The day was August 4, 1972 – just another day in the high-and-mighty confusion of then Ugandan president Idi Amin Dada, the self-proclaimed Conqueror of the British Empire.
By Nigel M. Nassar
The day was August 4, 1972 – just another day in the high-and-mighty confusion of then Ugandan president Idi Amin Dada, the self-proclaimed Conqueror of the British Empire. The despotic leader’s paranoia hit fever pitch, and he made a split-second decision to expel Asians from Uganda, the majority of whom Indian. Among the approximately 80,000 who left in haste was the Verjee family, including the little boy Rumi Verjee, then 15 years old.
Lord Verjee inside Thomas Goode
It has been 42 years since the expulsion. Today, that little boy, born in Uganda and now a British citizen, is a highly-respected business magnate and philanthropist with an estimated net worth of £125m (sh541b) as of 2013. That icing on the cake comes from a 1984 incident, when as a 27-year-old, Verjee, without any capital, accosted the American founder of Domino’s Pizza and persuaded him to sell him (Verjee) the franchising rights to Domino’s Pizza in the UK. The rest is all history, as this move catapulted him onto a property-acquisition spree around the world; a spree that has now brought him back to Uganda with charity and investment plans. And those plans involve building East Africa’s biggest satellite city in Kampala.
It is these plans that he was in Uganda for recently when we interviewed him. For a tip of the iceberg, Verjee is the proprietor of Thomas Goode & Co. Limited, a retailer of upmarket china, glass and silverware in Mayfair, an A-list zone of central London. He also owns Brompton Capital Limited, one of about 10 property development, investment and holding companies spread across the world. His charity arm, The Rumi Foundation, has extended a helping hand to about 40 initiatives around the world from its main hub in the UK to parts of East Africa, India, and South America.
Lord Verjee with the Prime Minister, David Cameron
And while all this happened, Verjee, was appointed to the UK House of Lords in 2013 by Her Majesty The Queen as Lord Verjee of Portobello in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where he sits as a Liberal Democrat Peer. Close to British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, part of Verjee’s work involves supporting the party’s leadership programme to improve representation from under-represented groups.
But all this aside, what exactly happened right for Lord Verjee? How did he amass so much wealth after a heavy Amin blow that saw his family lose about 90% of wealth? He tells his story, a truly inspiring one for prospective entrepreneurs.
Lord Verjee with Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Yes, I was born lucky. I always attribute my success to luck first before anything else. Luck which starts right from being born in a successful, upright and philanthropic family with successes from earlier generations. That is important because success in more ways comes from stability at home. A lot of people come from traumatised backgrounds, and that affects them a lot in business. So I credit luck because I didn’t have any trauma to deal with, which has given me a clear mind always.
Born in Mengo hospital in 1957, I grew up in Kololo, Kampala, under close and strict nurturing from my parents; Roshan and Jimmy Verjee, both now deceased. At the time, Uganda hadn’t yet attained independence from the British. My father, then a renowned lawyer, was one of few Ugandans lucky to raise a family in the city, a preserve of the British then. He believed strongly in education, social work and philanthropy, always giving unconditionally even before he had a lot of money – and that I believe rubbed off onto me. A UK-trained lawyer with high stature in society, my father and his uncle, BKS Verjee, owned the law firm Verjee and Verjee Advocates. It was a very successful and preferred law firm. It was so popular that BKS Verjee was one of the people who negotiated for Uganda’s independence with the British (which is ironic that later Amin would expel us).
Anyway, with the law firm’s success, it inevitably followed that its owners were successful as well. My family, who were also involved in real estate, owned Airways House, and had a major shareholding in Grand Hotel, now the Grand Imperial hotel. They also had a hand in several other businesses and prime properties around Kampala.
Verjee built The Bromptons Luxury Apartments in Chelsea, London, and sold them at a premium.
Thomas Goode Building in Mayfair, one of the world's most expensive places to own property
So I was lucky to be born in such a family, a very disciplined family with a strict work ethic and many mentors. My mother, a small town humble woman from Tanga in Tanzania, was a nurturer through and through, and was always involved in community work. I was also greatly influenced by my grandmother Mitibai, also from Tanga. A great businesswoman and community leader, she taught me the importance of women’s education and the important role they play in the community. Back to my mum, I learned especially from her the importance of being humble and treating everyone with respect, regardless of social status or otherwise. So, even though we were a wealthy family, I, along with my two older brothers Rasool and Shaffique, learned not to get high on it.
