Armed with just Sh140,000, Rebecca Lena, a trainee manager at Tuskys, set out on the intractable task of extending a lifeline to the fallen retailer.
In less than 12 months, the multi-billion shilling empire, which was built over 40 years, collapsed spectacularly at the start of 2020 bringing to its knees Kenya’s largest retailer by floor space with over 60 branches.
The retailer now has only nine soulless branches active.
A Sh2 billion bailout from a shadowy Mauritius Fund that had been touted as a lifeline for the retailer did not materialise, and as the sibling owners ran out of ideas, senior managers, including the erstwhile chief executive Dan Githua, jumped ship as angry employees looted and auctioneers stripped the retailer to a shell.
In the midst of the turmoil, Ms Lena, a trainee manager at the Athi River branch, emerged as an unlikely saviour, taking over the management of the outlet in what has become a model for turning around the retailer.
The branch’s senior manager and a majority of the workers had left, placing the expansive shopping complex that houses the retailer in the dusty town in Machakos County in her hands.
Her main fear was that the branch would soon collapse like the rest: the power had been cut off, the generator was about to crash, while suppliers and customers shunned the ailing retailer.
“Last year when business was really bad, life became too hard. This took a toll on us and our families,” said Lena.
“My goal was to make sure that the branch was operating and that we wouldn’t be told to go home and close down. I saw people steal, but I vowed to stand with Tuskys until it is back on its feet again.”
With lesser branches and floor space, the then giant retailer that traces its journey from a simple store in Nakuru County is back to basics.
It’s nursing the nine remaining branches with the model inspired by Ms Lena, where payments are made in cash or via M-Pesa and suppliers paid by evening.
In its heydays, Tuskys employed 6,000 staff in Kenya and Uganda, but following its fall from grace, scores were laid off amid piling salary arrears.
Financial Standard visited the Athi River branch to assess the retailer’s recovery plans and to hear from Lena why she chose to soldier on despite the odds being stacked up against her.
An ominous silence hangs over the once-thriving expansive shopping complex that now lies desolate.
A guard lazes around, as there’s not much activity. What remains is only an abandoned bank ATM, a restaurant that has since shut down and a chemist.
Tuskys, which occupied most of the complex, has since been confined to one corner, selling only essential and fast-moving consumer goods.
At the entrance stands a hawk-eyed loss controller, looking out for shoplifters.
It’s hard to imagine that less than two years ago, the branch employed 168 workers, but now only 10 workers remain.
But beyond all this gloom, Lena is bubbly as ever as she makes sure everything runs smoothly.
We couldn’t help noticing the low footfall at the branch.
“Most of our shoppers come in the evenings,” she explained.
“There are not many walk-in customers here, and the basket value is high compared with other branches.”
For the remainder of the interview, Lena takes us upstairs to her office, where a stack of dusty files lies in one corner.
This building belongs to Tuskys, and most of the things from the headquarters have since been brought here after the retailer scaled-down operations.
She switches on the lights. Getting power back on is perhaps her greatest achievement so far.
When she took over the running of the branch, it had racked up a bill of Sh1.7 million, prompting Kenya Power to cut off the power.
Their old generator would run from morning to evening, with the daily fuel bill running in the north of Sh30,000.
“We reached a point where we had no cash flow,” she recalled as she wiped off the dust from two chairs before settling down for the interview.
At one point, only herself and another employee had been left at the branch after the rest took off.
“If all of us went home, we’d suffer before a better job came around,” she said.
She hung on to faith and prayer.
The raging coronavirus pandemic had seen many people adopt cashless means of payment to contain the spread of Covid-19.
This was a problem for her branch. Rules dictate that the branch manager must bank the day’s sales or hand it over to a cash transit company to take to the bank.
A branch that previously averaged sales of up to Sh5 million daily was struggling to make Sh30,000.
But by December, this wasn’t enough to meet fuel costs for the generator, pay staff and other administration costs. The branch was perilously approaching closure.
She thought of lobbying Kenya Power to restore power, but she did not have the money to even make a partial payment on the Sh1.7 million outstanding bill.
However, a customer from Machakos would change the course of the branch.
The customer wanted to buy some furniture, including a bed and a sofa amounting to about Sh140,000. His preferred mode of payment was a debit card.
But Lena implored him to pay in cash, which he insisted he didn’t have.
By the time they were done haggling over the mode of payment, the banks had closed, but she trusted him enough to take the furniture home and bring the money the next morning.
The customer kept his word.
“I had to trust he’d pay,” she said. At a time when cashiers would take off with the day’s sales, Lena confessed that the thought crossed her mind, but decided to see the bigger picture.
“Instead, I chose to come up with a plan and think carefully how I could help Tuskys,” she recalled.
The priority was to first clear the power bill. She would approach Kenya Power and commit to paying Sh10,000 daily until it was cleared.
When she showed her bosses the cash from the sale of the furniture and informed them of the plan, they were baffled.
“Will they (Kenya Power) listen to you?” asked one of the Tuskys’ siblings.
She set up a meeting with regional Kenya Power bosses to pitch her idea.
“It’s not even a quarter of the bill,” she recalled one of the officials saying.
The Kenya Power officials referred her to the headquarters in Nairobi, warning her that the power distributor would only take half of the Sh1.7 million bill.
“They thought I was mad when they compared the bill to what I was offering,” she said recalling the proposal she’d drafted at a cybercafé.
She didn’t even know that the Kenya Power headquarters had moved to Ngara and would spend hours in hallways waiting to speak to senior officials.
Lena explained that the money for fueling the generator would go towards the monthly payments and after three months, the business would have picked up enough to pay the entire debt.
The power bosses reluctantly bought into her idea, promising to monitor the payments on a daily basis.
“We were about to shut down, and the generator was about to crash,” said Lena.
After depositing Sh100,000 from the furniture sale, she remained with less than Sh40,000 having also spent some money to move around.
The next challenge was stocking the shelves. Suppliers owed billions and had long shunned Tuskys.
She thought innovatively and placed the first order from the Twiga app, a technology food distribution platform targeting retailers.
And when the stock sold out, she ordered more.
One day, Stephen Mukuha, one of the Tuskys siblings, passed by and was impressed by how efficiently the branch operated.
He immediately ordered the rest of the remaining branches to adopt her model.
This included them negotiating a payment plan with Kenya Power to restore power.
According to Lena, the biggest challenge was bringing back customers who had gotten fed up with the retailer’s perpetually empty shelves.
Some of the major suppliers have since returned, with payments made promptly, and staff salaries at the branch are now paid on time.
They include Brookside, Farmers Choice, Unilever and Nairobi bottlers.