Given the prominence of the WARYT conglomerate, it may come as a surprise that Legesse Zerihun began the business by chance, having been inspired by the lack of petrol stations in Addis Ababa. Years later, the company is known for its multitude of businesses – ranging from importing goods to manufacturing.
Legesse attributes the proliferation of his company to his decades-long career in business and his mother’s support. The ubiquity – and significance – of the WARYT logo, which stands for ‘Work and Reach Your Target’, is a testament to this drive and commitment to perseverance.
A father of four, Legesse says that his family and marriage have been central to his success – and it’s this familial outlook that drives his compassion and charitable activities, of which there are many.
EBR’s Tamirat Astatkie spoke with the seasoned businessman to learn more about his trajectory and his insights into the role the private sector should play in the country’s development.
The charismatic 68-year-old Legesse Zerihun, who always has a happy demeanour and often wears a groomed suit and tie, is the founder and Board Chairman of WARYT MULUTILA International and the WARYT Investment Group. WARYT is an indigenous firm widely known for its involvement in a number of sectors, including manufacturing; the import and distribution of household and office furniture; water purifiers and dispensers; and the WARYT Ceragem, a line of thermal massagers that relive stress and pain.
He was born in a small village called Aymelel, in the Gurage Zone of the Southern region, and is the fifth child among six siblings, including four sisters and one brother. Upon the death of his father, his mother moved Legesse, who was two years old at the time, and his immediate elder sister to Addis Ababa and began living around Sefere Selam, a robust centre of commerce due to its proximity to Merkato, the largest open market in the country.
He first received formalised business training in high school, when he studied at the then Commercial School of Addis Ababa, now recognised as the School of Commerce under Addis Ababa University (AAU), where he obtained a diploma in accounting. He then pursued his bachelor’s degree in business administration from the same university, majoring in accounting. After that, he moved to the United States to earn a master’s degree in finance from the Pacific Western University.
Legesse began his professional career at the Imperial Ethiopian Tobacco Monopoly as head of the General Accounts Division. Over the course of his career, Legesse has worked for National Resources, St. George Brewery, and the Automotive Manufacturing Cooperation of Ethiopia (A.M.C.E), holding positions ranging from Senior Accountant to Commercial and Service Centre Manager.
According to Legesse, hard work and perseverance marked his early career: “I used to work up to midnight as an accountant on a part-time basis in addition to my permanent job just to earn a livelihood.”
While working at A.M.C.E, Legesse was driving his car on what is presently called Haile Gebreselassie Street. The car ran out of fuel in the middle of the road, where the WARYT complex is currently located. However, there were no gas stations in that area. “That was the moment I decided to open a gas station and begin my own business,” he recalls, citing that moment as the point at which he decided to pursue a new career trajectory.
Specifically, 1994 marks an important milestone in the history of WARYT because the company’s business activities took shape when their first gas station opened with ETB2 million capital. “We began with a one-room office and 15 employees, including family members such as my wife, and kids – who served as a secretary, a messenger, a porter and a gas station attendant,” he says.
The trade name WARYT MULUTILA is given after his mother, who is still alive at the age of 92. According to Legesse his mother has devoted her life to raising her children alone and he is deeply indebted to her unwavering support. “She is the primary role model in all spheres of my life,” he stresses.
But to make it more meaningful for the public, the trade name WARYT is also an acronym: Work And Reach Your Target – to signify that hard work is the ultimate source of wealth; not inheritance or gifts.
The ‘thumps up’ logo with the Ethiopic letter ‘ዝ’ has meaning in Ge’ez, Amharic and Guragigna, denoting appreciation, quality and comfort, while the left hand is used to show love, peace and unity. “Both the brand name and the logo are getting recognition beyond Ethiopia,” Legesse says.
The company has come a long way from the days when 15 employees were cramped into a small office space. In addition to its commercial buildings, WARYT currently has an industrial zone in Lebu, on the outskirts of southwest Addis Ababa. The 10,000-square metre area consists of a manufacturing plant, where the upholstery and assembly of 26 types of chairs using a mix of local materials and imported accessories takes place.
The central warehouse and WARYT Wood Works, which manufactures various types of kitchen cabinets, shelves, cupboards and doors as per the order of the clients, are also located in the compound. Moreover, as part of this project expansion, the construction of an eight-storey building, mainly for office as well as showroom purposes, is underway at a cost of ETB75 million.
Currently, WARYT offers a wide range of office, home and kid’s furniture and home appliances, including sofa sets, dining room sets, adult and children bedroom sets, carpets, water purifiers with dispensers, cookers, washing machines, refrigerators and deep freezers. They also offer outdoor and garden furniture as well as café sets and furniture items, which are locally manufactured by its sister company such as kitchen cabinets, doors, and cupboards, among others. Moreover, it has created job opportunities for around 450 people and has capital in excess of ETB100 million.
Legesse credits his success in business to his marriage: “Marriage is a blessing and plays a key role to success in life by pulling oneself together. Getting married at a relatively younger age has helped me a lot in all my endeavours.”
He stresses that three people have been key in cultivating his character. “My mother influenced my personality, my immediate elder sister pushed me persistently to pursue education, and my wife made me successful in life as well as business,” he told EBR. Legesse’s closeness with his family influenced him to establish an organisational unit under WARYT at a departmental level called Corporate Social Development Services to systematically serve the communities within which it operates. Some of the success stories of this endeavour include the WARYT Ceragem, the WARYT Scholarship Fund for Rural Students and the Result Based Cooperation.
WARYT Ceragem, which provides access to the ceragem thermal massage technique, has been serving the society for free in centres it has established throughout the country. Since its introduction to Ethiopia in 2005, the ceragem method has reportedly helped sufferers of nerve-related problems and paralysis.
The ceragem bed reportedly activates the nerves to cure various problems and to help the body regain its strength.
Legesse claims more than five million people from all over Ethiopia have received services of WARYT Ceragem free of charge: “I began delivering the treatment service with a humble thought of sharing the cure of my illness by ceragem to my compatriots. Of all the services we give as a social responsibility, this particularly is very personal and gives me the utmost satisfaction.”
Another portion of WARYT’s flagship corporate social responsibility efforts is a scholarship designed for rural students that was launched in 2008. The main objective of this nationwide programme is to create healthy academic competition and thereby increase the number of students in higher learning institutions from rural areas.
Through this programme, WARYT encourages female university students to compete equally with their male counterparts. WARYT also supports limited students to undertake their postgraduate studies.
Additionally, WARYT is a member of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society, the Ethiopian Diabetics Association, the Ethiopian Cardiac Patients Association and the Lions Club of International.
Besides engaging in corporate social responsibility activities, Legesse prefers to follow current affairs and travel in his leisure time. “With 30 years of experience of travelling both for business and leisure I visited more than 60 countries and all the continents except Australia,” he says. “I hope [my wife and I] will succeed in travelling throughout the world more.”
5th Year • December 16 2016 – January 15 2017 • No. 46