This article was a Cover Story for the Fiji Business magazine.
I first met Mahesh Patel over 20 years ago. He was working at a pharmacy on the ground floor of what is now Malangan House in Boroko (location of the current Boroko Post Office). It was Port Moresby’s rainy season and I was looking for something to get rid of mould in the wardrobe at a flat I lived in on 3mile hill. He sold me jelly crystals assuring me that the wardrobe would be free of mould in no time. I had the bag of jelly crystals for as long as I lived in the flat; as well as the mould!
Mahesh was born in Fiji but after completing studies in New Zealand, he came to PNG in 1984 to work as a pharmacist. He later began City Pharmacy in 1987 at 6-mile, Port Moresby with just 4 staff, when he got an opportunity with Steamships who were looking at having a pharmacy department within their then department stores. He went on and formed a strategic alliance with Steamships group opening the first City Pharmacy shop in the Garden City shopping complex in Boroko followed closely with the opening of a second shop in Steamships Shopping centre in downtown Port Moresby. In the mid 1990’s the City Pharmacy Ltd expanded into areas like Lae in Morobe Province, Buka in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville and Goroka and Mt Hagen in the Highlands region. The expansion of the City Pharmacy was rapid and in 1998 it had to open its warehouse facilities in Waigani as a showroom. Soon thereafter, the year 2002 saw the City Pharmacy Limited take a huge step when it went public and listed on the Port Moresby Stock Exchange. By 2004 its customer loyalty program Real Rewards had attracted 55,000 plus members nationwide and its community service program had gone from strength to strength establishing it as a major community based company.
In the 2008 annual report, Managing Director Mahesh Patel writes; “Our essence lies in the hub of the community we serve. We are who we are because of our people – our customers, our staff; and our strategic alliances. We pride in the networks and the relationships we have created because they provide our long term sustenance. Our growth from humble beginnings 20 years ago is nothing short of remarkable. When we look back on how far we have come, we believe that our achievement is largely due to what we give back to the communities. That is the philosophy that drives us”. In the last year, City Pharmacy Limited stepped up its branding in a premium event which rewards and recognises women at grassroots level in Papua New Guinea. The annual CPL PRIDE OF PNG quest began a couple of years ago and receives nominations from groups or individuals to reward the work of “unsung heroines”. A prestigious gala night is held to celebrate the winners which are announced in six categories – Medal for Bravery, Medal for Courage, Medal for Young (17 years and younger), Medal for Community Spirit, Medal for Education & Role Model and Medal for Environment. In addition to the Medals, the winners receive cash prizes and the projects undertaken by the winners are continuously supported through the years. Moreover, the Pride of PNG is a campaign to acknowledge the efforts of women in PNG in whatever field they are striving in – whether they are in their village communities or in urban centres. Three years ago in 2005 City Pharmacy Limited diversified into general merchandise sector when it bought the Stop n Shop retail business from the Steamships group. In 2007 CPL entered into an alliance with Government-owned Post PNG to use it post shops to retail pharmaceutical and health products. Mahesh explained; “Our family business in Fiji (Newworld Supermarkets) has been in this sector (general merchandise-retail) for the last 60 years and City Pharmacy needed growth strategies to leverage its potential.”
Buying Stop n Shop was done at a time when there were uncertainties about the economy of this country due to a downturn and the political stability was questionable – but why take on the challenge? Mahesh said, “PNG by then had become my home. The people, the friends and business contacts I had were longer known to me than any other place. I left Fiji for New Zealand when I was only 16, then spent 8 years in New Zealand before coming to PNG. My heart, passion and a sense of belonging was always in PNG, still is and will always be!! This is despite my various interests in other countries.” Like all entrepreneurs, it’s the challenge, the sense of satisfaction in achieving goals and the defying of trends and rising above all of that that drives him as a person. “I remember when I was leaving Fiji in 1984 - everyone , including my family was advising me against going to PNG - that drove me more to come out and see it for myself. As a person, and more so now, the key driver is to make a difference (in any small way) to other people's lives, right down to the grass roots level. thus, we have various projects ( I call it my babies!) ongoing - the pride of PNG for empowering women, the campaign for violence against women, life-time education scheme for children, encouraging agriculture projects in the country”. CPL is working with a couple of groups and individuals to establish a constant supply of fresh vegetables and fruits for its supermarket chain. It continues to look at ways and means to be self-sufficient as well as be sustainable in order to grow. “As you know we acquired the Steamships Hardware chain late last year. We now have over 2,000 employees across the country - so this means that there are some 10, 000 people (men, women and children) relying on CPL to carry on their successes for their own livelihood”, Mahesh said. Looking back on his 25 years in PNG, he reflected; “I have literally spent half my life in PNG. I think the journey is ongoing - with all the projects I am undertaking and have mentioned above. The fruits of all this will be in the forthcoming future - these will be my milestones. “The only real regrets, I think the biggest dilemma; has been the time-splitting with the family and the business. I wish I had twice the time so I could have spent a lifetime on each!” Mahesh is married to Usha. They married in Port Moresby in 1988 and have two sons Nikhil 19 and Ajay 17, who spent their early years in PNG. They moved to Sydney in 1994 and have since been commuting between the businesses in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and India. Mahesh credits Usha for being “the rock” in the early days of the business in PNG and being another pharmacist, she was actually at work straight after the wedding day. “We had to delay our honeymoon for a year!” Mahesh remembers. Another significant person that figures in Mahesh’s life is Mr Alan Jarvis, the founding partner of City Pharmacy. He has become not only become a mentor to Mahesh, but a friend and part of the family.
Mahesh has other business interests in India in Ayuveda – an herbal based cosmetics and skin care product range targeting the high end market. The business is in partnership with Estee Lauder producing a brand named “Forrest Essentials”. “My life is spent travelling every two weeks. If I’m not on a plane going on product sourcing trips to China, India or PNG or Fiji, then something is wrong. I have no fear of flying nor do I suffer from jet-lag. I have a mind that programs itself into auto-pilot so when I get on the plane, I am asleep straight away. I multi-task my life in order to achieve so much that I plan,” explained Mahesh. Last year, he brought together 16 of his family members from Fiji and Australia, including his wife and sons, to share a unique PNG experience – to walk the treacherous Kokoda Track (where the Allied Forces had an intense battle against the Japanese during WW2). The seven-day walk was a very trying experience for the fitness fanatic who goes to the gymnasium regularly. After completing the Kokoda Track, he was overwhelmed emotionally. He agrees that the track challenges an individual - not just physically but especially emotionally and spiritually. And that probably symbolizes the attraction PNG has for Mahesh – just like Kokoda, PNG has a spirit that is challenging and can push one beyond the limit.