11 Apr A business platform for the ages
Jean-Pierre Dalais, Chief Executive, provides insights into CIEL’s diversified portfolio and highlights Mauritius’ inherent entrepreneurial spirit.
Would you give us a snapshot of CIEL Group? What have been the company’s biggest milestones and achievements in the past several years?
Founded 110 years ago, CIEL is an International Mauritian Group operating across 10 countries in Africa, Asia, notably India and the Indian Ocean. We are present in six strategic sectors building brand portfolios and product consolidation in emerging markets namely, textile, finance, agribusiness, healthcare, property, as well as hotels and resorts.
In textile, our international exposure with some high-end fashion brands has enabled us to not only differentiate ourselves when it comes to fashion and design, but also, to lengthen a desirable track record in terms of productivity and efficiency in sustainable practices. While China, displays about 40 percent of the world’s apparel business representing some $200 billion of exports, the country is also facing major shifts partly due to increased costs, duties imposed by the U.S and human right issues. Our positioning in India, Bangladesh and the Indian Ocean region has become a key contributor in capitalising on strong partnership with U.S, European and other players across the world.
As far as the financial services go, we have for the past 8 years made acquisition and developed BNI MADAGASCAR. Currently ranking among the top players in the country, we have made a strong push in digital banking whilst additionally deploying over 100 physical branches on the island. On a local note, we are in Bank One, which is a niche player, quite oriented around private banking with a focus on financial institutions in Africa. Altogether, we also have other activities in financial services through CIEL Finance.
On the healthcare front, we intend to ensure commitment from our professionals, personalised service, and alignment with the Group’s vision so as to remain the leader in private hospitals and laboratories on the island. Through C-Care, we also have a considerable presence in Uganda.
Our hotel activities, includes the ownership of two high-end resorts: the Four Seasons, the Shangri-la’s Le Touessrok Resort & Spa, as well as five other hotels & resort that we manage under our own brand, four of them being under Sun Resorts and all offering some of the nicest beaches the island has to offer. We also do property development in this area to host people who choose to live and work in Mauritius. Throughout our growth trajectory, both here and on an international platform, we have developed a strong portfolio of property assets which we are now regrouped under one management structure with the intention of fostering that development. We believe that property activities will take on good momentum as Mauritius is very well positioned to attract investors. We have a flagship project on the east coast called Ferney, a beautiful valley that is going to be developed in a fully sustainable way with a reforestation programme and agritech innovation plans. At Ferney, we are welcoming people with agricultural development plans, renting space, and providing the infrastructure for them to plant and develop their activities further. This, we believe, will help the country foster new agri-entrepreneurs and ease local future issues on food security. In that same area, we are launching three local major corporates: an accelerator fund with a Norwegian company called Katapult, to get African and Asian startups that are in their second phase in the agritech field to come to Mauritius to be coached for further expansion.
How has the company evolved since you became CEO?
My role is to act as a catalyst to ensure that the company has the best environment to develop itself and expand. We are very much entrepreneurial as a family business listed on the stock exchange. We are fortunate to have fantastic teams working together to achieve this. We put a lot of emphasis on our human capital, making sure our people have the best environment in which to perform. We can now attract talents from all over the world. As you know, human capital is the biggest challenge any company would face, and this is why we take great care in nurturing our teams.
The pandemic made our life difficult as we had the entire country shut down for 18 months and factories closed in India, Madagascar and Mauritius. Overall, the Group was significantly affected. The agility displayed by our teams, the way costs was managed and the capacity to adapt the various business model made however the difference. We are currently seeing a strong momentum, much better than what was anticipated not so long ago. Not everything is behind us, of course, the current conflict in Eastern Europe is having a significant impact on the world’s economy.
What are your expectations for the rest of the year and moving into 2023?
I am cautiously optimistic about 2023. With the third quarter of our financial year just behind us, it is great to see that one of the key engines of the Group, hotels and resorts, is now back into play. This sector is gaining significant ground, although we were quite penalised in December through February by the Omicron variant and the travel ban from South Africa. The resulting snowball effect this has had on travelers from Europe was significant. The landscape is thus now positive for us in all our sectors, subject of course to the Eastern Europe conflict not deteriorating further. That said, we need to constantly watch our cost base with the current inflation level, it is a matter of protecting our margins by being very efficient and competitive in everything we do.
The supply chain panorama worldwide is changing with stronger emphasis on sustainability. This is where our focus lies. We want to build partnerships with customers who share the same values and develop long term partnerships.
Our regional position in the healthcare sector is something we want to leverage on. There is a great story there that we are deploying in Africa and perhaps one day in Asia.
