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SAI GROUP Sam achary

From coup to corporation

Fiji Indian businessman Govind ‘Sam’ Achary lost everything in the 1987 Fiji coup, arriving in New Zealand with just $32 in his pocket and the phone number of someone who may give him a bed. Today, his family-owned company, SAI Group, operates 13 Mobil service stations as well as a handful of other companies, including a funeral home.

Loyal to Mobil

The Achary family business took off after Sam responded to an ad in the local paper for a forecourt attendant at the Balmoral Mobil site. To show how willing he was, he worked on the forecourt while waiting for an interview.

Within a couple of years he was appointed manager, was transferred to another Mobil station, and in 1989 was awarded Mobil Station Manager of the Year.

“That year I got my permanent residency and my family moved over from Fiji. By this time the service stations had been deregulated, and a few years later Mobil started leasing out stations and we took on one in Onehunga.” Sam borrowed $30,000 from friends to get into the station, so he and his son Sunil (then 21 years old) worked without wages for six months to pay back the loan. The business grew from there.

“In 1992 we took on Mobil’s Neilson Street site and in 1995 added Mobil Clendon and now run 13 sites from Dargaville to Matamata. Most are in Auckland though.” The sites are all leased, except for Matamata, which they own as independent operators. Mobil moved out of the retail side of its business in 2013, which also opened more opportunities for companies such as SAI Group.

Sam started his working life as an assistant postmaster before moving to Suva, where he and a partner operated a taxi business. They also imported used car parts from Japan. Some of the taxis were damaged during the coup and this impacted on the day-to-day operation of the business. The writing was on the wall, and like many other Fiji Indians, Sam and his business partner closed up shop and left.

SAI GROUP SUNIL2

BUSINESS PHILOSOPHY

The Achary family are followers of early 20th-century Indian spiritual leader Sai Baba and his teachings for leading a simple life and helping others. Sunil (above0 and Sam say this philosophy transfers into their business.

The company employs over 120 people, six of them in the main office in Wiri, including Sunil’s wife Irene. “We have several who have been with us for 10 or more years and one person has been with us for 18 years.” That’s saying something for a sector that is known for its high staff turnover.

Part of their recipe for success has been to train their own managers. “Everyone starts out on the forecourt and in the shop. Those who want to do more, we train into assistant manager and then manager. “ Sunil says they are particularly careful about who is offered a manager role in service stations outside Auckland.

“It’s important in small towns that people understand the local culture and want to become part of the community.” The company must be doing something right, as over the past 27 years a SAI Group site has won Mobil Station of the Year more than five times and each year wins several of the general categories.

STRUGGLE FOR STAFF

Recent changes in immigration and study visa policies have impacted on a sector that already struggled to find staff. Sunil says overseas students, or people on work visas, make up about 60 percent of the forecourt staff. However, tighter requirements for skilled migrants have had a huge impact, as has the closure of many private education providers, which led to the loss of thousands of overseas students.

Sunil says, “We advertise at WINZ, on Trade Me and in local newspapers for staff, but we get very few New Zealanders applying. We still rely heavily on overseas students, who are allowed to work while they are studying (up to 20 hours a week during the term or full-time during holidays). Usually we are running short-staffed.”

Recruitment has been made more difficult over the past couple of years by the rise in aggravated robberies. “We have a couple of sites that were getting hit once or twice a week, so some staff left, and who wants to risk their lives for $16 or $17 an hour?” He says Mobil has done a lot to improve security on its sites and the number of robberies has now dropped.

PAY RATES TOO LOW

Work in the retail sector is historically poorly paid. With the minimum wage increasing to $20 an hour over the next two years, Sunil and Sam are hoping it will make it a bit easier to attract staff. “But we will probably have to go higher, because our staff often have to work outdoors in all weather and other jobs are indoors.” Sunil believes the oil companies and service station operators need to examine their cost structures to find ways to pay higher wages.

FUTURE PLANS

SAI Group has no immediate plans for expansion. However, Sam says they do have a piece of land where they are thinking of opening an unmanned site and perhaps a coffee shop. “Mobil hasn’t got any unmanned sites in Auckland, so this may be a start.”