Seychelles, Republic of: Interview with Mr. Joseph Albert and Mr. Gregory Albert

Mr. Joseph Albert and Mr. Gregory Albert

(United Concrete Products Seychelles (UCPS))

Mr. Joseph Albert and Mr. Gregory Albert

As a set of islands in the Indian Ocean, Seychelles competes with many other island nations across the globe, from South East Asia to the Caribbean, as well as with nearby countries. Nevertheless, the Seychelles has managed to be positioned as one of the top tourism destinations worldwide. What competitive and comparative advantages set this country apart from its main competitors?

Joseph: First and foremost, the location of the archipelago is an advantage, Seychelles has direct flights from Europe -one of our main markets- and the Middle East is only four hours away. Moreover, unlike many other nations in the Indian Ocean, Seychelles is just out of the cyclonic bell. Seychelles can, therefore, guarantee its visitors a very stable and safe weather.

We have an ethnic rainbow nation that gets on very well, giving us a unique culture and cuisine. By nature, Seychellois are known to be quite friendly.

Moreover, our government has had the foresight of looking at our environment. 60% of the country is protected and our nature is noticeably pristine and untouched, with great biodiversity and fauna and flora unique to the Seychelles. Our topography also provides our visitors with different options and adventurous activities. Our visitors also benefit from the diversity of our outer islands and the UNESCO World Heritage Sites that are in our custody: the Vallee de Mai and the Aldabra atoll.

In terms of fisheries, we are very rich in pelagic fish: we are one of the world’s biggest exporters of yellowfin tuna.

Given that we are a small nation of 92.000 people with a vast fishing industry and an established tourism industry that yields 300.000 tourists per year, we are considered to be one of the richest country per capita in the region.  If we and the upcoming generations look after our country, protect and cherish it, we can remain and improve our international positioning and image.

With the international crisis starting to rescind, investors are on the lookout for investment destinations in all corners of the world, given that you have heavily invested in Seychelles for decades, why should they invest here of all places?

Joseph: From an investment point of view, there are plenty of changes taking place in the best interest of the Seychellois people, investors do see the potential that is there and will come in great numbers once the changes start filtering in and we see the first results.

Nevertheless, improvements must be made to certain infrastructures, chiefly the expansion of the airport with better facilities to accommodate the rise in arrivals.

The United Concrete Products Seychelles (UCPS) is one of the most prominent companies in the Building and Construction Industry of the Seychelles. How would you describe the current situation of the sector here?

Because of the size of the country, we as a company go very much in line with the building industries’ fluctuations; this is why the board of directors decided to diversify our portfolio to subsidize the crushing section and build resilience and leverage to sudden changes in the industry. We are now moving into the heavy industry such as piling, coastal construction, superstructures and bridge building, as well as real estate and marine cargo.

Resulting from the effort put into these new activities, we have participated and won certain international tenders such as the piling work of the Central Common Cold Store which is the biggest concrete pilling job to date in the history of Seychelles with the highest standards in quality.

We were informed by the Vice President, Mr. Vicent Meriton, that half of Seychelles’ entire territory comprises non-constructible nature reserves, and there is a strategy to limit the number of hotels depending on the area. Being your slogan “Building Seychelles since 1970”. How does this affect your business?

Joseph: We tend to analyze case studies of what has been done in other countries and decided that because of the circumstances in Seychelles, the best option is like mentioned earlier to try and diversify and expand on other activities. Given the level of technology that this company has gathered in the past 45 years, we attract the attention of other countries and are called upon to invest in several countries such as Madagascar and other countries in East Africa.

We have invested in the past and remain to own shares in certain foreign countries, and we still consider investing in other markets; there is potential. But since we are a Seychellois country, our priority is our country and its economic development.

Gregory: as a consequence of the construction restrictions in place, we are also developing maritime solutions so that we can extend our services to the outer islands where there is a need for more infrastructure that we can provide as a company that has the right tools, equipment, and expertize.

UCPS is also present in real estate, with residences being launched in the first quarter of this year. Why did you venture into this sector? How and with which communication tools are you positioning yourselves in this sector?

Joseph: We come from a family of landowners and in line with our need to diversify, we believe that we must do our share of developments by building estates for returning graduates amongst others as there is an increasing need for accommodations. We could even consider, given the chance, to do a private-public partnership with the government to do more affordable housing for society.

Your family group also includes companies in other sectors, a good example of diversity is Dynamics “The exclusive spirit distributor in Seychelles”. The market for spirits is a very competitive one; how did the company start off and what are the main challenges and opportunities?

