Ken Sharpe : From despair to hope

The CEO of WestPro Zimbabwe, Ken Sharpe, boasts of leading a company into remarkable success in the wake of extreme market conditions, a component of his plan. Our Editor Phillimon Mhlanga (PM) caught up with property mogul, devout Christian and philanthropist to discuss this and other  issues including  major projects his company is undertaking.

PM: You consistently read scripture as a devout follower of God. In what way does it link to your company?

KS: Good question because some people don’t want to bring faith into the workplace. Some people feel shy to talk about God, about Jesus.
Some people feel that those things should be left at home or left for Sunday when they go to church. But, for me it has been a process, and it goes back to the time when I was born.
I remember my mum  was a devoted Christian, but, I never had a relationship with God. All my life ,growing up, I thought I was on my own. Like I had to make my own life.  And I didn’t  even feel God’s hand in my life.
Unknown to me I had an accident in 2007 while on a private family vacation in Canada. I survived  a life threatening  ski accident.  According to doctors, my chances of survival was only 2%. So, it looked bleak. However, after surgery and many prayers, I miraculously woke up after five days in a coma and be able to remember everything up to the moment I lost consciousness.
I knew then that God saved my life. And that turned me into a relationship with God.
I was willing to do anything for God.
So, I started to read books . I knew he
saved my life for a purpose. So I knew I was the son of God. So, I was willing to become anyone.
So every day when I wake up I read scriptures.
And also I relate my business.
God doesn’t bless you to bless yourself. He blesses you to bless others.
I learnt that  when you multiple, others will benefit from that multiplication.
But also as a responsible person of God to take it, making it more so others can benefit.
So definitely I would say in my life today as a 51 year old man, its intertwined, I cant separate faith and business like I cant separate faith from – there all one and the same thing.
PM: What is fascinating about your story is that you started your first  business when you were 18 years old. Tell us more about that?
KS: I started much earlier when I was 13 years old.
I was at my father’s mine in Shamva. I had a lot of friends and I had a lot of time in my hands.
The farm house, the mine house  and  there was a big garden . Part of the land was not utilised. So, I started a small tuckshop business  there and sold vegetables to the mine workers. So that was my first business. I had no capital because all those were free and was taking 100% profit. My dad paid the salary of gardener, provided the land for free and  seeds from my pocket money.

And eventually, my father  gave me a one way ticket to the United Kingdom.  So, when I came back to Zimbabwe  I was 18, I met my wife (Joanna) and got into business.

PM: I am curious, how did you manage the ups and downs of business at such a tender age?
KS: Its  difficult to say. But, in life you have to have certain characteristics.
For me it was relentless perseverance, to be able to continue .
Just like politics its not for everyone, just like business is not for everyone because the chances of success are very small. If you look at the statistics, you will see that between 70% and 90% of businesses fail. So, if you have 90% chances of failure, why would you want to start a business? It requires consistency, it requires capital, it requires intellectual capital.
So, in my case I didn’t have financial capital, so I had to accumulate it overtime.
Yes intellectual capital you accumulate by experience. I dropped out of school at 17. But, I  later went on to Harvard University Business School. So over the years I accumulated intellectual capital and offcourse God gifted me and blessed me. So, I used it.
PM: Who is that person that immediately springs to mind as having assisted you throughout that period?
KS: I have many people that helped me out. I think, if I remember when I started my business, my father didn’t have the desire to directly help me out, that’s why he sent me with a one way ticket to the UK . So, I would help myself out. I was now in my 20s.
But I think my friends and pastors. I think my Ukraine friend really helped me out. Even if I didn’t have the capital they would always fit in  and help.
From all, I think the most recognition must go to my wife because I don’t think I would be in the position I am today without her. She is a strong woman.

PM: You and your family you so much involved in philanthropy, take us through the journey.
KS: When I started, I was quite stingy.
But as I went through like, my wife is just the opposite of me, she just gave everything she had. She  is just a lovely person.
My wife taught me the importance of giving back to the less fortunate.
Many years ago we set up a foundation called Kusimbisa Trust. My wife Joanna is the patron of that. We want to help communities across Zimbabwe.
We have to teach people to fish but also provide the fish. We want to invest over US$1m in philanthropic projects alone. Some of them are agriculture based, some of them are technology based and so forth. We want to see that that US$1m will be US$10m in 10 years.

PM: You are involved in various big projects and one of them President Emmerson Mnangagwa broke the ground, take us through the projects.How does that shape your vision to have 1bn bricks by 2050?

KS: Our vision  to  lay 1bn bricks  started a long time ago when I started this business. But in my final year at Harvard Business School,  I found that strategy itself  was  the most important thing in  my business.
We learn that this is the thing that give people road map, where they going to, why they going  there and when they need to get there . So, the vision might not take that long, this can be achieved much earlier than that.
We were really honour to have the President (Emmerson Mnangagwa) and government officials  at our ground breaking ceremony at the Millenium Heights housing project.
So, we don’t have to wait for 2050 to achieve that. This will happen in the next few years..
PM: Headswinds are ravaging this economy, many companies are struggling, folding expanding to the corporate graveyard, .but looks like you are doing the opposite. What do you attribute this to?

KS: Two things. First is the commitment We are winning . We are not focussing on that , we are focusing on where we are going to go.
That’s why our plan is solid, long term plan. So,  the second think is I attribute our success to our customers. Our customers believe in us. And they see us delivering our promises.

PM: The Golf estate. There were issues around that. Can you give us some insights into that and  have you resolves some issues that were there?
KS: The background to that is we intended  to do a Public Private Partnership with the City Fathers  on the project and we had 70% equity.For the first 10 years, their responsibility was to  They were supposed to give us  a development permit and the land itself had to be zoned. The change of use from public open space had to be done.
But, the city fathers failed to do so in many years.
But, we are excited now because we are getting into  launching the project next month. We have all the materials ready.
PM: Whats your overview of the real estate market in Zimbabwe?
KS:In the past we were cautious and now we are positive. The real estate is here to stay. Secondly the growth of the real estate has happened exponatioal . We sell our property in US dollars. Our sector is one of the few not affected by RTGS currency, now one is transacting in RTGS currency. So, there is no loss of value and people trust it. It has grown.
PM: You have been subjected to many court cases and you have been labelled some names. How do you take that negativity?

KS:I call myself the phoenix, the phoenix dying and coming back from the ashes alive. I must have some think skin.Don’t pay much attention into it. Like an elephant, you need to focus on where you going. Yes I think I have  about 32 cases. Both, they put my name  and people don’t say the company, they say Ken Sharpe, this is a case against Ken Sharpe. I am a director of the company and shareholder. At the end of the day, most cases were done now.The first round of cases of more than 10 years ago were finished. And that was settled mostly out of court.
I think the current state of cases are from people, some political some business and some aggrieved.
Ultimately, we know we are on the right side of the law and what we did was not wrong.
PM: Numerous honors, both domestic and international, including Forbes Best of Africa CEO, have been bestowed upon you. Explain these in more detail and share your feelings.
KS:  They are not mine. But from God. I think the awards I received are humbling
All these awards comes . There is a culture in Zimbabwe, where people want to see you down. I think we need to go beyond that and say lets celebrate. Lets be happy with those that have done well. Lets share the success.
Its not only the success of this company but the success of all our customers, all our suppliers and all our stakeholders.
I think we need to start looking at the awards differently.

PM:Your big message to the market as a parting shot?
KS: Thank you for asking this. I think in Zimbabwe we need to get beyond politics. We spent two decades of negative politics. We been too partisan.
Lets build Zimbabwe.

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