At a time when many investors and businesses have been hit hard by the tough economic environment and are scaling down operations or quitting altogether, one man has found a reason to be optimistic.
He has been growing his empire, injecting billions of shillings into the economy in an expansion drive when the fortunes of others seem to dim by the day.
Steel and cement billionaire Narendra Raval, better known as Guru, has in a matter of months invested over Sh10 billion in growing his empire.
In addition to acquiring ARM Cement for Sh5 billion and opening a new Sh6 billion plant in Nakuru County recently, the chairman of Devki Group of Companies is set to open a multi-billion-shilling facility by the close of the year and another Sh11 billion plant by next year.
During an interview at his Devki Steel Mills base in Ruiru, Guru’s affable demeanour easily masks his billionaire status.
The man with an estimated net worth of Sh40 billion ($400 million), according to Forbes, is at ease and personally receives guests at the reception.
For a man of riches, one would be forgiven to think that he would let his foot off the gas and let others run the show for him. Not the Guru. He confessed that he is a workaholic and clocks in 14 hours daily from Monday to Sunday. His work ethic, he said, is driven by the fear that something may go wrong if he’s not in the thick of things.
Devki’s portfolio includes Devki Steel Mills, National Cement Company (makers of Simba cement), aviation services provider Northwood Agencies, and Maisha Packaging.
He keeps track of every penny, describing work as his “relaxation” except when he’s at the Temple on Sunday mornings.
“I call directly, go to the sites and work a minimum of 14 hours a day from Monday to Sunday. I make sure that everything is in place as it should... that’s how my daily life is,” he told the Financial Standard.
“I fear that if I’m not informed and not in control, many things can go out of hand and damage the company’s image and output,” he added.
Guru, a father of three, is an 18 handicap golfer but regrets that he no longer plays the game as often as he would want, especially in the past few months due to a huge workload.
His major regret is not having a “much stronger organisation” to ensure that every Kenyan has a roof over their head.
“I don’t have many regrets, but if I can have a much stronger organisation than the existing one, I would like to serve the entire Kenya with affordable prices of products,” he said.
On his recent plant in Nakuru that was launched by President Uhuru Kenyatta, he said the facility will support the Big Four agenda by providing much-needed jobs and competitively priced products.
Guru’s second clinker line will be open in Emali, Kajiado County, this year. Clinker is a raw material used in the production of cement. The plant is expected to raise the group’s production capacity for raw materials to three million tonnes annually.
He is also set to expand his mabati manufacturing businesses at a cost of Sh11 billion in Lukenya next year.
Guru said working towards efficiency, tight control and automation are some of the big secrets to the success of his empire.
“First, we put more efficient machinery, more automated. The main thing is that we work very cost-effectively. We are also on top of every penny,” he said.
“When there’s a loophole, then productivity goes down, then stealing starts... we try and keep it all the time very controlled, which is one of the keys to success in any business because if you just build and leave it and there’s no control, the company will collapse.”
For the Devki group boss, family is at the heart of his mission. In 2015, Guru famously said no to Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote who had offered to buy his company.
The Kenyan business landscape is littered with ruined family businesses such as Nakumatt and ARM. Guru said the key to a successful legacy is creating a mix of family and experts to run the business.
“We tighten it as a family business, but we have external directors and experts working and looking after the business and not only family members. Family members have got the limitation of knowledge, while the experts have the expertise in that line,” said Guru.
On the failure of ARM, he said lack of checks and balances and technological improvement proved its waterloo.
“They never bothered much. For example, they had an old-style mill only better 25 years ago and it’s not good for quality and productivity,” he said.
Guru projected that it will take Sh2.5 billion to revive the ARM plants in one year.
Upon assuming onership of ARM, he closed the firm’s Mombasa plant that manufactured clinker as he works on upgrading it, terming its current status hazardous.
“We retained 100 per cent staff and hope to utilise them more productively. We are modernising the factory and some of its sections,” said Guru.
He said he has interacted with the Paunrama family that previously owned ARM “once or twice” but did not reveal more on the nature of their relationship.
“It was his mistake,” said Guru of the firm’s former CEO.
On jobs, he said his companies have employed 6,200 Kenyans and by next year, the number will rise to 10,000 once the new plants are complete.
A viral “letter” on social media recently claimed that Guru neglects his employees when injured on duty and poked holes into the safety standards at the company.
He is, however, quick to defend the work structures in his companies.
“We look after all our employees’ welfare. We also do lots of corporate social responsibility activities and have one of the best safety and security systems. In all factories, there are individual committees and trainers, so we try to minimise the injuries and accidents,” said the Devki Group boss.
Trade unionists have also accused him of denying workers union representation due to outsourcing.
“We outsource our workers because once we want 200 people in one section, it’s impossible to get them, so we outsource to the contractors because they are experts in their work,” he said.
The businessman expressed his disappointment at the politically charged environment in the country ahead of the 2022 polls, saying money will only trickle down to the masses when politicians tone down their rhetoric.
“Everything is politicised instead of being industrialised. So unless we separate the businesses and industry from politics, there will always be difficulties,” he said.
Guru said he never mixes business with politics and is also a big philanthropist - having pledged half his wealth to charity. “You have to separate yourself from politics and focus on your industry,” he said.
In support of the local manufacturers, he wants the State to restrict the importation of clinker, with his plant set for completion by September.
Sign of confidence
“That project capacity is sufficient in supplying East Africa,” he said.
“We don’t have any government commitment, but it would encourage the local industry because we should not sacrifice jobs and our foreign exchange reserves by importing the material from overseas,” added Guru.
Though critics accuse him of cosying up to some politicians, he defended the invitation of President Kenyatta to the launch of his plant, saying his attendance was a sign of confidence in the industry.
“It will give a better image of our country that the Head of State is interested in industrialisation,” said Guru.
He said as a business, his firm usually airs its grievances through the manufacturers’ lobby, Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM), and the Ministry of Trade because it is “difficult to meet the president.”
Aside from politics, he cited the high cost of electricity as another impediment to business in the country.
He advised budding entrepreneurs to do proper feasibility studies before starting out.
“They should also be committed and always on top of things. The survival rate for businesses is very hard in Kenya. Out of ten, seven fail,” said Guru.
He said he is lucky not to have made any grave mistake that could cost his business.
“By god’s grace, whatever mistake I made turned out to be for the best,” said the businessman.
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