Thomas Goode exterior. The china, glass and silverware retailer supplies the Queen of England and the Prince of Wales
Mum and dad taught me that you don’t mess with education. Because with it comes knowledge, responsibility, and that basically, anything is possible. That was the gospel at home. I was too young to make sense of it then. But now, after my experiences in life, I know what they meant. I learned from an early age that you can have wealth and possessions taken away, but no one can take away your education. I know that with education you meet the right people and make the best connections you will need later in life, whether as an employee, or as an entrepreneur.
Inside Thomas Goode, the upmarket china, glass and silverware retailer owned by Verjee
Most of my success in business, philanthropy and leadership comes from making the right connections. And I made them because I went to school. My father, because of education, made friends with a lot of people who matter. That includes Kenya’s father of independence, President Jomo Kenyatta. Because of that I also met him, as well as Uganda’s former President, Milton Obote. Actually, meeting those two at a tender age exposed me to leadership early in life. Who knows, maybe that profound effect the meetings had on me is where I picked my leadership skills?
Good schooling out of a dilemma at home
When I was six years old in 1963, I had to go to school. It was the same year my father was sent to work in Kenya by the Aga Khan, the leader of the Ismaili faith, which my family is a member of. From then on we had one foot in Uganda and the other in Kenya. We didn’t have good schools in Kenya; the only good ones were for whites only – those were the colonial days. So, my father, on realising the need for good schools for all, went about building the very first multi-racial schools in Kenya – The Aga Khan Schools – while I was sent to study in the UK, where I joined my older brothers. I went to Newlands School in Sussex and Haileybury College in Hertfordshire.
Rumi with HRH The Prince of Wales
Meanwhile back home in Uganda and Kenya, my father’s businesses kept growing, and whenever we were back for holidays, we would help out, especially with community work. In Uganda specifically, business in the late 1960s wasn’t bad. Milton Obote was President then. My father’s companies were making some decent money, as did those of other Asians, specifically Indians, whose characteristic work ethic made success inevitable. When Idi Amin, then army commander in Obote’s government, turned around and overthrew Obote from within in 1971, things started changing. Amin started viewing these successful business people as a threat.
In August 1972, he launched what he called an “economic war” in what saw at least 80,000 Asians expelled from Uganda, and their businesses confiscated. I was 15 years old. We lost at least 90% of our wealth In East Africa – thank God we had diversified into Kenya, where the other 10% had been invested. From then on, I promised myself to restore our family wealth and glory in the future. That was my dream, and my mind focused on achieving that. Evacuated safely from that incident, I resettled in the UK, where I eventually attained citizenship. Later I joined Cambridge University and qualified for the bar, becoming a barrister around 1979.
Practicing law Vs joining business
With my qualifications as a lawyer, I started debating with myself whether to practice or not. A part of me wanted to, but as an immigrant young man with no connections then, breaking into a very conservative profession like law in a place like the UK was so hard.
Watford FC's home as it looks today. Verjee and Singer Sir Elton John owned the club from 1995-1999
So I decided to venture into banking. I got a job as an account executive at Prudential Bache, a brokerage and investment banking company. Specifically, my job was to manage and grow wealthy people’s money through keeping tabs on the market and advising on stocks and shares to invest in, among other things. For two years, I saw myself exponentially grow people’s finances to unprecedented levels.
During my pondering moments I wondered how it was that I was helping grow people’s moneys yet I didn’t have any myself. Was this how I intended to restore my family to the glory we lost back in 1972? Was this how I intended to make the money that would uphold my family’s ethos of giving a helping hand? I thought long and hard. I decided two years in banking were enough. I needed to come up with something of my own.
The trip that turned things around
At about the same time, a friend called Laurent Baudou was planning a trip to Italy to pursue franchising rights for the global fashion brand Benetton, for the UK market. I decided to join him. I used my savings from the banking job to buy an air ticket to Ponzano Veneto, Italy. He clinched the deal, and has since grown into a very wealthy entrepreneur, having been the very first Benetton franchisee.
Meanwhile, from my talks with him on the plane, an idea had occurred to me – delivering pizzas to homes of those who ordered. I thought about it all the way from Italy to London. I badly wanted in on something that would work. At my apartment in London, another Ugandan exile and friend, Fereed Mangalji (he and his family now own a multi-billion-dollar hotel empire in the US), suggested that I take a franchise. From then on our conversations shifted to this. We talked about it at every opportunity, sharing ideas, fears and possibilities.
