NAIROBI, KENYA: What do you say when someone asks you to do something you’re not quite ready to do? Many of us will choose to wait until we’re ready, but history proves this isn’t always the smartest move.
According to Marissa Mayer, an IT executive who was once the CEO of Yahoo!, timing will very rarely be perfect, so even if you aren’t ready, just do what needs to get done: “You push through those moments and that’s when you have a breakthrough,” she says.
A majority of Kenya’s most successful CEOs exemplify this attitude, and despite humble beginnings, have blazed the trail to become leading voices in their respective industries. Here’s how five of them did it.
1. Lee Karuri, executive chairman, Resorts and Cities
How I started:
I started out as an architect and founded Dimensions Architects and Interior Designers in 1994 with a friend. I provided services to several leading developers in the region, and ended up developing an interest in doing what they were doing.
In 2005, I ventured into real estate through a joint-venture development of an apartments project in Kileleshwa together with a landowner. We borrowed money and invested our hard-earned savings into the project. We sold the apartments and were encouraged to proceed.
I used to think that once you put a development together, it will follow a well-laid road map. That is, you’ll make your profits and move on to the next project. I was wrong. There are challenges, from delays in approvals and inadequate finances, to contractor delays, legal issues, dealing with customers, and then you have to think of making losses.
My big break:
This was in 2008 when we formed a company called Home Afrika and pooled resources to handle big real estate projects.
Our first project was Morningside Office Park along Nairobi’s Ngong Road. We finished the project on time, sold office suites and paid off our development loan. We then embarked on other projects like Migaa Golf Resort in Kiambu County.
Now we’re developing Resorts and Cities with our two flagship projects; Longonot Gate in Naivasha and Makuyu Ridge in Murang’a County.
One of the key pieces of advice I got was to minimise my debt exposure in projects. The other is to allow your resources to follow your vision. One should never be afraid of thinking big and then working out the source of capital.
Being a successful architect doesn’t translate into being a good business person or developer.
Real estate requires a lot of capital, but the returns come in the middle to long term.
2. Irene Wanjiku, CEO, Rexe Roofing Products
How I started:
I was 27 when I started the company in November 2011.
I was alone at first before I got three employees. Why did I choose the roofing business? Well, because roofing is a basic need.
I had worked in a company that imported construction materials. I had seen how different materials evolved over time and wondered why roofing didn’t evolve.
We have used the same roofing materials our grandfathers used. I started to research on roofing materials, and once I was armed with enough information, I decided to import and install new varieties of roofing materials.
With no prior projects to show them, some people thought I was out to con them. For example, I went to a prospective client whose roofing budget was about Sh1.4 million.
I asked if he could give me a down payment of Sh800,000. He looked at my ‘modest’ Toyota and thought I was looking for money to upgrade my ride. He never gave me the job.
Others thought we were just a ‘hit and run’ company that would not stand the test of time.
Our more current challenges include unethical competitors, importation of sub-standard products, high security costs, high taxes and finding the right team.
My big break:
In March 2012, two brothers were constructing homes in Kitisuru and needed quality roofing materials. I convinced them to give me a deposit of about Sh1.5 million.
Then we got a contract with another five people who were building homes together.
Word spread quickly that we were honest and delivered on time. We had to deliver on our promises since people were gambling with their money before they could see any product.
We have since delivered roofing materials and related accessories for big businesses, such as The Hub in Karen and Brookhouse School in Runda.
The best advice I got was from Tabitha Karanja, the CEO of Keroche Breweries, during the first Keroche Entrepreneurship Programme in 2016. She told me to think global but grow locally. This helped us standardise our operations and service delivery to meet international standards and keep up with clients’ changing demands.
The way to the top is a process. No firm has arrived at the top yet. That’s why even multinationals are still investing in innovative ideas and technologies.
Have a vision and strategy from the company’s inception, and frequently communicate this to your team.
3. Edwin Dande, managing partner and CEO, Cytonn Investments
How I started:
My educational background has a lot to do with the ethics that currently shape my business acumen. All the institutions I attended, including Rongo Primary and Mumias Boys, taught me how to be confident and deal with adversity. Alliance High School ingrained a sense of pride, Monmouth University was about a liberal-arts kind of thinking and writing. Wharton School taught me finance and investments, which is what I do at Cytonn Investments both for a living and as a calling to deliver returns to our clients.
