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Thu, April 25, 2024

RUSLAN: THE SPIRIT OF THE NATION

B360
B360 December 29, 2023, 5:04 pm
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VIJAY KUMAR SHAH & RAJ BAHADUR SHAH

Enter the realm of Ruslan and you are caught in the winning spirit of a brand that is celebrating 50 years of success captivating the hearts of the Nepali people. Ruslan is synonymous with vodka in Nepal, and the brand only grows stronger as it evolves and grows.

Building a brand is no small feat, and building a brand that endures the test of time, even tougher. What captured our imagination was its trajectory from 1973 to today – the stories, the struggles, the victories and the people behind it.

 

 

Vijay Kumar Shah is a celebrated name in the corporate world of Nepal. He is highly respected for not just his business acumen and expertise but also for his strong values and ethics. Among the country’s highest tax payers, he has built his business from a single brand to a group of companies that has generated employment for thousands of people and unlocked opportunities for so many more.

His father, Ram Narayan Shah, was believed to be the man whose touch would turn water into the best spirit. A fifth-generation alcohol maker, Vijay Shah is a chemical engineer who brought the blueprint for his business from the United States. Years of hardship, near bankruptcy, numerous challenges did not deter the spirit of Vijay Shah who was in the pursuit of business excellence. He built every little aspect of the business with meticulous detail, in partnership with his wife, Maggie Shah, who worked equally if not harder to build networks and markets in Nepal that was just opening to the ideas of the outside world.

Raj Bahadur Shah embraced the family business in early 2000 after completing his education from the United States. Fuelled with new ideas and energy, Raj Shah infused a renewed sense of purpose into the business. Driven by ambitions larger than life, his dreams were grander and he aspired to build on the legacy his parents had diligently crafted. He says that the distillery ran in his blood; he never considered an alternative career path. He ensured continuity of Jawalakhel Group of Industries being the undisputed leader in the liquor industry and becoming one of the fastest growing companies in Nepal in the ensuing years.

Today, JGI is a business conglomerate managing multiple companies that manufacture and distribute alcoholic beverages. The distilleries, brewery facilities and research and distribution units produce a range of different brands – 75 brands over five decades, some of them the most recognised global brands - across various categories of alcoholic drinks in the Nepali market, and for overseas export.

 

Raj Shah is a strong proponent of systems, technology, knowledge, performance and risk appetite which have been the cornerstones of the group’s remarkable growth. He holds a distinct interest in corporate strategy, human resource development and brand building. From a modest marketing budget of Rs 20 lakhs annually, Raj Shah was spending a hundred crores on marketing alone every year. He understood the pulse of his consumers and ensured that his products found place at every consumer touch point. His marketing strategies were spot on and today, Ruslan is credited with building the careers of young artists, musicians, actors, sports people and giving momentum to sports, arts and culture in the country. In terms of philanthropy, he has ensured that his parents’ progressive culture of giving back to the people and communities was given continuity.

Weathering the uncertainties of the political and economic conditions in the country over the years needs thick skin, unwavering focus and strong belief, Raj Shah has inherited these in good measure from his parents who he says allowed him the freedom to champion his ideas and the associated risks with faith in his abilities.

 

Standing by his side is his sister, Jaya Shah who is the custodian of the science behind the spirit. Jaya works with her father, Vijay Kumar Shah, in his relentless passion for perfection in getting the formulas right and ensuring that each batch of production is on point. Her unwavering commitment to quality and the company’s investment in the latest state-of-the-art technology is what consumers enjoy in their drink, and what has brought the company numerous recognitions and awards.

Co-creation is the cornerstone of this family, and at the heart of their success is the deep insight that they complement each other’s strengths by honing their own skills and abilities.

Family businesses are inherently complex. The years have not come without its share of disagreements, tears and anguish at holding together a shared vision because individually they are all strong people but what binds them is their humility, courage and the ability to step back and let the other take the spotlight when needed. They know in their hearts that family comes first. They also bring this to the company where employees are cherished and encouraged to grow their abilities. 

