Sofat So Good

Ash Sofat is an engaging 41-year-old with a ready smile. Indeed, the CEO of Somak Holidays has a lot to smile about these days. Under his guidance the firm founded by his father 40 years ago next year is transforming itself into a major player in the upmarket hotel and leisure market.

The company is on the verge of making a major step by moving into an entirely new sphere of operations with the construction of its fi rst hotels in two of Kenya national parks, a 46 room lodge in Tsavo and a luxury tented camp in the Samburu.

This significant departure from the firm’s routes as a ticket operator for Kenyan Asians looking to travel to Britain in the late Sixties is part of a bold strategy in which Ash Sofat is developing the firm into new markets. It was in 1968 that his father Suresh and a business partner (Somak is a combination of their names Sofat and Mak) began a modest operation as a fl ight consolidator mainly catering for schoolchildren making their way between Kenya and England between holiday and term time – the so-called ‘lollipop specials’ run under the auspices of the then East African Cultural Association.

Ash Sofat Luxury Travel“It was a way of getting around various restrictions at the time,” recalls Ash. “You became a member in the morning, basically, and travelled in the evening. People from all sorts of backgrounds came to us and the business developed from there.”

The firm expanded from charter into scheduled airline fl ights, becoming the sole distributor for British Airways in 1978 for its East African fl ights into Nairobi, Dar Es Sallam and Entebbe – a contract it holds to this day.
The company became a market leader in East Africa, adding destinations such as Eygpt, the Sechelles, South Africa and India, with Goa the mainstay of the operation, to its portfolio.

After more than a decade of successful if modest operations the partners went their separate ways. But when Ash went on a safari holiday through a European company in 1988 he was inspired by the potential for similar holidays and the simple fact that as it was already strongly based in Africa, Somak would be able to create a tremendous advantage by exploiting its local contacts. The family and the company had by this time rebased to London with offi ces in Wembley following a brief fl irtation with Oxford Street.

Asian Enterprise RhinoAsh had graduated from university and had spent three years in the business learning the ropes in the flights department. “I got to the point where I couldn’t see what value I could add to the business by simply doing that,” Ash explained. “I needed a bigger canvass to operate on and so that is why I started up a package holiday offering to Kenya.”

Recalling those early years, the first year’s performance figures seem as fresh in his mind now as they were 24 years ago. “In its first year of operation after launching on July 10th 1983, Somak took 483 passengers on its holidays there,” Ash says. “We are now carrying just short of 50,000 passengers a year.”

That staggering growth has not simply been due to an increasing awareness and demand for the luxury end of the travel market among the affluent educated British middle class. Undeniably this has been a strong factor, and has also led to new players in the airline market such as India’s Jet Airways and Richard Branson’s Virgin Airlines, who have also helped raise awareness and expand the market.
But Ash insists that a successful operator must be underpinned by strict disciplines that ensure the offerings are kept fresh and up to date, and that no complacency is ever allowed to creep into the business. “We still have the strong advantages that we had when we were developing the company,”  Ash adds, as if to stress the point. “The business was doing well and the margins were good. The distribution was strong and the brand was strong.

We had a strong ground handling business – 25 per cent of the business in Kenya and also very strong in Tanzania – running our own safari business and providing all the meet and greet services for our customers. “Everything was good, but I had the view that we were able to provide so much more than any of our competitors could do.” One of those is and was Kuoni, the Swiss doyenne of luxury travel with whom Ash went on his safari holiday in 1988 before he decided to move into what was until then the preserve of the luxury tour operator. An obvious question now is how long Kuoni will put up with the comparative upstart Somak before being goaded into making a generous offer for the company. “We have had one or two offers, certainly” Ash confi des. “ But we don’t have an exit strategy – we are looking for the business to expand into the next generation and that is our motivation.” It is still early days before any decision is taken over the eventual succession. Ash’s son is still just 13 and while he goes into the offi ce in school holidays there is no automatic assumption he will want to get involved in the business instead of pursuing a career in another area. “There is no process of family grooming,” he insists. “I don’t tell my son ‘This is what I want you to do in the future’. I want him to take his own decisions when he is ready.” Nevertheless the foundations of the future Somak business are already being laid – and this is the family’s forays into several new areas including MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and events – current clients include Coca Cola and Renault), tours and tailor made holidays in new destinations such as South America, and Sports Travel offerings around major sporting events such as the World Cup and Olympics but also catering for smaller events such as local cricket teams’ overseas tours. This is being achieved through a combination of acquisitions and organic growth. “When all is said and done we are not about market share as such but about margins. We are not competing with ‘stay put’ or ‘fl y and fl op’ business which is well catered for on the internet and with vertically integrated companies Asian Enterprise Kenyasuch as Thomsons and First Choice” says Ash. So now what could well be the most exciting advance the company has made is underway with the construction of its own accommodation on the Tsavo and Samburu National Parks. “We see this as a hugely signifi cant step for the company.
The Tsavo project will be operational from the 1st October and we are expecting our fi rst guests on 1st November,” Ash explains. “The idea goes hand in hand with the integration of the business. We want to take more control over the package we can offer our customers. “We will still work with our suppliers, very much so. It would be wrong to consider moving away from them. But we believe there is a great opportunity to expand into hotel operations – again fi tting in with our philosophy of margin as opposed to market share. This is a way we can maximise on our operations.” So where does the man whose clients enjoy some of the most spectacular holidays the world have to offer go on his own vacations? “Well they do tend to be busman's holidays,” Ash Sofat admits. “I tend to plan things around a fact fi nding or business trip. Last year we went to the States and in October we are planning to go to the Galapagos Islands and Peru. I generally go ahead and the family joins me or I stay on for a few days afterwards for meetings.” Things are going pretty well for Suresh too. Now 69 he is the chairman of Somak but spends most of his time in Kenya where he oversees ground handling operations and is overseeing the development of the company’s safari lodges. “He is incredibly fit, works hard and enjoys life,” says Ash. “If I am doing the same at his time of life I will be a happy man.”

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