In these times of family-owned businesses being split at the altar of sibling rivalry more often than not, the six Armacar-Pereira brothers have stuck together through thick and thin and built a successful retail & hospitality business virtually from scratch. Business Goa finds out how.
The business world is replete with stories of success and it takes all kinds of people to make that world – visionary leaders, maverick playboys, old money scions, technological wizards, et al. Every once in a while, though, one comes across a story that, while perhaps not going as far as warming the cockles of one’s heart, certainly makes one marvel at the indomitability of the spirit of enterprise. The story of the Armacar-Pereiras of Piedade, Divar is one such. The current generation of the family is a large one – six brothers and four sisters – and when both their parents passed away in quick succession in the early 1970’s, the youngest of them was only a year old. Luis Antonio Pereira, their late patriarch, had left behind a small hardware store in Panaji, their house and property in Divar and not much else. To say that liquidity was a problem at that point would be putting it mildly, but Prakash Pereira, the second-oldest brother, and clearly the group’s go-to man, resists the rags-to-riches bromide. “We have put that phase behind us long ago,” he says. “It was tough, but we got through it and would rather not focus on the past.” His sentiment is understandable, but it is the early troubles that bound the family together and generated the mutual trust that holds them together to this day. Their only bread-winner no more with them and with many young mouths to feed, the mantle of responsibility fell on the shoulders of Joao, the eldest sibling. “I was 20 at the time,” recalls Joe, as he is affectionately called, “and took up a job at the Goa Urban Co-operative Bank in Panaji. I knew the key to our future lay in all of us getting a good education.” His brothers acknowledge the debt of gratitude they owe him. “Joe deserves the credit for everything,” says Prakash. “He often said that he would beg and borrow but make sure that none of us were prevented from completing our education.” Joe had already got a degree in Economics by that time, so while he worked for a living, moving to Kuwait in 1979, the other brothers finished their education one by one in streams as varied as Law, Civil Engineering & Commerce. Little wonder then, that Joe today dons the role of father figure in the group, and plays an important hand in decision-making.
Origins of Enterprise
How the family came to be called ‘Armacar’ is an interesting story in itself. Luis Pereira’s father Joao Caetano was apparently the only man in Divar to own a gun (arme in Portuguese) and was often seen about the village brandishing his prize possession. His peers took to calling him Armacar (literally, the man with the gun), a name that has outlived him and come to be used for his family ever since. Luis tried his hand at different things after his then-almost-customary stint in Bombay, with mixed success – a photo studio he started was destroyed by fire, he ended up being swindled by his partner in a business that made mathematical instruments, and though L. A. Armacar, the hardware store he started did well for a time, it went into a prolonged slump once he lost his wife. The brothers kept the store running, though, and managed to slowly turn it around. The turning point for the family, and the business, came in 1983 when they opened Champs. The idea of a sports goods store came to Prakash while he was secretary of the Piedade Youth Association in the early 1980’s. One of his duties was to procure sports equipment for the association’s football team, something that made him realize the potential for the business. Of course, there remained the small matter of rustling up the capital for the venture, and to this day the brothers are eternally grateful to their uncle Gerson Gomes, who came forward and gave them the money with no strings attached. Both Joe & Prakash agree that without their uncle’s benevolence at that crucial juncture, things might have been very different for them today. Gerson’s son Simon continues his father’s involvement with the Armacars to this day as a partner in Champs.