In this edition of Business 360, we brought together the Founder Chairman and the Managing Director of Jawalakhel Group of Industries, Vijay Kumar Shah (VKS) and Raj Bahadur Shah (RBS) in a candid conversation that reflects on the dynamics of building and holding a business legacy as Ruslan celebrates 50 years. Excerpts:

What is it like to work together as father and son?

RBS: More than anything, my parents have always given me the freedom to make choices. I am accountable but I have the freedom to make tough decisions.

I respect my parents a lot, and I include them in every big decision that we make, whether it’s for work, for family, or even with personal issues. Our family functions really well because we are open, we are honest and genuine with each other.

VKS: It’s big fun. I learned it from my father. One thing he said: Whatever mistake you want to make, make it, I can afford it. But I want you to stand on your own feet and be capable of running this heritage. When you have the freedom and the trust, it’s always fun to work with the family. We work together. We don’t lie to each other. We have certain professional ethics and we have a certain deep understanding and love for each other. No matter if you are wrong, no matter if you differ, the family has to work together and produce the best.

What is the one common trait that you both share at work?

RBS: Definitely it is the pursuit of perfection. It’s about ethics. It’s about hard work. It’s about giving back to our family, giving back to our staff, giving back to the community.

VKS: For me, heritage is a big deal. Just keep it real - no lies, no faking it. Put your heart into your work with honesty and pride. We are lucky to be born in Nepal, so let’s be true to our country, our people, our team, and our family. I am sure we can all relate to that. 

RBS: Can I add to that? I think for us, being in the office, being at work, being at our factories, it’s like being at home. Definitely!

What do you value about each other’s working style?

RBS: We value many things but I think our genuine effort, the fact that we are generally interested to get things done. We are genuinely interested in doing the best we can, and we are genuinely honest when things are not right and that things have to change.

VKS: Raj’s indefatigable energy. He never tires and he works with enjoyment. No matter how difficult the situation is, he can still laugh and say, ‘Okay, let’s have lunch or a glass of beer’. Work is fun for us.

Are there moments of conflict or differences and how do you work around those? Do you have working boundaries?

RBS: Absolutely. Being part of a family business is a rollercoaster, much like life, the country’s situation, or any market scenario. There are highs and lows. Even in a relationship, disagreements happen. But with my parents, we have always maintained a professional attitude. Sure, there are moments of anger, yelling, and even tears, but we believe in forgiving and moving on. Maybe we don’t always forget, but we genuinely try to forgive and move forward, primarily because of the mutual respect we share. Open communication has been our saving grace. We make it a point to keep each other in the loop, whether it’s about business, family matters, or life in general.

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VKS: There’s always conflict. The differences are about issues and not about us. For me, all I want to know is how hard he has thought about it. After that, there is no problem. As long as one has chosen every step and looked at the problem thoughtfully.

There is no right way or wrong way. You can climb Everest from any side or any face, or in any way. In business, if you have thought over each and every step, and something is not working, then it’s time to try a newer idea. Why not?

We are very lucky that we can accept each other’s differences with lovingness and honesty... that’s very important to both of us.

RBS: A lot of times we agree to disagree. And that is a great formula for any business or any family. One thing that does set us apart from most families, not just with work but with everything is that as we are all strong independent characters, there are many times we have to agree to disagree and accept everyone’s different opinions; but then we just move on with life.

 

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A challenging moment in your career.

RBS: We have had so many challenges in Nepal. It’s hard to think of only one. Our company is celebrating 50 years of Ruslan. But we have tried 25 different companies. I have launched 75 different brands. We have had so many problems from bombings, from guns pointed at us, from bombs exploding, from labour strikes, from bandhs, from earthquakes, from the pandemic, you name it, we have been through it.

VKS: I know doing business in Nepal is a daily challenge, it may be social, professional and even political challenges at times. In addition to this, you also have to deal with competitors of questionable ethical considerations. Our approach is simple-face the challenge head-on. Every day, Raj, Maggie, and I gather to discuss and figure out our approach. We believe that those who put their heart into it will ultimately come out on top.