Researching the pizza market
For about a month after I returned from Italy, I was out and about among the UK populace doing extensive research about the pizza business and the whole idea of becoming a franchisee. For some reason (and I didn’t really have any reason), my mind settled on Domino’s Pizza, a chain of American pizza-delivery restaurants all over the US, founded in 1960 by renowned tycoon Tom Monaghan, now aged 77. I did further research on Domino’s Pizza, their chains of supply, how they recruited their bakers and chefs, what made people love their pizzas. I even made sure to taste their pizza a number of times to be exactly sure what it tasted like, and whether it had the ability to grow on you with successive consumption. I also researched Monaghan himself and learned his story.
Lord Verjee founded Domino's Pizza in the UK aged 27
After, that I sat down and drew out a business plan. Ready with my pitch, I picked up the phone and called Domino’s headquarters in Michigan, United States. I asked to talk to Monaghan about selling to me franchising rights for Domino’s Pizza in the UK. They asked me to embark on working in a pizza store for two years before starting any talks about a franchise with Domino’s – that is their prerequisite.
But for me, it made more sense getting the franchise first, and then doing the two years later. What if I did the two years and then didn’t get the franchise? I continued calling to talk to Monaghan for weeks, but without any luck. Through keeping tabs on Monaghan’s schedule, I learned that he was going to give a talk about entrepreneurship in Texas. I decided this was it.
Going in for the kill
By this time I had spent all my savings and didn’t have money to buy an air ticket to Texas. But I had to meet Tom Monaghan. I borrowed £1000 (sh4.2m) and bought two return tickets, one for me, the other for Laurent Baudou – I asked him to accompany me basically for moral and business support.
I don’t remember the exact date, but it was in 1985. We landed at Houston Airport, Texas, and I asked Laurent to keep my bag while I sorted out something. Turns out it was a big mistake, as Laurent got distracted and my bag got snatched. That totally disorganized me, as my business plan was in it. I paced the entire airport hoping to find it, but all was in vain. I had spent weeks putting together this business plan and now it was gone. I panicked. But thanks again to Laurent for being with me, he calmed me down and had me refocus. We decided to go on as planned. Since I had put together the business plan myself, it wasn’t hard recalling most of what constituted it.
Finally, a meeting with Tom Monaghan
During Monaghan’s public lecture, my mind was on one thing – securing the one moment that would hopefully change my life. During a sort of break between his talks, I sneaked through the audience, beat his security and made it to where he was. I started talking immediately. I told him I had been trying to see him for several months but that his people wouldn’t let me. I added that I had to fly from the UK just to secure this moment, but that there was a problem – I had lost my business plan. I swore that it was a grand business plan with every detail of what I intended to do if he sold me the franchising rights. Thank God he didn’t doubt me one bit. In fact, he gave a hearty laugh about my business plan woes.
Domino's pizza box
He said he believed me, and was actually bothered as to why his aides wouldn’t let me see him. He is so down to earth and believes in giving opportunity, seeing as he is from a humble background himself, having grown up an orphan. So he knows that a lot of people are denied opportunity, especially those from humble backgrounds. That is why whenever he has a chance, he supports causes, especially when young people are involved. He said he was impressed that at 27, I was frantically looking to make it as an entrepreneur. In a way, he saw himself in me, for he was 23 when he founded Domino’s Pizza. He put me in touch with Doug Anderson, who was Domino’s head of international marketing, and I followed up with him until I became a franchisee shortly after.
And Domino’s Pizza in the UK takes shape
See, when I set out I didn’t have capital. But I had a dream, and strong belief in myself. So, with the franchise secured, in came the challenge of capital. But I couldn’t let that fail me after doing all I had done. I sent in a proposal to a government-aided incentive scheme that funded upstarts with promising business ideas, as well as waived the taxes for some time in exchange for an agreed share in the company (equity financing). From that, I raised enough initial capital to set me off. And through Monaghan’s mentorship and contacts (Monaghan did a lot of mentoring for me), I learnt more friendly ways of raising money. Meanwhile, the condition to work in a pizza store for two years before running a Domino’s franchise still stood (it stands to date).
