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Fred’s Ranch: To live the dream, I first hit rock bottom

By Mona Ombogo | January 10th 2018
(Photo courtesy)

Nestled in the serene escarpment of Kisaju in Kajiado County is an out-of-town cowboy and  Wild West-themed family getaway. It specialises in barbecue cuisines and boasts activities like horse riding, quad biking, picnicking, farm tours and a vibrant children’s playground.

But what makes this little haven, Fred’s Ranch, even more special is that it’s owned and run by the family of legendary Fred Obachi Machoka, who has graced our radio waves for almost four decades.

Fred’s son, hotelier Victor Machoka, is the managing director of the ranch and is popularly referred to as ‘The Sheriff’. In full character, he wears a traditional sheriff’s badge to designate his post. In 2015, the 34-year-old turned down a six-figure income to pursue this family dream.

He speaks with Hustle about the inspirational and sometimes tumultuous journey that led him to the creation of Fred’s Ranch.

When did you know you wanted to go into the hotel industry?

My mother tells me when I was three years old I wanted to cook and got in everyone’s way in the kitchen. My moment of clarity, though, came when I was in Form 3 and my dad and I went to visit my brother in Mang’u High School. On the way back, he pointed out Utalli College to me. I asked him if we could stop and take a look. The manager was really accommodating and took us through what the requirements were to get admitted into the school. I remember distinctly that he said I needed to get a B+ in my KCSE exams. One year later, that’s exactly what I achieved and I was admitted into Utalii.

Do you believe that setting a goal and a purpose will always bring results?

People say that a lot and there is truth to it, but what most people don’t talk about is what I call ‘the process.’

The process is the journey that gets you from Point A to your dream destination. There are two common threads to it: some people thrive first, then fail, then rise up again. Some fail first and experience a vast series of failures before they eventually rise.

The process is not for the faint hearted, but it must be experienced because without it there is no foundation to the dream.

What was your process?

It started off extremely successfully. One week after graduating from Utalii in 2006, I got a job as a manager at Klub House (K2). I was there for a month before I got a better offer elsewhere, still in a managerial position. I was 23 and earning Sh60,000, plus benefits.

Six months later, Klub House approached me again because they wanted me back. I remember telling my wife I would give them an offer that they couldn’t accept so that I could continue working where I was. To my surprise, they accepted my request: Sh100,000 plus a brand new car.

What made you such an asset?

Ironically enough, for most of my life, I got comfortable with being disliked. In school, I was this skinny, dark kid that no one wanted around. I was nicknamed ‘Blackie’ all through primary school. When I got to high school, I was excited that I’d get a new start. I happily introduced myself as ‘Victor’.

By the end of that day, someone else nicknamed me ‘Blackie’ and that name stuck till the end of fourth form. I now laughingly say you can’t run away from the things you’re afraid of, or the things you’re uncomfortable with. You have to face them head-on. That’s a large part of leadership.

What are some of the biggest challenges you were forced to face head-on when starting Fred’s Ranch?

The idea of the ranch came to me in 2014. This was after a few excruciatingly difficult years between 2011 and 2013. In 2011, I resigned from my job to pursue a degree in hotel management.

At the time, I’d used all my savings to invest in a pyramid scheme with the plan to use the returns to pay for my school fees. The pyramid scheme went bust. I lost more than Sh1 million. I eventually had to drop out of school because I couldn’t afford it.

Things got so bad that my wife and I wouldn’t pick calls from anyone because we owed a lot of people a lot of money. We had tried a matatu business that failed, then tried farming and that venture failed as well.

What turned things around?

I am a firm believer that when you hit the bottom, take time to do your inventory. My wife and I reached our bottom in 2013 when we lost our seven-month-old son. That was the darkest year of my life.

Because of that loss, we stopped to re-examine our purpose. My wife and I started asking if money wasn’t an object, what would we do with our lives? Then one day we visited mum and dad on the ranch. At the time it had a lot of banana trees. I stood in the middle of those trees and said to her, this would make an excellent ranch – simple food, lots of family-oriented activities. It’s something we had loosely discussed even with my parents but never paid it complete attention. That changed.

What was the journey, from idea to fruition?

We decided to test drive the idea of an out-of-town getaway and held an event dubbed, Labour Day Barbecue. This was May 2015.

I had got re-employed in 2013 and had climbed my way back up the hospitality ladder, so I had set aside some savings. The event cost us about Sh150,000 to hire tents, chairs and so on.

The morning of the event, it rained, heavily. We were so frightened that no one would show up. But we got close to 100 guests who ended up happily playing football and volleyball in the rain.

People stayed on even after darkness fell and we used our car headlights to light the place because we hadn’t yet pulled electricity. It was one of those moments when you just know you’re onto something special.

What was your total start-up capital?

Apart from the Sh150,000 for the event, we built toilets at Sh700,000 and used Sh300,000 to start putting up the main structure that housed the kitchen and a small indoor sitting area for guests. Our main cash injection, however, came from my parents in January 2016.

They had been supportive of us from the beginning by offering the land that Fred’s Ranch sits on, but they hadn’t invested beyond that. I think they were waiting to see if we were serious about the business. By the end of December 2015, we had hosted a few more events including a Christmas Day family fun day. My dad was convinced enough to secure a loan from a Sacco and invested Sh4 million into the business. We officially launched Fred’s Ranch In February 2016.

What was your Year 1 turnover?

Approximately Sh5 million. In 2017, we had made more than that amount in the middle of our financial year.

How do you go around the many challenges associated with the hospitality industry?

By learning and doing better. For example, in Christmas 2016, we expected maybe 200 guests. We ended up with 600. The situation got so bad that customers were walking into the kitchen and booking pieces of meat off the grill. On the 31st, we thought we would have the same numbers, but we only got about 20 people. We made a day of it anyway.

Last year, 2017, we planned for 600 guests over Christmas and got 1,300.  At some point we even tried to turn people away. It was hectic, but we handled ourselves far better than we did in 2016. Our learning is to put in place mechanisms to better estimate the guests who show up on the big dates and to be prepared no matter the numbers.

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