The day you felt you made it

RBS: I think the time when Golden Oak crossed a million cases for the first time, it was amazing to me. There’s a magazine called Drinks International, and I have always looked at it for the last 25 years. But when I saw the Himalayan Distillery name with Golden Oak written on it, it was a matter of pride for me.

VKS: My greatest moment is to see how pure my vodka is. My whole life is dedicated to it. It’s my passion. It’s my life. It has to be better than yesterday. So, whenever I go to the office, I say, ‘Is it better than yesterday’. When I hear ‘No, it’s the same’, I get fervent and say, ‘Let’s do more research’.

What motivates you to do what you do each day?

RBS: I wake up very early in the morning to three loving daughters, a loving wife, a father who is almost like a best friend, a mother who’s like a pillar to me. And I know I have to work hard. Working hard is something that you have to do. So, I am up early, motivated and driven to go to work. And in Nepal, believe me, there are a lot of things that we need to do… that good entrepreneurs need to work hard to get this country back into shape. And that really motivates me to push forward every day.

VKS: I don’t get old. I get younger every day. For me, my work makes me young because every day when I get up, there’s a temple right next to my bed and I say, ‘What’s the challenge? How are you going to help me?’ And you know what my answer is? You help yourself. So, I go out there and solve any problem with that deep faith that it can be done.

 

What have you learnt about each other, or appreciate as a strength different to your own in the other?

RBS: My dad is a true scientist. He’s a true technocrat. I am completely different. I am more about management, marketing and operations by nature. But I love his pursuit for perfection. I love his energy and motivation. It’s contagious, I admire how humble my father is, whether it’s with people passing by or total strangers. My dad goes all the way out to be really nice to people which really means a lot to me.

VKS: Raj has the quality that I don’t have. I mean, he can sit in a meeting for five hours. I am antsy in 15 minutes. He can sit on the computer, go through all the records and write down the notes very methodically. I only memorise them. It’s all in my mind. So, we complement each other. We don’t compare ourselves; we just appreciate each other.

How do you communicate with each other?

RBS: The first person I meet in the morning is my father. I wake him up. He even knows the sound of the way the door opens and by my footsteps, that it’s me. The moment we get to the office, we are hanging out together, having a good time. We eat lunch together every day. Our big topic in the evening is what’s for dinner. And at night, he’s the last person I look at too.

VKS: That is so true. I know my son’s footsteps and the way he opens the door. I know my son Raj. We have great moments of togetherness. We may not have any specific topic to talk about, but we have the whole world within us. And that’s the beauty of a family, father and son working together, just looking at each other, hearing about the difficult days and time and not getting upset about it. Some days he has challenges, some days he is relaxed, discussing what we should eat for lunch. And above all, as soon as Raj comes to my room, my grandchildren follow. They are my sunshine.

Deciding the company’s future trajectory after 50 years of strong success, what is the common vision?

RBS: I have three lovely daughters. The way I look at it is that in 50 years they’ll be celebrating the 100th anniversary, perhaps with all of you or your children.

VKS: I have prepared a team that even for 100 years, the spirit of the Shah family continues the research and the passion to do better. What we did yesterday is already obsolete. Move forward. I can see that even in the younger children. Like when my granddaughters come and they bring something and say, can you smell it? They already are concocting rich chocolate. I see it in our blood and I am happy to see that. That makes me very content. As long as the spirit of innovation stays in this family. We want to be the best; we don’t want to be second best. That passion is passed down. I am the fifth generation. The sixth generation has carried it forward and now I can already see that in the seventh generation. They will carry it through. I can see the inklings of it very clearly.

What would you like to accomplish at the end of your career?

RBS: I don’t think my career will ever end. But definitely, I can’t wait to see my daughters sit in my seat and for them to make decisions. They’ll take care of me like my parents took care of me when I was a child. Now I work hard to take care of them, but that’s what I really look forward to: seeing my kids taking over.