But I didn’t have time to do two years before starting out. Besides, I didn’t really want to do that, for two years felt like a lifetime. So I decided to partner with Scott Baker, a young Domino’s Pizza franchisee in the US, who had been in the business for some years and had amassed up to six Domino’s Pizza restaurants. Of course he had already done the two years pizza store work, so all I did was convince him to sell his business in the US and come with me to the UK. He accepted. We opened up our very first Domino’s Pizza store in Milton Keynes, a large urban design town in Buckinghamshire, England, about 45 minutes out of London. One of the newer towns of the UK, and with an American look about it, Milton Keynes attracted a lot of international community, including loads of Americans who were more familiar with Domino’s Pizza. As a result, the store got a lot of hype, the kind that saw it grow from towns to cities and beyond.
Meanwhile, I did three months of tossing pizza dough, baking them and basically learning the whole business operations (I survived the two years because of my partner Baker’s earlier experience). Those three months were a whole new education the lecturers at university will not give you. From them I learnt why Monaghan insisted on the two years of pizza store work. Baker took care of the pizza end since he understood it better, while I took care of the finance, property and marketing end since I understood banking, property and the UK market better.
By 1990, five years later, we had grown from one store to 48 of them. That boils down to about a new store every month. Today, Domino’s employs more than 20,000 people in the UK.
The move that made Verjee a fortune
While running the finance end of Domino’s Pizza, I started investing in real estate, but on a smaller scale. I would buy buildings, renovate them and put them on the market again. That made me a lot of money, so much so that I decided real estate would be the business of my future. Meanwhile, in late 1989, towards clocking our fifth year, Domino’s Pizza was doing so well, and we were doing the final touches to our 48th store. Its value on the market had grown by leaps and bounds, and I decided this was the best time to sell, which I did. I made a huge sum of money I had never envisioned myself making in my life. It’s the money from this sale that catapulted me onto bigger deals.
Moving on to bigger deals
In a month, I bought a huge old hospital in Chelsea called the Royal Brompton Hospital, renovated it into luxury apartments and resold them at a premium. In the same month, I bought Thomas Goode & Co. Limited, a retailer of upmarket china, glass and silverware, situated in Mayfair, an A-list area of Central London. Thomas Goode now holds two Royal Warrants. Meaning we supply Her Majesty The Queen, and His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales with china, glass and silverware. If you go for a dinner at Buckingham Palace, you will be eating off Thomas Goode everything.
Then, alongside singer Elton John, I bought Watford F.C, an English professional football club based in Hertforshire, just outside of London. We co-owned it from 1995 – 1999.
Basically, the old hospital building, the football club and Thomas Goode were the three main buys that set me off onto a journey to acquire property and make more money from it. Today, my businesses are in the UK, Canada, Brazil, Croatia and Kenya.
Ugandan youth can benefit from The Rumi Foundation
With such successes, I always look at giving back as a legacy of my family, and I feel fortunate to be in a position where I can give something back. That is why in 2006, I founded The Rumi Foundation (www.rumifoundation.com ) to facilitate our family ethos of charity. And we intend to make sure it grows from one generation to the next. That’s why my two nephews, Jay and Simon Verjee, work with the foundation.
Lord Verjee interacts with Children at Building Tomorrow Academy of Kyeitabya in Kiboga
It has diverse programmes Ugandan youths can benefit from, and has supported over 40 projects in the world. We give financial aid, mentor start-up businesses, give donations, as well as mentor humanitarianism through education, innovation and knowledge building. In fact, one of the reasons I am in Uganda is to follow-up on Building Tomorrow, a project involved in building many schools in rural Uganda, which The Rumi Foundation supports in partnership with the Clinton Foundation, run by former America president Bill Clinton. I started supporting Building Tomorrow in 2011 after Clinton brought me to Uganda and interested me in donating to the cause, whose aim is to improve literacy levels in Uganda.
East Africa’s biggest satellite city in Uganda
The other reason I am here is to discuss investment opportunities. I intend to build East Africa’s biggest satellite city here, in Uganda! I have already had talks with the Kampala Capital City Authority, and the First Lady Janet Museveni. Subsequently I will meet the President to discuss this dream further. I am looking at a similar project in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a market I moved into eight years ago when property value was so low, only for the FIFA World Cup 2014 to be announced in 2007 and the property value skyrocketing since then. And now with the Rio 2016 Olympics, coming up, we are already making a lot of money in Brazil.
