Mohammed's Enterprise is not only striving to make the mining sector more efficient, but also is making philanthropy a central part of their business model.
Mohammed's Enterprise is not only striving to make the mining sector more efficient, but also is making philanthropy a central part of their business model.
Guyana is truly going through an exciting time at the moment. In a period of global economic recession it has been one of the top five fastest growing economies in Latin America and is even projected to have an impressive growth of over 5% GDP for 2014. Given your wealth of experience from the private sector, how have you seen this economy evolve over the last 20 or 30 years?
The government of Guyana over the last 20 years has really created an environment and good platform for businesses. They have facilitated business, which in turn have created employment. They have given foreign companies tax breaks and the local companies particularly in the mining area have benefited from tax breaks and subsidies in fuel and equipment for the bigger miners and duty free concessions. Therefore the government of Guyana has really created a fantastic platform for the development of Guyana.
You really have an extraordinary story, it is one of a poor Essequibo boy who rose to become one of Guyana’s most respected businessman, can you give our American audience a bit of a background on this impressive journey?
I was born and raised in Essequibo County, which is called the ‘Cinderella County’ because all of the successful people who have originated from it. My boyhood life was very exciting; we grew up in a very free environment. We were poor like the people in that community with only a few rich people. It was a farming community where people would farm rice, mind their cattle and poultry. Most people were self-sufficient because everyone would have their little garden at the back of their yard. Generally my boyhood days were very beautiful, exciting and adventurous and as I grew older my parents insisted despite the poverty that I had to go to school and get education because education is important.
My father died though when I had just started working and I worked very hard because it was very difficult to obtain jobs. I started working in a saw mill and moved up to become a salesman, but I had been told about opportunities in the mining area from friends of mine. So because of my friends, I decided to enter the mining sector, but the work was very hard. It was very physical with pulling boards in the saw mills and my hands were soft so my friends would have to take slinters out of my hands every night. Then one of them took me to the manager and told him that I had some qualifications and asked if he could find something else for me to do. When he saw my qualifications he was impressed and offered me a job as a checker.
Those qualifications were studies that you had done on your own time at night even by candlelight is that correct?
Yes, on my own time using candle lights and bottle lamps when I would study all night and when I got stuck with a question, I had a few friends who would help me and loan me their books and my neighbor would pay my fees so I could write the GCE Cambridge exams because my parents had taught me that education was the key.
I was also a very good sportsman so when I went to Bartica I became very popular because people had heard about the ‘new kid on the block’ who could play cricket, volleyball and tennis well. These were the things we used to do as young people when we got spare time. We became very popular in Bartica and then I joined the government. I applied and the minister whose name is Bancroft who was a wonderful guy was impressed with my qualifications and offered me a job as a clerk. That is when I started working for the government; this was before PPP.
When my father died in 1977, I asked for a transfer so I came to Georgetown and my intention was to go to Essequibo but they said the transition had to be from Bartica to Georgetown and then to Essequibo. So I went back home to be close to my mom, my brothers and sisters to take care of them.
You made your first serious jump into the business world on America St, which you’ve called the Wall Street of Guyana. What are some of the lessons you learned on America St?
I was working on the GTA and I was earning maybe GYD 1000 a month so I used to go on America street because I had some friend working on the street and they would buy me lunch and so on. They asked me one day while we were having lunch and some drinks how much I was earning and I told them. So they told me that I could make that in one day. Coming from an office culture to go and work on the street was an extremely difficult decision so it took me a long time but then the money propelled me and I went eventually. I was amazed when I got there because I never knew that there was so much opportunity in the street but there wasn’t any legitimate foreign currency exchanges at that time so everybody operated on the street. Even businessmen who wanted money, they would go and engage with the guys on the street.
Was this illegal?
At the time it was illegal but was tolerated by the government because it helped facilitate business and people would get foreign currency.
So you started out on America Street?