How do you plan to expand your international footprint over the years and what are your biggest drivers of growth?
Last year, we made 60 percent of our turnover in Africa and Asia, outside of Mauritius. The setup, management teams, and the organization are all there on the ground managing the development incredibly well. Now it is a matter of expanding our activities’ subjects to market demand and capacity to deploy our know how. Increasing this regional footprint is a key part of our strategy. This expansion will be monitored closely as cash flows ought to be optimised notably so at a time of increasing interest rates. What is positive is that our infrastructure is already vastly in place and our team well positioned, be it in Africa or Asia. Africa is an extremely diverse continent, and it is important to take one’s time and understand the market properly before approaching it. We now have fully autonomous local teams who run the business well. It is upon these foundations that we can expand.
You have been involved in CIEL Group for three decades now, and as President of Business Mauritius you have a unique insight into the evolution and diversification of Mauritius’ economy over the years. As an inspirational and prominent business leader, what is your view on the overall direction of the country’s economy in the next two to three years?
It has been and still is difficult for Mauritius as we move out of this health and economic crisis. If I am not mistaken, our country held the world record for sustained economic growth in terms of longevity up to 2019. The blow was indeed hard because 20 percent of our economy is linked one way or the other to tourism. The impact of the lockdown was thus tremendously challenging. We are now living in a strong inflationary environment with logistics issues challenging our island, being quite far from everywhere else. That said, I personally believe that Mauritius has a unique space to expand. Being far away can also be an advantage. If we work on a good development plan hand in hand with the government, Mauritius has a great opportunity to attract talents, entrepreneurs and new citizens to further its growth.
Entrepreneurship is part of the Mauritian DNA. We speak both English and French and many speak Hindi as well as many other languages which helps a great deal. The fact that we are multicultural is an enormous advantage. We live on a small boat, and we have learned to get along and respect each other. This is also hugely relevant as we expand abroad in the region. I am thus very confident about our nation’s capability of emerging out of this crisis with a stronger economy. I sincerely believe that the next couple of years will prove me right.
For an international investor, are you open to foreign participation in any of your ventures?
Absolutely. We have always expanded by doing just that. The Four Seasons partnership for instance is a good example, and we have had many others with Indian, European and U.S. companies. We are very much open to future collaborations, and I am fully convinced that we can attract more investors to Mauritius. In fact, if you look at our history, there were originally no inhabitants on our island. The Dutch landed and created the first settlement, thereafter the French set base, then the English, people from Africa, unfortunately, some of them against their will, people from India as well as from China came to our island. It has always been a conglomerate of many civilisations which is what makes it so interesting, and we need to keep that tradition going. We need to keep on being fiscally attractive, being easy on permits, and continuing with the digital transformation while watching our security. As Chairman of Business Mauritius, we are continuously building our relationship with the public sector and the government as well as all the other partners that make Mauritius the great place to work and live in. After independence, the collaboration between the public and private sectors and the ideas that came from that cooperation is what allowed Mauritius to emerge as a solid sovereign nation.
What are the biggest opportunities open to international investors?
They lie in several areas. Financial services is a strong pillar of development. We were temporarily on the grey FATF list, this now behind us thanks to the efforts made in improving governance. If a green list existed, we would probably be on it. The Financial services sector has a lot of room to expand. What has been achieved over the years is quite commendable.
The second area is on the property front. It is quite easy to travel in and out, it is a night flight to Europe, only six hours from India, and 4 to 5 hours to east Africa and South Africa. There is a huge potential to develop further our property sector, we must keep on the push to be out there, much like Portugal, and make sure more people do come here, invest locally, work and stay. Once again, Mauritius is an amazing place to come to work or live. The infrastructure is getting better with facilities improving on many fronts.
I believe, we can position Mauritius as an education and healthcare hub for the region with people coming over getting trained and others having their treatments here.
We have been extremely productive in the textile industry, and we are positioned as one of the best manufacturers in the world. We ought to expand that know how into other fields with stronger added value. It is a priority to work together to see how we can facilitate the process and set a solid framework to attract companies with the aim of supplying the region.
What is your final message to the readers of Newsweek?
Mauritius is a very special place. We are a true rainbow nation with people from all around the world and living together in harmony. This is our core strength. We believe that inclusive growth of the country is through the people, the public sector and private companies working hand in hand to ensure that we have a sustainable future. I have no doubt many more people are going to come and join us. This is truly a nice place to live in and the worldwide digital revolution now makes it possible more than ever for people to come to work, live, and play here. It is also quite easy to travel out of here while having our island as a lovely base to operate from. The opportunity for a sustainable growth is indeed an exciting one.