1997 book, Profit not for profit’s sake: History and business culture of African entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe.
Q: How big is your turnover?
A: More than one million dollars per month.
Q: And how big is your net profit?
A: Very small. But it is building up every day.
Q: Do you think your business is one of the biggest in this country? I am speaking only of African businesses.
A: We have only very few big African businesses. We might have only one of my size. At the present moment, I am sure I am number one in African business.
Q: When I talked to you on the phone you said: “I am a small man.” Why do you say that?
A: Well, I compare myself with the world, with other big tycoons such as Mr Rockefeller, the Oppenheimers, Tiny Roland and Mr Perot, who is campaigning for the American presidency. He is a billionaire. If you want to become something in business, whether you are black or white, you must admire the men who have achieved something. You must copy those people.
Q: Are there other people you compare yourself with?
A: There are plenty, even in Zimbabwe.
Q: Have you ever read books or articles about billionaires?
A: No. I just read The Herald.
Q: With whom in Zimbabwe would you like to compare yourself?
A: Mr Lilford or Mr Hardy of Mashonaland Holdings. There are plenty, like Treger Group, Meikles. Some of them have inherited fortunes from their fathers. I got very little from my father.
Q: Why do you think others are very big and you are small? You have been 40 years in business. Mr Perot started later than you?
A: If I were in a free country I should be one of the richest men in Zimbabwe, whites or blacks.
Q: Are you saying it was colonialism that held you back?
A: That is right.
Q: Do you think that other businessmen ran their businesses the same way as you?
A: I might even say I am doing better than others. If I were in America I would be like Perot today.
They squander money. They spend it on leisure
Q: What are other African businessmen doing wrong? Why are they not as big as you?
A: They work less hours. If you want to become big in business you must work long hours. I start at 4 o’clock in the morning and work until 10 o’clock in the evening. I work twice as long as these people. That is why I am making money.
Q: What else do you think is important?
A: They squander money. They spend it on leisure. Some go for drinking, some for women, some for cars. If Africans want to grow really big, they must spend their time in business. I have seen a lot of businesspeople. They invest all their time in business. I have seen a lot of business people.
They invest all their time in business, such as Mr Lilford, Mr Lobel, Mr Sam Levy and Mr Hardy. That is the only way to get very, very big. You must work extra hours. And that is where many Africans fail. They don’t work hard enough. I work nearly 18 hours a day.
Q: What else counts in business?
A: Don’t cheat anybody. Once you are cheating somebody you are cheating yourself. You must be an honest man if you want to be a businessman.
Q: Do you think many African businessmen try and make money by cheating?
A: Nearly every colour, black and white. There is no difference. They all try to cheat. That’s why I have so many children. If I go with a girl and she convinces me that I am the father of her child I pay damages and take that child.
Q: You own seven companies, you run 13 farms. Is there anybody you talk to about business matters?
A: No. It is all my decision. I am a lone hunter. That is my game.
Q: Do you trust anybody but yourself?
A: No, not in business. All big businessmen are just like that.
Q: How can you control such a business?
A: I can say I am lucky.
Q: But you must have some managers?
A: Yes. But they must be looked after.
Q: Are they relatives?
Q: Are they trained?
A: No. I take them from the businesses where they are working. If someone is successful I would pinch him from there. If you are a gifted businessman it’s like a teacher. If you have the talent you can tell whether a student might pass.
I am a very shrewd man in business. I don’t play with people
Q: If a manager fails what do you do?
A: I am a very shrewd man in business. I don’t play with people. If anything goes wrong I become very, very cheeky. I sack him. I can even fight.
A: That is right. Even my own family knows it: If I say “No” or “Yes” I mean it. I am exercising a strong control. That is what made my success.
Q: Do you sometimes lose money because your employees are dishonest?
A: Yes, sometimes. I am aware of that. I know it. But I make sure if you find someone stealing, I chuck him out straight away.
Q: How do you know that someone is stealing?
A: It is something in me. I smell it.
Some book-keepers are also thieves
Q: How do you prove it? Do you keep books?
A: Yes. I have book-keepers to do my tax returns.
Q: But would they also help you to control the business? Would they tell you if you were losing money?
A: They sometimes do so through my instructions. Some book-keepers are also thieves. If you trust them they can treat you very, very badly and you go down.
Q: How do you prevent your employees putting their hands in the till?
A: You must give them the right wage.
Q: You must pay well?
“I would not like to employ a black manager. They steal”
Q: You told me you had managers. Why do you count your money yourself?
A: That is my thinking. Money is the final answer to business. All these big African businessmen, such as the bus operators, are losing money because they are cheated by their people.
Q: How many hours do you spend counting your money everyday?
A: On Mondays, it takes me about six hours, on other days less.
Q: Why don’t you employ more honest and better qualified managers to relieve you from some pressure from work?
A: I would not like to employ a black manager. They steal. After independence stealing has increased.
The labour regulations are too lax. You cannot sack an employee. The worst thing we had after independence are the workers’ committees.
Q: Do you ever ask any expert for business advice? I am talking about accountants, business consultants and similar people.
A: Those are failures. I must turn to somebody who is something, like Tiny Roland.
Q: Have you talked to him.
A: Unfortunately, I don’t know him. I just read his name in the papers.
“I cannot take advice from a man who has nothing”
Q: Why do you think it is a mistake to talk to accountants and other business experts?
A: Well, they are no businessmen. They have not made money. How can they tell me how to make money? Only very successful businessmen could tell me how to make money. I cannot take advice from a man who has nothing, who is just a worker. I even tell my own book-keeper what to do.
Q: Are you confident that you have the knowledge to make the right decisions?
A: Very much so. If you want to be the richest man in the world you have to be that.
Q: Who tells you what is right?
A: An inner voice.
Q: Are you a member of a church.
A: No. When I was a child we were forced to pay money to the church, which I refused. So I was never baptised.
Q: Do you believe in what the Shona’s believe?
A: Well, I would say I believe in what I think is right. Everybody is born in something. It is given by God. Everybody has something to do. If you are not born to become a businessman you will never become one.
Q: Is there any Shona belief that is important to you in business?
A: You must work extra hours, that is the only way of becoming successful in business. You must work extra hours everyday.
◆ Transcription by Darlington Musarurwa, Sunday Mail