At age 35, YPO member and chief executive officer of Laser and Electronics Middle East Group (LEME Group) Sanuj Kohli has already built an enterprise spanning five companies across East Africa and the Middle East. However, even in the best of times, experiencing success at a young age and in a short period of time does not come without its challenges.
Kohli recently shared with YPO’s CEO Insights some highlights of his journey, and how the current crisis has forced him to dig deep and expand his concept of entrepreneurship.
An early start
“When I reflect on how I became an entrepreneur, I remember it started very early in my childhood as I shadowed my father, a successful self-made businessman,” says Kohli, who moved from his place of birth, Kenya, to the U.K. at age 13 to complete his studies. At 16, during summer holidays, he set up a car detailing and cleaning company with a school friend and within two months, the pair were able to earn close to GBP6,000.
When Kohli went back to school, he says, “there was no stopping me. The experience fueled my entrepreneurial spirit.” In 2006, at 19, he signed a Middle East and Africa exclusive distribution for a German company, LPKF Laser and Electronics, a printed circuit board (PCB) prototyping machinery manufacturer. Upon graduation, he moved to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to set up his company headquarters.
Accepting setbacks, moving forward
“When I got to Dubai, I learned there was no existing market for my products,” says Kohli. “I began to sell the machines to universities for education purposes, creating awareness for the product, and indirectly the demand gradually trickled to the government sector and beyond.”
Within two years, the business became profitable, but due to high costs, long-term growth proved less sustainable than predicted. “We continue to distribute the product. However, when I realized the limited growth potential, I decided to work on another venture,” says Kohli.
In 2009, he co-founded Waterwise Car Washing, offering a product developed solely for the region and began working at the front line of the business washing cars. “In a culture where labor work is perceived negatively, many looked at me strangely and wondered if I was in some sort of financial trouble as I was physically cleaning cars. When in fact I did it to learn firsthand about the process and what customers wanted.” Despite a difficult start, Kohli was able to develop the market and become profitable within a year.
In 2010, Kohli ventured into the lighting industry and co-founded GLP, a company focused on low-voltage LED landscape lighting. A year later, fueled by its success, he left GLP to establish his own lighting brand, LEME Lighting, which became part of LEME Group and has since become a market leader in providing turnkey indoor and outdoor lighting solutions.
Mistakes and lesson learned
“One of the mistakes I made during these initial years was taking a lot of risks and focusing on short-term transactional activities because I was only motivated by the bottom line. Many entrepreneurs make the same mistake,” says Kohli.
Two years ago, this changed as his leadership style went through a major transition. “For me, change began with YPO and during the OPM (Owner/President Management) program at Harvard Business School. The opportunity to be surrounded by like-minded peers and experts allowed me to work on the business versus in the business and hone my leadership skills.”
Don’t get caught up in the day-to-day work. Set a vision and purpose for your team. This will pay off in the long run and in times of crisis. ”
— Sanuj Kohli, CEO LEME Group share
Part of the leadership transition involved investing in a team culture and a clear vision. “I had no leadership team or reporting structures. My sole focus was profitability. Now, I have a different way of working. I take time to deep dive into each business,” says Kohli. “I have started asking myself critical questions and building a healthy corporate culture, including purpose and value.”
Getting through COVID-19
The investment in building a strong corporate culture paid off as the lockdown forced many of his businesses to slow down.
Explains Kohli, “One of the benefits of having a strong work culture is loyalty. My team worked even harder during the lockdown. We did not lay anyone off. However, we are in the process of restructuring. We also had open conversations with our external stakeholders about possible delays and discussed changes in the company with our team so everyone was on the same page. It became clear that when going through a challenging period, it is important to always communicate clearly and authentically to both internal and external stakeholders.”
He is also using this time to continue to drive entrepreneurship and innovation within the organization, further strengthening the corporate culture by, among other things, setting up an innovation lab and encouraging staff to collaborate and come up with entrepreneurial ideas.
Exploring new market opportunities
Kohli is also using the time during the pandemic to focus on new ventures in Africa, channeling his energy toward his passion for renewable energy.
“Entrepreneurship in Africa has its challenges, including creating awareness, educating people and working with poor infrastructure,” he says. “However, there have been improvements as many countries are shifting from an agrarian economy to a knowledge-based economy, fueled mainly by major tech-based companies.”
Kohli wants to pay a part of that growth with a focus on clean energy to create not only profits but real change to the continent where he was born. In 2019, he co-founded Fika Mobility, a smart electric (EV) scooter platform with an interchangeable battery swap station. In 2020, he founded LEME Energy, a battery storage company focusing on providing energy storage solutions to commercial, industrial, residential and rural Africa, and he is developing a number of other tech-based platforms set to launch in 2021.
Advice for fellow entrepreneurs
As Kohli’s attention moves to the energy sector in Africa, he offers final advice for enthusiastic entrepreneurs, regardless of age:
- If you come up with an idea, follow through with it, take the risk, but make sure you do your due diligence first.
- Make sure you know your product development and supply chain.
- Be able to confidently answer the questions: What problem are you solving, and how are you adding value to the customer?
- Set achievable milestones to which you hold yourself accountable.
- Stay inspired and keep learning from others, especially your team and the younger more tech-savvy generation.
- Don’t get caught up in the day-to-day work. Set a vision and purpose for your team. This will pay off in the long run and in times of crisis.