MegaMart makes big impact on retail trade over 20 years
Gassan Azan Jr is a businessman who is intent on making a major impact on the Jamaican economy, and the general society. One could say he has already achieved that. His flagship Bashco stores are well known for low-cost dry goods, a business established with the help of a network of friends in China, where he has been sourcing a lot of the products for the busines, after travelling to Panama for a while to buy goods for resale in Jamaica. Later came the MegaMart supermarket chain, which merged dry goods with fresh produce, baked products, pharmaceuticals, prescription drugs, and a range of consumer services under one roof. In 2019, MegaMart cemented its place in the Jamaican retail landscape, marking 20 years of success and expansion.
Azan, who is chairman and chief executive officer of Cost Club, the parent company of MegaMart, and chief executive officer of Bashco Trading Company Limited, says he fashioned MegaMart in 1999 off the big-box store concept that has been a landmark of retail and, wholesale in North America and Europe. “It was time for Jamaica and the Caribbean to have such a store, where people did their entire shopping and services under one roof,” the businessman told The Gleaner.
After building the first store in 1999 in the densely populated community of Portmore, St Catherine, to capture the traffic in the large and growing municipality, three other locations were built out in quick succession, with Waterloo Road in St Andrew, Montego Bay and Mandeville following in quick succession almost four years apart.
“It was a costly learning experience, to say the least. But it was a very challenging and rewarding experience at the end of it,” Azan says of the MegaMart journey just over 20 years later. The success of Portmore, he notes, propelled the further build-out of the chain. The 96,000-square-foot Montego Bay store is the largest. Azan recalls that while it was his intention was to locate the store in the Ironshore area, east of the western city, the advice from then head of the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), Dr Vin Lawrence to purchase UDC land for the business at Catherine Hall towards the westerly end instead has proven sound, with a major expansion of Montego Bay in that direction over the past several years.
“Montego Bay has been a very powerful city for us,” Azan says of business there.
Since the opening of the Mandeville store in 2012, there has been a pause to the geographical expansion of the brand, with the model for further geographical expansion now going through a rethink. According to the businessman, there is now an emphasis on maintaining a supply of the best quality farm-fresh produce to the stores at the best prices.
The future of the business is being guided by the experience of the 20-year journey.
“There have been a number of challenges in all directions, from economic to policies and procedures,” Azan recounts.
With financing from savings, the profits of other businesses and some equity from business partners, MegaMart overcame the financial challenges. At the same time, the business has had to operate at high standards and incur associated costs, whereas some competitors operate informally and are not burdened with similar costs, allowing them to offer lower prices, Azan asserts.
The businessman credits his staff with the success of MegaMart to date.
“I am an entrepreneur. I am constantly looking at business opportunities. Once the mandate is set as to what you want to achieve, it is really your team – the whole complement of staff – that makes it possible. They are the ones in the trenches every day making sure that things are done the way you want it done.”
Forced by economics and the hesitance of some customers to renew membership for shopping early in the day, the business model, which was initially based on membership shopping, changed to include non-members, with members receiving rebates and other benefits.
Azan is proud of the impact Megamart has had not only on the general retail trade and economy, but importantly, on improving the lives of its workers. He says staff continue to speak of the achievement of their personal and family goals through employment in the business.
An entrepreneur whose exposure to business has been hands-on, Azan says his early ambition was to be a lawyer, but he was discouraged from that professional path after receiving an offer to study law at The University of the West Indies in the late 1970s. He instead pursued business studies at Boston University in the United States before cutting the programme short to delve practically into business in Jamaica.
“When you are studying business, they can’t teach you how to be an entrepreneur. They are teaching you from an administrative point of view how to work for big corporations. What I am is not that. I am an entrepreneur. I see an opportunity. I measure the risk. I want to get involved and I do it,” he shares.
With a loan of $30,000 from his mother – which he regarded as somewhat of a small fortune at the time – Azan became a master dealer selling cigarettes for Carreras Limited. The profits from that business helped to finance a buying and selling routine which first saw him travelling to Panama and then to China to purchase goods for resale in Jamaica.