Ram Lal Shrestha is the Founding Chairperson of the ICTC Group. Coming from a bureaucratic family, he joined the government service but soon resigned and built his business empire. Sarad Pradhan of New Business Age spoke to him about his business and different aspects of the Nepali economy. Excerpts:
You are from a family of bureaucrats. What prompted you to start your own business?
Yes, I was in the government service. When I was in my late teens, I was close to a businessman. I was inspired by their lifestyle. I was ambitious and always thought I should live a quality life. But as my family was into bureaucracy, I had to give continuity to the tradition and joined government service after graduation. When I was about to be promoted to Under Secretary, I thought it would be difficult to quit if I was promoted. It was the Panchayati era and there was no source for ‘additional income’ like today. Everything was controlled by the palace. The section officer of the palace service would scold the government secretary. Such was the scenario. So, I quit government service and started looking for viable sectors.
I started a stationery business as it could be started with small capital. I still remember I sold my wife’s jewellery to start the business. Also, I felt I can build relationships with government agencies by supplying stationeries to them. My shop was at Pako, New Road. My business soon picked up. My sons also grew up and helped me.
What was the working environment like then?
I would say it was easier back then. All the bureaucratic work to start a business could be done at the director level. We don’t need to visit secretaries and ministers like businesspeople are doing these days. The corruption rate was very low. Maybe it was comparatively easier for me as I was in government service. I knew a lot of government officials. The majority of the government offices were housed within Singhadurbar.I would occasionally invite officials for coffee, which helped build a cordial relationship with people in the government service.
Could you tell us the story behind the establishment of Intercontinental Trading Concern (ICTC)?
When I was in the government service, different countries had already started providing aid to Nepal. Nepal was getting fertiliser aid, tractor aid, and many other things in the early 1960s. I felt my business would grow by being involved with all of these. I had good contact with aid agencies. They encouraged me to work with them and said they would recommend my name to government offices. We asked them to help Nepal install mini-hydro projects, which they did. Our company was involved in all of this. We proposed that they invest in many development projects. We gradually involved ourselves in the implementation of those projects. We spent the initial 10-15 years of ICTC doing all these things.
Gradually, we started working with multinational companies. Later, we expanded our portfolio to include the tourism, banking, and insurance sectors, as well as manufacturing and real estate businesses. My sons helped me a lot in expanding the business. We are still working as a team.
Many say it is difficult to do business in Nepal. Did you also suffer the same?
Yes, there were many problems. But we navigated through all this because we had no other option. I think the situation is even worse these days. Even though I am not very active in the business these days as I gave control to my sons some 30 years ago, I know how things work in Nepal. There is too much competition. Many people are after the same business.
It is difficult to start a business in Nepal. Foreign parties often say the facilities offered by the government are like bait to attract foreign investment in Nepal. Problems begin once you enter the country. It is difficult to attract investment, and even more difficult to repatriate profits and close a business.
I have heard that things have changed a lot recently. Bureaucracy, too, is getting enlightened and becoming cooperative. Development is not possible unless the bureaucracy and the private sector work in tandem.
You built a business empire from a small stationery shop in New Road. What do you think are the reasons behind your success?
The first reason is hard work. Second, you need a strong team to build a successful business. I got support from my sons. All three of my sons are hardworking and capable. It is because of this that I could take early retirement.
Many say the ICTC gets things done by influencing bureaucracy. What's your comment?
It’s just propaganda, propagated by rivals. In Nepal, if any individual or firm loses a contract, they start making allegations.
Could you please tell us about your involvement in the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu?
Hyatt is our first project in the tourism sector. Our entry into the project was very transparent and as per the global tender. The property is being managed by Hyatt International. It also owns some stakes in the hotel. It is one of the longest-running hospitality brands in Nepal now. Allegations made against us are baseless.
You are also in the liquor manufacturing business. Could you please elaborate?
We started Highland Distillery to produce high-quality liquor for the Nepali market. Some of our brands are doing extremely well in the market, while some have failed. This is a natural process in business.
You have achieved a lot in business. Could you tell us your most satisfying moment?
I would consider taking early retirement the most satisfying moment in your business. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing your sons take over the business from you, running it efficiently and expanding it further. You need luck, vision, a good team and hard work to succeed in business. Thankfully, we had all of these.
The gap between the rich and poor is widening. Do you think it is normal?
I think it is normal. When the pace of development increases, not everybody can make a good amount of money. It is the duty of the government to bridge the gap. It should bring different programs to help people in the lower strata of society to make them capable. The government should distribute its resources wisely.
Brain drain and the migration of the workforce are big problems for developing and underdeveloped economies. How do you see this?
We should appreciate the contribution of unskilled and semi-skilled labourers working in the Gulf. Our economy is alive and kicking because of the remittances sent by them. If it were not for the money sent by them, our economy would have been worse than Sri Lanka’s. We won’t have any money to finance our imports. So, I won’t say it is a problem. It happened because we failed to provide opportunities for them here. The situation won’t change unless we have strong political leadership.
We can’t stop the brain drain because skilled people get paid better in foreign countries. The problem is that the skilled workforce migrating to western countries is not sending money back home. Maybe we can make them send a certain amount of money every month to their parents. I am of the opinion that people should go abroad for higher studies, and it is the responsibility of the government to create a conducive atmosphere to bring them back.
How active is the ICTC in CSR activities?
As I don’t look after the management now, I am unable to tell you about the CSR activities of ICTC. What I believe is that businesses have to support the community in whatever way they can.
What do you want to suggest to the new generation?
The first and foremost thing is to have a good education. If you don’t have a good education, you cannot achieve anything in life. I won’t say don’t go to foreign countries. Go, and get a good education. However, return home and contribute to your country.I also suggest bright minds with good visions join politics.