Getting fired was probably the best thing that happened to Pakwo Shum.
After completing his secondary education at the Ghana International School, Pakwo went to work at a Chinese restaurant in Tema. But he was fired after nine months because he was often in breach of the ‘many’ rules and regulations that his employer required him to adhere to.
Then, aged just a little over 17, Pakwo vowed never to become an employee again. It’s a vow to which he has remained true.
Partly influenced by his entrepreneur parents (his Chinese father and Ghanaian mother), Pakwo went on to start a number of small businesses in quick succession. His businesses sold cooking utensils to market women and traded fabrics, shoes, shirts and men’s accessories.
He quit the fabrics business because he always envisioned growing his business beyond what he could personally manage, and found “taking inventory of fabrics too tedious and involving” and decided instead to retail shoes because they were “easier to count and to keep track of.”
He subsequently expanded his range to include men’s shirts and accessories, which he sold from his Adeva shops in Accra and Tema. Within a short time, Adeva became synonymous with quality men’s shirts and accessories.
Quest for self-development
In 2000, Pakwo, aged 31, closed his Adeva shops to continue his education. He enrolled at the University of Ghana Business School to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business administration. That decision was partly to satisfy his inner restlessness and quest for self-development.
But it was also a direct result of the significant devaluation of the cedi and fluctuations on the foreign exchange market, which eroded the margins retailers generally made from selling imported merchandise.
While in his final semester at university, Pakwo researched various business opportunities that did not require dealing with inventory nor were affected heavily by foreign exchange. He settled on the travel industry and decided to start a travel agency called Travel King, which operated from a small office in the Airport Residential Area.
Although the business became a leading travel agent for corporate clients in Ghana, based on an outstanding customer service for which it won a number of awards, Pakwo was forced to resign from that business in 2006 (and eventually closed it after just five years) when Delta Air Lines approached him to become its general sales agent (GSA) for the Ghana flights. Delta decided to use a local GSA to provide dedicated commercial support for the Ghanaian market.
Pakwo went on to set up Aviation Alliance as the airline’s GSA in Ghana. The business quickly became a success as Delta gained a significant share of the North American market from Accra, leading to its market leadership role today.
As Delta expanded into other West African countries, they often turned to Pakwo Shum for GSA support. Today, Aviation Alliance and its subsidiary companies in the region are GSAs to Delta Air Lines in Ghana, Niger, Cote d’Iviore, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Ideally, Pakwo would have loved to have been able to start Aviation Alliance and to hand over the day-to-day management of Travel King to a successor. Unfortunately, that was not an option at the time because he hadn’t developed any successors to whom he could hand over. Then, very much the typical Ghanaian entrepreneur, Pakwo Shum’s business was effectively a “one-man show” which revolved round him. So, he had to close down a profitable business.
Shum made a quick 360-degree turnaround in setting up Aviation Alliance, this time recruiting talented staff who brought significant travel industry experience. He also put in place an impressive board that oversaw the creation of corporate governance, structure and implementation of new systems.
The emphasis on systems and structure is now a big part of his business philosophy as he seeks to use his experience in setting up and growing several small and medium sized companies in Ghana to provide angel investments and mentorship to start-ups and young entrepreneurs through his holding company Shum & Co.
He tells me he is not focused on any particular industry and will work in any industry, regardless of geographical location, provided “there is a market to be served” and it is possible to “build systems and processes to aid growth and expansion.”
For each business he is involved in, he seeks to work himself out of a job, relying on a deep pool of talented young managers and entrepreneurs to take those businesses to the next level.
Pakwo, a born-again Christian, does consider such impact investment as part of his calling. When I caught up with him recently over breakfast at Golden Tulip in Accra, it was the most relaxed I had seen him in years. Dressed in an open neck polo shirt and khakis, he patiently answered all my questions. He seemed to be in no hurry to head off to another appointment and not once were we disturbed by his mobile phone (which he put on silent at the beginning of the interview).
He appeared to be completely at peace with himself and admitted to me that “finding inner peace and satisfaction” was his greatest achievement.
He was ecstatic about the future and deal pipeline.
He’s clearly having a ton of fun doing what he is doing. I was, therefore, not surprised when in answer to my question of what his biggest fear was, he said, “Death. I’m enjoying life a lot and I feel there is so much to accomplish before it’s time to leave”.