“Once we started Champs, we never looked back,” asserts Joe. Things just seemed to fall into place after that. Their original Champs store next to the Municipal Garden in Panaji is still their flagship store, even though the chain has expanded to include many other, larger, stores. Champs today has 3 stores in different parts of Goa and stocks not just the basic sports goods that they started off with, but also high-end equipment that caters to just about any sport you can think of, from deep-sea fishing to roller-blading. The company also runs two franchises of the Proline Fitness stores in Panaji & Margao. In 1995, the brothers renamed L. A. Armacar to Luis & Co. in homage to their father. Since then, the hardware business has also moved from strength to strength. From a solitary hardware shop near the city’s historic Tobacco Square, the chain today consists of 6 stores dealing not just in hardware, but with separate dedicated outlets for related businesses like lighting fixtures, furniture and kitchen accessories. In 1998, the brothers ventured into the real estate and hospitality business when they built Alor Resorts in Calangute. Initially intended purely as a real estate venture, the brothers soon realized the potential of rent-back and decided to run it as a hotel, and a wise decision it proved to be. Another property, Alor Grande in Candolim, followed in 2006 and cemented their foray into that line of business. The group today has annual revenues in excess of Rs 25 crores, and while that may be not very big even by Goan standards, it is sizeable for a group that started from the ground up barely 30 years ago.
All for one and one for all
All six brothers – Joe, Prakash, Vincent, Ishwar, Anil & Anand – are equal partners in the three companies run by the family. All acknowledge that their shared experiences of early difficulties brought them together in a way nothing else could, a fact that contributes immensely to the smooth running of the three companies. “Everybody has an equal say in all matters,” says Prakash. “We have our differences, of course. That is but natural. But we know how to deal with those differences and move on.” Joe agrees, “The most important aspect of how we work is that even if one of us doesn’t agree with what the others are doing, once the collective decision is taken we throw our whole weight behind the decision.” “Let’s say we know when to agree to disagree,” he chuckles. So is each brother’s role in the overall setup clearly defined? “More or less,” says Joe. “Prakash, Vincent & I are sort of an unofficial core group. Being the three eldest ones, most important decisions are run by us first. But each of us has sufficient autonomy in our respective domains.” That they all have different educational backgrounds perhaps helps bring different perspectives to the table, but do they ever feel the lack of professional management skills? “Not really,” proffers Joe. “Luckily, my ten-year stint in Kuwait exposed me to a large American corporate, and my experience there holds me in good stead today. Especially when it comes to the use of technology as a managerial tool. At both Champs & Luis & Co., we have extremely streamlined computer systems that network all the stores and make all information available to us virtually at the press of a button.”
Both Joe & Prakash admit that they have to be prepared for bigger challenges going forward. The group plans to re-organize themselves into a single entity in the near future and define more clearly each partner’s role and shareholding in the parent company Armacar Group. “We know that we have been lucky with the six of us being able to stick together for so long, but we cannot assume that the next generation that we will hand over the reins to will have so smooth a ride,” says Prakash, “so we have to make sure that things are properly in place before they are ready to take over.” With the eldest of the 21 nieces and nephews being only 21, that chapter is surely still a long way away. For now, the Armacars have more immediate concerns. Another Champs store in Panaji is underway, and the brothers plan to open a restaurant in the heart of the city. They already run a couple of restaurants at Alor Resorts, but this would be their first stand-alone restaurant venture and Prakash looks excited about it, occasionally slipping into eloquent detail about the kind of food it would serve. Prakash also reveals plans to open a “duty-free style” retail store in Candolim that would dovetail with a fast food outlet that would be run by one of the global fast food chains, perhaps McDonalds, if things move according to plan. Junk food buffs will certainly watch those plans with keen interest.
It’s The Family, Stupid…
This account of the determination and enterprise of the Armacar brothers, though, is incomplete without a narration of a little experience I had with them during a session with all six, together to shoot a group picture for this story. As often happens, one party, Ishwar in this case, was running late, and the easy camaraderie and playful banter between the other five as we waited for him to arrive was obvious to anybody present. It wasn’t too difficult to fathom how these brothers had bucked the trend and stayed united all these years. When Ishwar finally arrived with his two pretty young daughters in tow, they went to each of their uncles one by one and exchanged handshakes and hugs, the warmth of which was apparent even to a rank outsider like me. This was no common display of family bonding. That’s how you keep a family together, I thought then, and maybe that’s how you run a business.