This is what I mean by luck. So we are making a move to Uganda – low property prices and all, but this is home, and there is potential. The aim is to have that satellite city bring together all social classes, as well as act as a brain magnet of sorts to combat the problem of brain drain. Shanghai city in China did it. After its construction, the best brains that had left the country for greener pastures smelled the coffee back home and returned to provide services using the high-tech infrastructure there. Today, China is a power. I intend to do that here in Uganda, with a satellite city providing best infrastructure in facilities like housing, education, health, sports, trade, media and communications, ICTs, the like. That way, Uganda shall be able to keep her powerful brains home, and even attract some who had left. I have made friends with a lot of like-minded people who can help us actualize this. Friends like Youtube founder Chad Hurley, Google chairman Eric Schmidt, lots more.
So why Invest in Uganda after that Amin humiliation?
A tree must not forget its roots; otherwise it will end up withering. This is me taking care of my roots. Idi Amin was one crazy guy, so why deny the Ugandan people a chance at growth? I believe that with success comes the responsibility to act with compassion and generosity. Whether I was hurt by a past president or not is a totally different story. This is Uganda we are talking about, and my people need me. And I will do anything to make sure my people, especially the youth, make it. In fact, one of the people The Rumi Foundation supports under the youth mentorship programme back in the UK is a Ugandan young man called Yahaya Kiyingi, who works with the service Industry and has political ambitions. So if it’s Uganda, I will give my all. My personal unwritten mission statement is for whoever comes in contact with me to leave feeling good about themselves.
Awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for charitable services in 2009.
Member, World Presidents’ Organisation, the Global Leadership Foundation, and the Advisory Board of the British Olympic Association.
- Don’t neglect education. No one can take that away from you. In school you make the right connections you will need to make it in business.
- Have a dream and work towards achieving it. Insist where you must. That’s how I was able to meet the founder of Domino’s Pizza. Everyday Usain Bolt dreams, and trains to beat all in the 100metre race.
- Stabilise your home and have a clean mind, it will help you focus. Also, mean well and don’t try to cheat. Money from shady deals usually gets squandered.
- Always surround yourself with people who are better than you. That way they will pull you up and you will rise to their level.
- Learn from your mistakes and don’t repeat them. My best deal ever was one where I lost £5000 (sh21m) from not paying attention to detail. I learned to look closely and ask lots of questions.
- Always do extensive research on the business you are interested in; you will learn a lot more than you imagined. That should help you come up with a business plan, which is also a must.
- Develop your idea well even if you don’t have capital so that you are able to seize the moment if an opportunity shows up.
- Value systems in people are important. I made it because of that. And be sure to establish strong foundations when you start out.
- Know that it will take a while before you start making money.
- A business’s venue is very important. That comes from good research on who you are targeting, and where they can be found.
- Have passion. If it’s what you do, do it passionately. For five years I dreamt and walked pizza, passionately.
- Make your luck count. I always credit luck, but I didn’t sit there and wait to continue getting lucky.
Lord Verjee’s Business Interests, past and present
• Domino’s (past)
• Royal Brompton Hospital (past)
• Watford FC (Past)
• Thomas Goode & Co. (present).
• Croatian Properties (present).
• Ipanema Contemporary Living (present).
• Private Equity Business in UK (present).
What Others Say
Simon Verjee, Executive Assistant to Lord Verjee
Working with Lord Verjee, I have learnt many lessons. Away from the many business lessons, I have learnt the importance of giving back. Lord Verjee is very passionate about helping others, especially young people, and this is a very important lesson for my generation and future generations. We all must help where we can.
Joseph Kaliisa, Country Manager Building Tomorrow
I have known Lord Verjee since 2011 when he visited Building Tomorrow with former American President Bill Clinton. He is someone who cares plenty about the people he meets. From listening a lot and asking many questions, he surprises you when he makes follow up even after a long time.
Kennedy Odede, Founder of Shining Hope for Communities.
I had been a street boy for two years when I was introduced to Lord Verjee at age 10. I met him through a President Clinton initiative.
I was immediately struck by his humility and genuine heart to impact the lives of the less fortunate. He is truly passionate about the future of Africa’s young people and leadership.
Dr. Ambassador Mumtaz Kassam, lawyer
I have known the Verjee family for several years, and assisted them in the repossession of part of their expropriated properties in Uganda. I am proud to still possess the bookshelf Lord Verjee’s father used during his law practice in Uganda at Airways House, which was the meeting point of all expelled Asians in 1972. Lord Verjee has always been sincere in his drive to improve the plight of the poor, particularly the youth, and his philanthropic and charitable intentions clearly show that. With his impressive international connections, he is able to bring together key personalities to ensure developmental and infrastructural projects in in Uganda.
How Ugandan-born Lord Vejee became a UK tycoon