In the early 2000s, Uganda woke up to a flamboyant businessman, who by extension changed the face of Kampala’s wardrobes.
For almost a decade under his flagship business – Select Garments, Billy Robert Ahimbisibwe enjoyed plenty of newspaper columns, radio and television airtime.
But on August 3, 2014, after court interventions punctuated by two restraining orders – stopping his eviction, management of Forest Mall in Lugogo, Kampala closed one of Ahimbisibwe’s uptown outlets over failure to pay $200,000 (close to Shs600m) accumulated in rent arrears.
“Last year , we were in the Commercial Court over the same matter and court ruled in our favour. But when we asked him to pay, he refused, saying he will double the amount we have spent on the suit so that he does not pay the money [rent],” Stanley Isiagi, the managing director of Old Stanely Hotel, the then managers told Daily Monitor (August 6, 2014).
The closure must have opened a Pandora’s box as loan sharks, banks and other creditors camped at his outlets in different parts of Kampala as they sought to recover monies owed to them.
Chronicle of Ahimbisibwe’s arrival
After cruising through the early 2000s, Ahimbisibwe seemed to have arrived and by close of 2007, he had carved himself into a high table routine on Kampala’s social scene.
His style of dishing out money – oga-style (Nigerian boss), created an allure of excitement among his peers and admirers becoming a key subject of discussion in much of Kampala.
His was a life of luxuries flaunted by air-conditioned cars with personalised plates and sleek designer suits, which according to a close pal, sunk him into debts.
According to this close pal, who sought to remain anonymous in order not to jeopardise the friendship, Ahimbisibwe sunk himself in the loan gutters as his business could not support his extravagant routines.
“He lived large and forgot how he had arrived to a status that he (himself) worked so hard to undo,” he says.
But who is Ahimbisibwe?
Born on February, 26, 1971, in current Bushenyi District, Ahimbisibwe still maintains the title of chairman and chief executive officer of Select Garments among his peers.
He is a firm believer in the Roman Catholic Church and has been married to Susan for 19 years.
Not much is known about his early school days but in 1993, graduated with a diploma from Uganda College of Commerce in Kabale.
His early business life is not well documented but his peers say he started out selling second hand clothes before cutting a demeanour of a sophisticated businessman in the early 2000s.
Ahimbisibwe the businessman
To many, Ahimbisibwe is self-made and a firm believer in decisive action, which perfectly fits into the story of from “rags to riches”.
His signature quote: “Never postpone to tomorrow what you can do today”, that he would throw around at social functions seemed to have taught him the lessons of life.
Ahimbisibwe’s arrival on Kampala’s high table won him admirers, who would later use him as a reference of inspiration, even as many seemed to be ignorant of the ongoings in his life.
Witty as he is, he cut himself out, leaving many in the shadow as few or none, even those closer to him would see through his troubled business empire.
Even at the height of his troubles, few would suspect what was happening as he maintained a high life and kept within the circle of Kampala’s spendthrifts.
Intriguingly in 2010, his company – Select Garments was named winner of the Top 100 mid-sized firms in recognition of his business acumen.
The award, a brainchild of Monitor Publications Limited and KPMG supported by Stanbic Bank, including several others (awards), must have been the centre point, which added on his clout, announcing to whoever cared that he had arrived at his entrepreneurship destination.
However, when asked how the organisers could not see through Select Garments’ financial troubles, KPMG managing partner Benson Ndung’u said their job does not include verifying submitted financials since they work on the assumption that participants have been audited by recognised firms.
Additionally, he said 2010 was a long time, “perhaps the company’s financials then (between 2007 and 2009) had been in a good state”.
The award recognises excellent performance for businesses wtih an annual turnover of between Shs360m and Shs25b.
In 2006, Ahimbisibwe opened another business – Sleek Promotions which he sought to use as an entry into one of his other loves – promoting music and managing musicians.
However, not much was written about this business as it seemed to have come at a time when much of Ahimbisibwe’s focus was on building the Select Garments empire.
Enter the Select Garments empire
In 2000, Ahimbisibwe opened the lid on the Select Garments project that would later morph into one of Kampala’s high-end fashion stores.
His retail stores, though located in downtown Kampala then, cut through the corporate corridors boosted by massive aertisement and rapid expansion.
In 2005, he opened his first major outlet on JBK Plaza in downtown Kampala, before expanding to Mabirizi Plaza on Kampala Road.
In the preceding years, he expanded further opening several branches in Kampala including one on Channel Street, Mutasa Kafeero Plaza, Lugogo Forest Mall and another in Bugolobi.
However, some of these branches were later sacrificed in the process of expanding, with Ahimbisibwe saying he was fleeing up capital to support his new and high-end outlets at Forest Mall and Bugolobi.
This is where, according to analysts, Ahimbisibwe’s fall must have started as he sought to introduce his business to a new market closing out the core of his original customers who rarely shop in uptown Kampala.
But how did Select Garments sink in debt?
By close of 2012, Select Garments seemed to have started experiencing financial stress with a massive dip in sales and quality.
Around this time some customers claimed the products, mostly imported from China, had fallen in terms of quality and were no longer worth the hype and cost.
At the fold of 2013, Select Garments had accumulated a debt burden estimated in the region of Shs4b, with much of this tied in stock at a time when sales were dipping. Other debts had been accumulated from aertising given that Ahimbisibwe had heavily relied on publicity to not only brand the business but himself as well.
And when the code struck – closure of his Forest Mall outlet, the loan sharks came running ruining much of the left empire.
When this newspaper sounded him out he first declined to speak but later said: “Currently, I have two pending cases one is before the High Court and the other at Commercial Court. I am waiting for court to direct on the fate of my business,” adding: “Those saying I am deeply indebted are just but exaggerating.”
“It is really unfortunate, I was smoothly running my businesses when someone decided to stop me, yet I knew it well that what I was doing was the right thing,” he said.
What went wrong?
According to Ahimbisibwe, his landlord (Forest Mall) erred: “when I opened up my shop at Forest Mall, it was selling good suits [products] from abroad. So because I was faring well they admired my business and decided to sue me as a way of easily taking over.”
“The cases which are currently in court, I am the one who sued since my things were attached. In the (case) before the Registrar of the High Court, I am seeking to recover what they took from me,” he says.
However, Forest Mall management declined to comment on this matter, asking this reporter to wait for the court process.
What is at some of his former outlets
At Forest Mall, the space that used to house his outlet on the first floor of the building remains unoccupied. However, signs are that it had been occupied but was later vacated.
At JBK and Mabirizi Plaza, the spaces that used to house Select Garments have since been occupied by Devine Bridal Centre and Ronny Classics both of which deal in a similar line of businesses like Ahimbisibwe – garments and clothing.
What is he doing now?
Although he told us he is waiting for a court verdict to resume his business, close associates say he is always hanging at a garments shop – Joy and Mo at City House on William Street.
His links are confirmed by this reporter as we discovered that some clothes, especially the neckties on the shop’s shelves still bear Select Garments and Beyond tags.
SOURCE: Daily Monitor