Yes! I actually started out on America Street and then when I got a little money I went into the street market and teamed up with a friend who had a business deal but was wasn’t doing much. We set up a jewelry store as there was huge demand for jewelry at that that time and there would be people travelling from the Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados. Then we started to trade our currency in the market more privately instead of being in the street and people became more comfortable doing business privately.
So when you first started on America Street by selling jewelry?
No, America’s street I was dealing currency, but also selling watches because I used to travel up to the states and bring back with a lot of these battery watches. The battery watches came out at that time so there was huge demand for it because very few people in Guyana had watches at that time.
We started bringing back the watches and pure, fine silver because the gold smith needed that and we used to make a lot of money. I used to go to Chase Bank located in Manhattan to take pounds and Canadians dollars to get a better exchange rate and take it to the US. I had changed there twice and then one day a very nice, very beautiful teller recognized me and said she could direct me somewhere where I could get a better rate and that’s when she sent me to the PanAm building.
So when I went there and saw the rate, the spread was so wide in comparison to taking US dollar. It immediately dawned on that I could do a foreign currency business here. I decided I would take the pounds and the Canadian dollars and change it back to US dollars and bring back the US dollars to Guyana and sell it back to the local market. It was fantastic; you wouldn’t believe it because I’m still doing business with the same company because I have a personal relationship. We are doing it on a larger scale now. They give us all the opportunities to hedge and everything so we don’t lose anymore where you have to wait on rates. If I buy 10,000 pounds now, I just call them to fix it for me, whether the price goes down or up I’m committed to pay that price and they would give me 2 weeks to deliver without any charges because of the relationship we have.
Do you still do a lot of foreign currency transactions with the American company?
Yes we do. The business has grown and those days we used to ticket up but we don’t ticket anymore. The security service takes care of that.
There must have been a lot of foreign currency trader’s back then. What would you say have been your keys to success? How have you been so successful while so many did not prosper as well?
One of the keys to my success is that I delivered integrity; one has to develop trust and integrity. In those days people used to be scared to check money on the streets, so they take it and you tell them it is a certain amount then they’ll take it home and check it. I would never try to shortchange anyone to make a couple extra dollars.
The other thing is that you give them a good rate and they are happy with the rate they are given which we continue to do. We take our spread, negotiate our rates but now we control this business. So everyone who brings foreign currency to Guyana regardless of who it is will come and buy and sell to us. Somebody would buy and make their profit and they would in turn come and sell us because we control the monopoly. Even the banks would sell to us their foreign currency.
So it generally integrity, hard work and trust?
Yes! Now we are providing security for our customers as well. People would come sell us gold or currency and they would want us to drop the money anywhere for them; we would do that free of charge. Therefore that also gives us the extra advantage unlike other financial institutions.
You are of course one of Guyana’s most successful gold traders and foreign currency operators, but are you also involved in real estate with City’s Mall. What are you top priorities for 2015, where do you see opportunities to grow your business further?
For 2015, we have established our mining operations. It is now a middle-scale investment at the moment and the government of Guyana, because of the contribution we are making to the economy, has given us some very nice prime gold mining lands. We have about 50,000 acres.
We've also heard you are quite the cricketer. Minister Robert Persaud is striving to implement a “Guyianization” of the mining sector. Do you think the government should implement similar policies in other sectors of the economy to ensure Guyanese companies can compete and prosper in this growing economy?
So that is our main focus for 2015. We have already started the mining in the gold industry so far. We have already established an airstrip with only some final touches remaining and we hope to commission it very soon.
Is your son there on the ground managing it?
Yes! He actually manages that operation and is also the main partner in the operation
In President Ramotar’s opening remarks for GuyExpo 2014 he stated that partnerships are key to facilitate the rapid development of Guyana. Do you think the average American businessman knows of all the competitive advantages Guyana has to offer for investment?
