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Olimpica: Colombia's favorite chain store

Article - February 28, 2014
The Char family is of Syrian origin but it has given this country everything from the very beginning. In return to the country that gave back so much, they work hard as businessmen and politicians to improve the Colombian people's lives
RICARDO CHAR ZASLAWY, OWNER OF OLIMPICA
Ricardo Char Zaslawy came to Colombia from Syria in search of a better life. He bought a store in Lorica, Córdoba, and began a lucrative business. In the early fifties, his oldest son, Fuad Char, started taking over the accounting of the store and improved its earnings impressively.

But differences with his father made him take his own path, going on to buy a shop and set up a pharmacy. From those first stores established in 1955, the Char family has grown their business substantially, having become one of the largest chain stores in the country. Almacenes Olímpica, is now the only store of its kind to still belong exclusively to a Colombian family.  
 
“I was 18 when I took over the family business”, recalls Mr. Fuad Char, now not only a successful businessman but also one of the most popular politicians on the Colombian Coast. His four brothers came to work with him back in 1955, and each one managed one of the family stores. In time, there weren’t enough brothers.

“Our father taught us that he who owns a store better tend to it. So that is what we did. Back then, the idea of having other employees managing our business didn’t even occur to us,” says Nr. Char. Eventually, though, they had to learn to delegate tasks; Mr. Char had 9 pharmacies in Barranquilla by 1968. The same year he opened his first supermarket, which would eventually become Almacenes Olímpica. 
 
“I was selling over 20 times more in the supermarket than in the pharmacies, so I understood that was where the business was. So in about two years I opened 15 supermarkets in Barranquilla and other parts of Colombia,” recalls Mr. Char. Today, Almacenes Olímpica still opens over 20 new stores a year in all Colombia. The reason: because the Char family is committed to bringing their services to the most remote towns in the country. 
 
Their prices are lower than those of all the other chain stores, so these small towns benefit highly from their presence. “We work hard and constantly to be able to offer those low prices to our costumers,” explains Mr. Char, adding: “We have a small format of our stores precisely for those small towns (usually, an Olimpica is a quite large supermarket).

We have arrived at very small municipalities, ones of only 40,000 people and it makes them very happy, to have their own chain store with air conditioning and everything. We have been doing this for a few years now – we have 280 stores in total– and for 2014 our projections tell us we will be building around 30 new ones in these smaller municipalities.”
 
For Mr. Char, Colombia is the land of possibilities. He understands the benefits of investing internationally (in fact, he owns a chain of supermarkets in Costa Rica), but he firmly believes in Colombia and the possibilities of expansion it still offers. This attitude isn’t surprising, considering Mr. Char is also a member of the Senate for the Cambio Radicall party.

He was also Governor of the Atlantic Department in 1984 and Colombian Ambassador in Portugal in 2007. His son, Alejandro Char, was also Governor of the same Department and then he became Mayor of Barranquilla in 2007. “My political participation was a result of the necessity of engaging the public administration to the commercial and industrial development of our country’s regions,” says Mr. Char, who first became Senator in 1990.

So he asks: “If your political leaders are only interested in their political gains and aren’t committed to the country, how can the city develop? How can it grow without the growth of its entrepreneurs? Or without the development of new residential areas? How can it grow without job opportunities?”

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