Putting myself through an undergraduate course was a challenge, working at night and going to school during the day, amid classmates from privileged backgrounds. I did all manner of jobs – I laid turf, I was a security guard, a waiter, a driver, a painter – I did it all.
Entering the corporate world in the United States was a challenge. You’re the only guy with a weird accent. You go to a client meeting and the client thinks the white man, who is actually your junior, is the Edwin leading the assignment. It felt like being a second-class citizen.
My big break:
Was there any ‘momentous’ event that propelled me to the top? Well, this is a culmination of various successes and failures integrated over time.
You have to keep grinding every day and keep at it over long periods. You have to stumble, fall, pick yourself up and drive even harder. I still consider myself very much a hustler. Working to be Africa’s leading investment manager is a vision that has to be clearer day by day.
The best career-related advice came from a 32-year-old gentleman I met at a global financial services firm. He was not only an investment bank’s managing director, but also a group head. I once asked him what advice he would give a greenhorn like me, and he simply said: “Put your head down and work your tail off.” That’s what I have done my entire career and continue to do.
The best skill to growing a business is learning how to spot an opportunity. What’s the current pain point in the market? This is something that if you do, your consumers are likely to get relief. And then identify your strategy to attack the opportunity, get a good team and execute like hell.
4. Alyana Popat, CEO and founder, Uva Wines
How I started:
I was a teenager when I developed a passion for hospitality, and in particular, the food and beverage space. After graduating from university, I started working with Simba Corporation as the head of marketing for its hospitality arm. In July 2016, I set up a wine business, Uva Wines, that imports and distributes Portuguese wines in Kenya.
I have been an introvert, but the entrepreneurship spirit pushed me out of my comfort zone since I have to frequently engage with customers to sell my brand.
I had to overcome a fragmented importation process and face a highly competitive and saturated wines market. I was also not immune to making mistakes when setting up or running the business. Mistakes should be embraced since this is an integral part of learning.
My big break :
The best thing I did was to visit several vineyards in Portugal. Through these visits, I realised that their wines were great value for money in terms of price and quality, and would be very competitive in the Kenyan market. I set up Uva Wines because I saw a gap in the market for Portuguese wines.
A friend once told me: “Don’t beat yourself up after having failed at something; pick yourself up, learn from the failure and do better next time.” Another said: “Always think positively, otherwise your negative attitude will reflect on anything you do.”
Always surround yourself with inspirational and ambitious people. Their spirit will rub off on you.
5. Sammy Thuo, managing director, Saracen Media OMD
How I started:
Four of us – Lenny Ng’ang’a, Frank Maina, George Wanjohi and myself – started Saracen Media at the beginning of October 2002.
We started out as a small ad agency in a global industry that munched local upstarts for lunch and spat them out before dinner.
I had met Lenny at our first day of work at Ogilvy and Mather in 1994. We later regrouped in McCann and Erickson where we worked until we took this leap of faith. Frank, however, left Saracen in the early years to pursue his own ventures.
Unshakeable optimism and fear of failure egged us on this leap of faith. For six months, none of us earned a salary. We car-pooled, counted pennies and knocked on countless doors.
By mid-2004, Saracen had gone through 15 pitches. None was picked. We quickly learnt that the industry had its owners. There was a time we pitched a campaign, won and even got an appointment letter, but another agency got the business. We had no credit facilities with most media owners, and little cash to finance a campaign.
My big break:
Our past reputation eventually brought on board Red Bull, Royal Media Services and Radio Africa with credit facilities.
By the end of 2004, our turnover was less than Sh15 million. Eventually, though, more clients started to come onboard impressed by what they’d heard about the quality of our personalised service. We found work with Co-operative Bank, Kenya Revenue Authority, Stanbic and DHL.
In 2005, we made a strategic decision to search for a global partner. Omnicon Group responded positively, leading to an affiliation agreement to create Saracen OMD.
In 2007, we became a multinational with a branch office in Uganda. The Tanzania office opened four years later. In 2009, we formed a second media agency, PHD (Pattison, Hoswell and Durden).
Saracen is now the second-largest agency, after Scan Group, in the country, pushing volumes in excess of Sh1 billion.
As one of my partners, George, likes to say: “Stay sober, be humble. Know your truth. You can get swallowed up by what the industry is, but you have to get back to yourself or you will be lost.” Lenny lives by the idea of treating everyone with fairness and compassion; you never know when you might need them again.
Focus on your craft, get good at it, become the best. When you become the best, let it be undisputed that there is no peer, and then everything else will follow.