No, I don’t think many people know about the opportunities that exist here in Guyana. I have seen some Americans who come in for the Guyana gold rush and we also have some who come to inquire about the lands. But not many people know about the opportunities here. Some Chinese companies from Asia are aware of the kind of opportunities.
Given your years of experience of doing business in America, where do you see synergies between Guyana and America, where they can leverage their existing partnership for economic gain?
There are several industries that Guyana needs to get at hand in, so we need partnerships because of the need to finance capital-intensive projects for example. In order for me to go into mining for instance I don’t have the money for a massive project. So what Guyanese have been doing is we are teaming up with companies for an infusion of large capital.
So you are looking for potential American partners?
Yes, because I like Americans since they have very strict rules for business and good corporate governance. I tried doing business in a certain places of the world and had a lot of problems, so I don’t look for any other business partner other than an American business partner.
I told you that when Guyana is looking for people to build roads and you contracted some companies from Asia, but when you look at the American investors, while they charge a little bit more, it’s because it is quality work and a long term investment. The world has become so small that you can pay a company to do due diligence and an American company will always perform better for the reasons I just highlighted.
I believe it’s not only about profits here, I believe you are also involved in the CSR initiatives, giving back to the community especially in education and in sports. Why are these activities so important to you and to Mohamed’s social corporate culture?
We have really benefited a lot from humanity; growing up here, there were always people who helped us. When I came into business there were people who helped us grow immensely. So I am very motivated to help people just as I was helped. We have a part of our corporate strategy that a certain amount of our profits will go to the community, to sports, to the church, to education programs, will go to charitable organization every year.
Right now, I have four students we are sponsoring; three African girls, because I do not discriminate for my charity work between African and Indian people. If I want to build ten houses for the poor, am going to build four for Africans, four for Indians and two for mixed people. I look at the most vulnerable people in the community, the people who really need. These girls that am sponsoring, I have to pay two hundred thousand dollars for each one of them, but it is worth it to see how they develop as individuals.
So you could be like Guyana’s Bill Gates?
Actually I have a friend from the US Embassy who said that to me before.
You really like helping people?
That’s my life. As a matter of fact, when I give whatever has to be given to the directors’ my money goes back purely to charity. I’m building a school right now in an apartment building that I will be handing over maybe in July or August to the Children of Essequibo. I’ve built the school with my own money.
What advice would you give to other young ambitious entrepreneurs,people who want to aspire every single success that you’ve enjoyed?
My advice to young people is; first they have to befriend successful businessmen to find out from them how things are done and how they succeeded. What is happening now is that the young people want a lot of money to start a business. I told my son that I started this business with two thousand Guyanese dollars and built the business brick by brick and today I am running a multi-million dollar business. The key to being successful in business is; you have to have the ability to save because opportunities will come and if you don’t have the money they will pass you. You have to buy what is necessary. You don’t take your capital and invest in luxury items. You have to sacrifice because every single cent matters; this is the route that young business people should take. I read a book about an American billionaire, where he says “You have to brutally save” and I connected it with my own life as a businessman. Young people today are reckless with their expenses. They make money and they just spend it in buying liquor. They don’t connect to the real world of business. When you want to be in business you have to connect to such people as Bill Gates; ask yourself why he is driving a car that is more than 15 years, travels in economy class, you start from scratch and build.
In this globalized world, the importance for countries to brand themselves and communicate their strengths to the international community can never be overstated. Taking this opportunity to reach out to the number one Americas newspaper how would you like Americans to perceive Guyana?
Americans see Guyana as a country that is backward and has a lot of crime, but that is not the current situation. There is crime but lesser in many parts of the Caribbean and lesser in many parts of Guyana. So I would want Americans to know that Guyana has the kindest, the most hospitable people. You will walk in streets and see people smiling and you know they are good, and they will welcome you into their homes. I would want Americans to view Guyana as a country that is emerging, that is growing rapidly, and that has a lot of opportunities. I would want them to view us as people who love humanity and are very caring.
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