VKS: At the end of these 50 years, I want to be in touch with my reality. And how to be in touch with reality requires a lot of experience.  Passing on this wisdom to my son is my new mission. Right now, I want to engage in a conversation about life, not business, with him.

Being a Nepali holds significant importance in our lives. While our dreams may not always materialize, the effort we put in matters. I want to ask my son: Did we genuinely enjoy the journey? Does it all make sense to you?

Our commitment is evident in the taxes we have paid. I always aspire for our company to be one of the highest taxpayers because, honestly, I might not be well-versed in social service, and that’s the government’s role.  I don’t know how to build schools, colleges, or hospitals. The taxes we contribute should serve that purpose. For me, that’s how I feel I have served my people, and it’s the most important aspect.

 

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Any advice for father-son or father-daughter teams?

RBS: You need to be patient. You need to respect each other. You need to be honest, but most important, you need to give each other space. Many families I have seen don’t give each other space. In many families I have seen, the parents never give their children responsibility or accountability. This is a big problem. At a young age, if an entrepreneur is not given the freedom, the authority to make decisions, to make mistakes and get up from them, it becomes a problem.

But definitely, any family business is a difficult business because sometimes our culture itself is so hierarchical that it becomes complicated. But space is important, respect is important, and giving authority to delegate responsibility, that’s very important.

VKS: Keep working. Keep that spirit alive. It’s your heritage. Never give up. Shah family should never give up, no matter how difficult it is. My father made me believe that you have to be the best in a very loving way because sometimes to be the best can be very painful. But if done very lovingly, you will imbibe the values and live them. And I think Raj has done that and he will continue. And I am happy that he is going to pass that timepiece to his children. I look forward that the heritage will continue.

Is there a succession plan?

RBS: We have all sorts of plans. We have three-year plans, five-year plans. I have a 2050 plan and a 2073 plan. So, the plans are all there. But definitely it’s all about my kids. The succession of my teams. Hopefully my employees, their kids will work for us. Also, we already have several of our employees that are second to third generation in our company, so succession and long-term planning are important. But yes, in Nepal it’s difficult. My company has more plans than I think the country does, so it’s not easy. We have to be flexible and keep changing with the wind.

VKS: Yeah, we have a lot of plans. I always think this way. If it works, we’ll celebrate, but if it doesn’t work, how do I work to make our goals come true. When it comes to research and development, I have the best team and they have been trained mercilessly like a bootcamp and they now believe they are at par with the best in the world. I am probably the only chairman of a group who gets a call at 11 pm asking me to help understand something a team member read; I love that dedication.

My succession is my heritage, my legacy, which my son does. He works very hard. At times I worry how hard he works. Our heritage is really to enjoy our work, to work hard and to contribute in meaningful ways. To know that we are going to produce the best we can both in ethics, in workforce, for us and the people, as well as in our product.

RBS: When I grew up as a kid, I was born in a distillery, I grew up in a distillery. It never even crossed my mind even once that I would have to do anything else. I was born to work with the family. I was born to work in the distillery. And that’s something that I hope I can instill in my kids.

Describe Ruslan in a sentence.

VKS: Spirit of heritage. Spirit of greatness. Spirit innovation. Spirit of perfection. Perfection, however, can never be achieved, there is always something more you can do. In that same understanding, we are always trying to improve on Ruslan. Perhaps we are the only people in the world who try to remove each impurity in minuscule parts, like parts per billion. We analyse, we try to remove. We want Ruslan to be the spirit of the highest value.

RBS: I always say Ruslan is the spirit of good times. And when I think of Ruslan in the way we like to communicate about it, it’s about youth, it’s about celebration, it’s about friendships, it’s about bonding, it’s about dancing, singing, laughing. It’s about creating all those great memories that Nepalis are famous for.

We Nepalis are great people. We are fun-loving people, God fearing but fun-loving people. And Ruslan has played a major role in many different ways, but that’s what we always like to promote. Ruslan creates good times and great memories. 

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MARCH 2024

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