What it takes to steer giant car spare parts firm

Auto Springs East Africa workers in action at the factory situated in Limuru on June 28, 2022. [Esther Jeruto, Standard]

A pat here and another one there goes Nephat Njengwa as he introduces some of his staff at Auto Springs East Africa (Plc).

He is not afraid of pulling them closer without a care in the world that their safety overalls would stain his suit with grease, soot and oil residue.

How he interacts with them – sharing laughs and jokes – does not paint the picture of a typical C-Suite chief executive officer.

He is quite friendly. Some may say a bit too friendly.

It startles me when the production manager calls him by his first name ‘Nephat’ during a presentation when he sought confirmation of the exact percentage of raw materials the firm imports and sources locally.

He explained.

He wears an almost permanent smile on his face. And is ever jovial, at least for the period we interacted.

“Let us pretend we are doing something serious while we are not,” he says laughing following the instructions of the photographer on-site. He was pausing for a photo alongside one of the staff at the wiring department of the company.

It was during a tour of the manufacturing plant, the largest in the country for churning out automobile parts used locally by vehicle assemblers like Isuzu while exporting as well to Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

By the time the tour was over, his navy blue checked suit which he had worn a reflector vest on top had touches of oil residue and soot courtesy of his hands landing on this or that equipment or having a feel or the manufactured parts inside the plant.

His green reflector was dotted with the same.

Auto Springs is known for manufacturing springs, bolts and fasteners, and wiring harnesses. Its sales average Sh580 million($5 million) through supplying to Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) like Simba Corp and Isuzu, and direct sales to the market through parts distributors.

For a man whose background has all along been about crunching numbers silently in some corner office as the person in charge of finances in this or that company, it was intriguing to know how he is managing now that he not only oversees the current cruncher of these numbers but also all staff and operation.

“I have been in manufacturing before,” he says. “But remember at the top level it is more about coordinating different functions and facilitating for things to happen, giving the necessary leadership. And of course, as human beings, we continue learning.”

Auto Springs East Africa CEO Nephat Njengwa. [Esther Jeruto, Standard]

Njengwa says he is as well involved in industry associations as he sits on the board of automotive manufacturers under the ambit of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM). He also attends forums within the sector that he says broadens his understanding.

“Including visiting other factories in the http://dcx/device_sg/preview/2022/06-28/a2/36/file7lmr9spn1udgjow5dkp.jpg automotive sector in different countries so we can man and replicate the same here in Kenya,” he says.

And he has truly grasped the facets of the industry, citing legal notices and laws which he is taking advantage of.

For example, citing Legal Notice 112 of 2020 which touches on motorcycles and identifies 14 parts that can be manufactured locally, Njengwa says the company is already manufacturing wiring harnesses.

“We are in contact with about 15 motorcycle assemblers at different stages, some we have developed and supplied others we have submitted samples which have been tested and we are just awaiting mass production,” he says.

He is already foreseeing a thriving industry with the KS1515:2019 standard being implemented by Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) that outlaws importation of second-hand trucks and buses effective July 1, 2022.

While this decision will disrupt the industry especially dealers in imported vehicles, Njengwa sees it positively.

“I think there is an opportunity for everyone because the new vehicles (still) need to be sold,” he says. “But most importantly is the reaction of employment down the supply chain from components manufactures to bus, truck body builders; the impact will be quite huge.”

Njengwa joined the company in 2018 as a commercial director before he rose to become the CEO two years later at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Before then he was head of business development Questworks Limited according to his LinkedIn account.

It also shows that he served as group finance manager Kenya Wines Agencies Ltd and also an audit manager Longhorn Publishers.

His friendliness to the staff may be because a good number of them are young individuals.

“Looks are deceiving,” he says amid a controlled chuckle

They truly are.

Auto Springs is known for manufacturing springs, bolts and fasteners, and wiring harnesses. [Esther Jeruto, Standard]

When asked how he goes about identifying the right talent to work in the factory, his response shows that he is a man who knows what he is doing. He describes the factory’s training manual as ‘idiot proof’.

He admits that most of the staff are indeed young people and they do a lot of training internally. Even with the additional training, he says they all have the minimum requirements from technical institutions.  

“We have a very elaborate training for our staff and instruction manual that I would dare say they are idiot-proof such that if we employ you, and we take you through the orientation process, after two or three months, you will be at a different level of skills and ability to operate within our factory floor,” he said.

The plan, he says, is to expand this training to a large scale by having partnerships with technical institutions.

“We plan to have these people work with us before they graduate for a period of time so that they can get firsthand experience,” he says.

His entry into the company in 2018 was simultaneous with a strategic investor Ascent Rift Valley Fund who bought a majority stake in the 43-year-old firm that was fully owned as a family business.

“The benefit of this is the company ended up being a proper corporate and governance structure were reviewed to include a properly constituted board and we are now a public liability company,” he explained.

Then in 2020, he went up the food chain to become the CEO and Covid-19 struck. The global supply of steel, shipping challenges, and now increased dollar became his forte.

He says one way to ensure operations go on in the company is to have multiple suppliers of raw materials which the company imports from Japan, India, China and Egypt.

Njengwa says things are looking up and with the ban on imports of second-hand trucks, soon the industry will be very vibrant giving an example of South Africa. 

“It is because the South Africa government took the initiative to come up with the right incentive to promote local production to the scale that the vehicles they produce are competitive with imports,” he says. 

“At the beginning, the growth in terms of production will be gradual but slowly we expect that within three or four years we would have seen the benefits,” he adds.