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How former hawker found success in timber business

By Ishaq Jumbe | July 28th 2021

Linnet Kathambi, 30, is the Founder of Sung Timber and Products, a company that specializes in building and construction products.[Standard]

The spotlight shone on Linnet Kathambi after her firm built a three-bedroomed house for actor Joseph Kinuthia popularly known as Omosh. This was part of a larger charity response to help the former Tahidi High star regain his footing after having fallen on hard times.

In what is a business fairytale, Kathambi rose from a hawker to owning a timber yard, which has since evolved into a building materials supplier that is also now involved in construction and civil works.

She was first employed at a timber yard in Meru. However, a logging ban in 2018 would seen the timber yard shut returning her to square one. 

But Kathambi had gathered enough product and sales experience to start her own venture. After the job ended, she relocated to Nairobi where she sold household wares, hawking them door-to-door.

She set up shop in Kikuyu and recruited sellers to move her products on commission. This business turned out successful and helped her raise capital for her true passion – selling timber and construction materials. With about Sh500,000 capital pooled from savings and her husband, she established SUNG Timber. Kathambi shared her business journey with Enterprise.

What did you do before SUNG Timber?

Well, my experience in a timber yard played a critical role in my choosing of a career path. When I was employed at a timber yard in Meru, I was soon fascinated – I had no idea that timber was in such high demand. I had always wanted to be part of the timber supply chain in the construction industry. I then set my goals, learnt the ins and outs of the business and completely fell in love with it. After losing my job, I never sat pretty, but ventured into selling household merchandise, revived my dream and established SUNG Timber.

How much capital did you require to kickstart the business?

We started very small. I had about Sh250,000 in savings but it was hardly enough. My husband had to support me before the company found its footing. We then diversified our product portfolio and gradually witnessed growth. That, together with offering better services, is partly responsible for what we are today.

How long did it take before the business picked up?

Before we established a decent client base, I did a lot of “hustling.” This meant visiting construction sites to ask for orders. At first, many were surprised that a woman was visiting construction sites and asking to supply building materials. Their apprehension, however, soon disappeared and trust was established when I delivered exactly as I had promised. There are places where I would be asked for “test orders” just to make sure I could handle the pressure. Our consistency, dedication and trustworthiness soon saw the steady growth of our client base. Word slowly got around that we were dependable and people started coming to us.

How was the transition from supplying building construction materials to real estate development like?

First of all, the supply of building materials remains part of our core and traditional business. We wouldn’t have ventured into real estate development were it not for the construction materials we supply. Consequently, we attracted clients largely impressed by our business model and they requested that we handle construction for them. I have been around contractors long enough to know which ones to hire and after setting up, we invested and started handling construction tenders. We began with timber and expanded into other building construction materials. Today we supply everything from the tiniest nuts and bolts to the biggest beams – both metal and timber.

What’s your best business mantra?

It may sound cliché, but ‘work smart’ is my daily motto. 

This starts with ensuring that nobody gets short-changed when dealing with me. If you treat people with dignity, they return it in kind. That way, you will be in business for a long time. Avoid the get-rich-quick temptation as you will end up losing business in the long run and ruin your reputation. I also ensure that my profit margins are not too high and keep my running costs low while maintaining a motivated staff.

Has working in a largely male dominated field been a big challenge?

Fortunately, we are living at a time when gender equality has really taken shape. I consider myself and all the other sisters out there donning helmets and reflector jackets and directing the construction of multi-million shilling projects as the face of the future. I also love challenges and will launch into the next project with zeal, especially if it is testing my limits. We have proved that a woman can do what a man can do. We have shown that a properly motivated woman working sincerely can succeed even where men have failed. 

What don’t people know about you?

I am a risk taker. I take calculated risks and venture where others fear to go. So far, it has worked for my business judging by the growth we have been able to establish. I also have projections of where I want to be in the next decade. Keeping that as a goal, I work towards it and it keeps my focus fresh. Besides business, I cherish the networks that I have created. I’m also a spiritual person who prays a lot.

What do you attribute your growth to?

Plowing back the profits and diversification. We started small and had no problem growing gradually and only investing after intense market research. Today, SUNG Timber is the parent company to Homes By Sung. You also have to have the patience to grow your business to the point where it begins making you money. However, a business can sometimes hardly make any profits even after constant heavy investment. Business isn’t for the faint hearted; one has to do proper due diligence and be persistent until things pick up. 

Why did you decide to construct a house for Omosh? 

We have been building houses for the less fortunate in our locality for over five years now. When Omosh came out looking for help, I gladly volunteered to gift him a new home. This is because I believe that once you give, you also encourage someone else to give.

Our kind gesture also saw people in my networks ask to be allowed to be part of the project.

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