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Neighborhood shop to superstore giant

Article - July 27, 2011
Olimpica is an excellent example of how one man can turn a family business into a mega-business
Some companies, though humble in origin, seem destined for greatness. Such is the case of Olimpica, which started out as a simple Barranquilla pharmacy.

Ricardo Char Zaslawy, a Syrian immigrant, opened his first shop in 1953 and by winning the loyalty of his clients, was able to open two more shops over the following year. However, as a result of a car accident in 1955, he was unable to continue working at the shop and so his son, Fuad, took over at the young age of 17.

Though still a teenager and largely inexperienced, the young Mr. Char soon demonstrated an innate business acumen, turning the small chain around and conquering the Barranquilla market, along with the help of his brothers Jabib, Farid and Simon who formed the company Char Hermanos Ltda.

“I had to open my father’s store on July 31, 1955. Fifty-six years have almost passed and I am still there, managing that store and more than 200 other stores that we have all around the nation,” recalls Fuad Char, president of Olimpica.

In 1968, he inaugurated the first Olimpica superstore under the motto “Sell more for less”. In the early 1970s, Mr. Char opened another Olimpica superstore, this time pioneering the self-service system, an idea heretofore unseen in Barranquilla. From here on out, Olimpica’s growth was unstoppable.

Today, shoppers can find nearly everything they need at any of Olimpica’s superstores – from fresh produce, meat, bakery and deli products to home appliances, clothing, furniture, hardware, toys, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

The Olimpica chain has surpassed COP2.6 billion ($1.5 million) in sales and today ranks 13th among Colombian companies. Moreover, the Char Group has investments in a wide variety of other areas, including media, finance, construction, real estate, fast food, packaging, advertising, rice and poultry production, concentrates, security services, and telephony.

In Colombia and beyond, Mr. Char is known as a savvy businessman and retailer as well as the long-time owner of Junior de Barranquilla, one of the most successful Colombian soccer clubs, and the nationwide radio station Olimpica Estereo.
Mr. Char is also widely considered Barranquilla’s most famous politician. He was named Governor of Atlantico State and Minister of Economic Development by former President Virgilio Barco, in 1987, and in 1991 was voted senator for the Liberal Party. Reelected to Senate in 1994, 1998 and 2002, with the backing of Alvaro Uribe Velez (Colombia’s president from 2002 till 2010), Mr. Char later served for a year as the Colombian Ambassador to Portugal.

He decided to return to his hometown of Barranquilla, from where he once again ran for Senate, this time under the Cambio Radical party. The business magnate and politician’s sons, Arturo and Alejandro, have also gone into politics, the latter having served as Governor of Atlantico State in 2003 and Mayor of Barranquilla from 2007. Meanwhile, another son, Antonio, has taken charge of the family businesses.