Gregory: Dynamics was actually a company I created originally as a school project. Initially, it was supposed to be a shopping mall, but after assessing the local market we deemed that the project was too ambitious.

We decided to face it down to a beverage company.  At the time there were approximately 5 main importers in the sectors. We were the first ones to secure the brands we were selling, therefore becoming the official representatives of international brands in Seychelles. The consequence was a race between the existing companies to secure as many international brands as possible.  

With the Seychelles’ economy opening up, the number of importers multiplied and the sector is now saturated with importers and products. Competition has increased considerably.

Since we started trading in 2010, one of our challenges was not having a proper warehouse. Given that in wholesale the margins are low, we needed to increase our volume of production in order to remain competitive.

Consequently, we have now built new offices and warehouse to increase our volume after 7 years and great difficulties. We are also venturing into wine and beer with a broader portfolio of international groups, through which we have for instance secured Carlsberg, Marie Brizard, amongst other well-known brands. So we are now better prepared to secure a small share in this constantly evolving sector.

What can you tell us about your other companies?

Gregory: In fact before joining the family businesses, I felt that I was too “green” out of University so I spent the first good five years of my professional life in creating several businesses that interested me, ranging from clubbing, bar, printing, and car dealership. One of them, GN MOTORS,  was an idea a friend and I had as a result of our shared passion for the MOKEs. We had great memories going around the island with the old MOKE model and took up the mission to revive the glorious days of MOKE by bringing the new models back to Seychelles.

We are now considering bringing the electric model of MOKE which will be in line with the current sustainability strategy the government is implementing.

Now that I am more focus on UCPS and the rest of the family business, I had to let go a few of these first businesses and consolidate. Not all these businesses were profitable but what I gathered is a great experience that no university could have provided.

Giving the “Building Seychelles since 1970” slogan a little twist, the new government is making great efforts in order to diversify the economy with great attention to sustainable practices. How can you assist to build an eco-friendly and sustainable Seychelles?

Gregory: Our family has always taken part in all sorts of sponsorships even if a lot of them are not necessarily known by the public. Of late, we have, for instance, helped rebuild the public facilities at Curieuse Island to make sure that the island stays clean, we help families in need, be it for medical reasons,  for fire victims, or for better education. We are also developing new products with better insulation to save on energy in households and facilitate renewable energy.   Moreover, the calendars of UCPS which come out every year are sold to raise funds to put trackers on tortoises to help scientists monitor the population of tortoises in Seychelles. We also support religious causes, humanitarian, medical, educational and sports activities.  

We have been very much involved in CSR initiatives throughout the years without publicizing them because that was never the point, the activities were and remain to be altruistic. We are trying to be more outspoken as that is now the trend amongst our competitors; we are establishing a family foundation so that we can increase our contribution to the community, for instance through the donation of building materials.

You have both won the Entrepreneur of the Year Award. You are men that have managed to establish successful businesses in Seychelles whilst always bearing in mind the importance to give back to Seychelles and empower Seychellois. What would your message be to those fellow Seychellois thinking of setting up a business?

Joseph: There are inherent qualities in a businessman; you must be an optimist, a visionary, you must respect the people that work around you, and you must never quit. If you are a quitter, don’t go into business. I always taught my children: everybody is born alike and we all have the same possibilities. There is no better encouragement to do something than being told that it is not possible.

My message would then be: you must be passionate, you must like what you do, you must be innovative and focused, and in the process, you must bear in mind that it is not always easy and that the higher you go the tougher it gets; the key is never giving up.

Most importantly, you need to remember in the process to always help those in need. It will give you a sense of fulfillment and it will keep your feet on the ground. It is not about the money but about giving back to the society that supported you in your path to success.

Gregory: I would like to highlight another feature that has been key to my father’s success and good name: people look up to him as a businessman because he has never cut corners, he has always done everything by the books and in a transparent manner, which is, unfortunately, something that is not very common nowadays. He has worked hard to achieve what we have accomplished today and it is sad to see how other individuals expect to achieve what took 40 years of very hard work in just a few years even if it means taking shortcuts and disrupting the level-playing field.

As for me, my message has changed over the years and after gathering more experience. My message now would be: do not do the first business that comes to mind, because most of the time your first natural instinct is to follow your dream, and that is not necessarily the best rational business plan. Do take your time to do your feasibility study and consider carefully your competitive environment because you might find yourself giving the best of yourself and scarifying years of your life without the same reward in return. As Steve Jobs brilliantly put it: if you want to deal with competition, don’t do it better but do it differently.