Weighing the profit margin and analysing risks while contemplating a business idea is forte of a savvy businessperson. Lemmawossen Sebhatu was a pro when it came to that. His children admired his ability to play with numbers at breakneck speed and come up with an answer. He  grew up counting coins. His advice to his five children had always been to start small.

Although from a well-established background, Lemma as he was fondly referred to, has been financially independent since his teen years. The son of the founder of Bihere Tsige Park was not interested in getting his hands dirty with gardening but rather focused on sales. Scaling up to be the best salesman at the insurance firm he worked at, he decided to leave the employment arena. He started his own business in his early 20s.

His brother Solomon Sebhatu remembers Lemma always generated unique business ideas. In a time when print was unfamiliar to many, he set up the printing house Ethio Graphics, located around the National Theatre, which became popular with offices that ordered prints and photocopies in bulk. He also took on the role of printing out plan designs for upcoming industrial projects.

Lemma loved photography. He owned the latest camera then, with a long-term plan to convert his business model into industrial photography.

His sociable behaviour, coupled with the nature of his work, acquainted him with the movers and shakers of the town.

The time was in the late 70s when Ethiopia was broiling over a revolution. Lemma’s once-known close acquaintances turned into foes. As the pressure mounted, he was forced to leave his family and well-established business and move to the US in the mid 80s. Following his abrupt decision, what awaited him in the unknown world was not easy.

He had to start from scratch, working minimum wage at a printing press. Through the years, he ended up managing the place.

“It’s a testament to how quick he was,” said Solomon.

When talking about the uneasy times, Lemma often mentioned learning about his mother’s passing and how he dealt with the loss alone.

As the second-born of eight and oldest son, he took on the role of mentoring his siblings from an early age. The bond he had with his little sister, Tigist, was unmatched. Humour may have been one of the qualities she shares with her brother, as she accredits their special connection to never challenging him, unlike the rest.

She was also the first from the family to join him in the US. From partying in the capital to opening her first business, Lemma took her by the arms, nurturing, coaching, and encouraging her to pursue the hospitality industry.

His love for art is reflected through the paintings on the walls of his house as his easygoing lifestyle is projected in the office. He measured performance on the output rather than enforcing strict work hours. Tsega Gebregziabher, Weletu as he called her, has worked with him for over a decade. She recalls spending the last Father’s Day at Lemma’s residence with a cake, a gesture she did not make to her own father. Likewise, he demanded to meet and get to know her husband moments after the marriage proposal before giving his blessing. He was the person she depended on, with the ability to melt what seemed like an iceberg of problems.

How he used to greet her by exclaiming “hey girl!” As the door opens would be one of the many gestures she will miss.

Indeed, the independent yet dependable, humorous, all the while being mentor, Lemmawossen Sebhatu, who passed away on January 12, 2023, and was laid to rest at the Kechene Medhanealem the following day, will be missed by many. He knew how to maintain his friendships as most have outlasted half a century.

His long-time friend Yilma Kebede (PhD) has been around since primary class, when both genders used to be enrolled in Nazareth School, later moving the boys to St. Joseph School. He remembers how benevolent Lemma was even in the early days, making friends with younger and older students.

Even in times of hardship, Yilma does not remember where the two lost contact. He is in awe of Lemma for pushing him to move back and assisting him to settle.

The same goes for Getachew Birbo, CEO of MOHA. The kind-hearted Lemma sometimes needed a push to navigate the bureaucracy, and Getachew says he took on the role. Their Sunday meetings to discuss what went down during the week and lay out plans will stay in the memory of Getachew for the rest of his life.

When the revolution died and the seemingly peaceful wind started to blow, Lemma, the fashionista who used to roam around the capital with his green Volvo, returned home in 1997. His decision was as abrupt as his departure.

Besides warming up to corporates and NGOs with a business proposal to print the first plastic security cards, he charmed his way around his wife, Kibeb Tesfaye. She admits his sophisticated attire and well-groomed appearance intrigued her the first day he went to her office. However, what had captured her heart was the level of understanding as she confided in him in the subsequent days.

Lemma’s big break following his return took three years to convince bank executives, finally partnering up with Dashen Bank and introducing the ATM.

“His revolutionary ideas took a while to warm up to,” said Kibeb.

He co-founded (Sebhatu & Sons), SS Communication Plc with three of his siblings, pioneering the introduction of international payment card acquiring and card payment services to Ethiopia. Partnering with international companies from Germany and Turkey, it provides banking solutions and imports ATM and POS machines. The company led the way in providing the central bank with a money shredder machine.

Celebrating his 73rd birthday in June, he planned to retire at 75 through his latest project, producing artisan cheese. He had acquired the machinery from the US with a cold room set up at the house, ready to process the handmade cheese with a complex flavour. The savvy businessman was known to be facetious with life and as most would agree, it worked for him.

“We celebrate his life, not mourn,” said Solomon. “He lived life the way he wanted to.”

PUBLISHED ON Jan 28,2023 [ VOL 23 , NO 1187]

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