The pain of running a retail giant that’s on its knees

Deep inside Nairobi’s busy Industrial Area, silence masks unending economic fear at the Uchumi Supermarkets head office. In its heydays, Uchumi touched the hearts of many consumers, but today the once giant retailer’s reputation is in tatters. The listed supermarket last turned a profit over a decade ago and has survived several insolvency attempts. It is now saddled with a Sh7.6 billion debt that is more than its assets. Uchumi is one of the worst performing stocks at the Nairobi Securities Exchange despite being the first retailer to list in the region in 1992. Its shares closed last week at 30 cents from a high of Sh19.80 recorded in 2012. This puts the retailer’s current paper value at a modest Sh109 million, far from the Sh3.85 billion valuation between 2007 and 2015 when the shares traded at Sh14.50. Though Uchumi has been written off countless times, Chief Executive Mohamed Mohamed is still convinced that the retailer will stage one of the greatest comebacks in corporate Kenya. When Financial Standard visited the headquarters, a weary guard opened the iron gates to a compound that speaks loudly of its lost glory. It is reminiscent of broken promises and ruined livelihoods. There are many vehicles at the parking lot, but inside the building it is deathly quiet. Finding the receptionist at their desk is a game of chance. Later, we learn that Kenya National Trading Corporation (KNTC), Uchumi’s landlord and a top shareholder, has since commercialised the parking yard after fights with the tenant over rent. Hints of a fallen empire are in the empty offices full of old computers, equipment and stacks of dusty files. The many meeting rooms where ideas were once birthed now house loneliness. Life might begin at 40, but for the 45-year-old Uchumi Supermarkets, the 40s are an unending race to escape the grim reaper’s deadly kiss. On the way to the CEO’s office, one gets a picture of how deprived the “Home of Value” has become. Mr Mohamed has taken on what may be his toughest assignment yet – trying to revive a company that seems on its last kicks. Besides, the retail business has seen its fair share of the downturn. One of the employees sought reassurance from this writer on whether it is possible to turn around Uchumi as the staff are tired of delayed salaries. At one time Uchumi had over 1,500 employees […]

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