“I am among the lucky ones who never tarmacked,” says an animated Nashon Okowa when he starts talking about his enduring passion for project management.
Over the last few years, Mr Okowa has established himself as an important voice in the country’s construction and real estate market having handled multi-billion mega projects and also as a researcher and author on the field.
He reveals to Enterprise the secrets of his trade and what entrepreneurs can glean from a career that involves intricate planning, monitoring, budgeting, closing a deal and delivering an intense task on time.
Know what you want
My mother wanted me to do law which I had qualified for. I only wanted to come to Nairobi for my university education having been raised and schooled in the village.
Even though I had made off the cut-off points to study law, I was advised I might miss it at the University of Nairobi owing to the competition. This meant I’d have to study in another university and I couldn’t stomach the idea.
I decided to do a course review but didn’t tell my mother. I was attracted by the name construction management and liked the manager bit.
That’s how I ended up not doing law to the surprise of my mother. I studied construction management at the University of Nairobi.
We were the first lot … I entered a course that I didn’t know what it entailed, I was attracted by the name to come to the city and I don’t have any regrets.
If I had known the contents of the course, I wouldn’t have done it because I hated drawing, however, I was in a course where I drew and did design work for four years. I became content with it as a part of my life.
Lesson: It’s crucial to adopt that entrepreneurial mindset early. This can start with asking three questions including what are you good at, what you love and what gives you a sense of fulfilment.
Employment can be a launchpad
After campus, I was employed in a construction management firm where I worked for six years. I rose the ranks to senior project manager, at that level I did projects across East Africa including hotels, industrial, residential and schemes.
I was the first employee they hired in the company I grew with it that was the beauty of it.
After a while, you always realise there’s no more growth and it’s not a question of money I needed a new challenge.
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I was offered salary increases but said no and needed to step out. By the time I wanted to leave, I’d developed clients, at that level you are known after having networked in the industry.
This is how Beacon Africa Consultants was born. I had registered the firm two years before I left employment.
The firm manages projects for developers and does feasibility and market analysis for clients. We also do property due diligence, and sales agreements and represent contractors in disputes.
Lesson: Leaving entrepreneurship for employment is attractive, however, you have to look before you leap. This involves preparation and planning, for example, getting clients first and provisioning for when things go wrong.
Learn to manage people
The biggest challenge I found when I started my company was managing people. Many really don’t understand what top-level executives deal with.
You are a boss and even a counsellor to employees at times. There’s a lot that you have to deal with outside your job description.
Lesson: An entrepreneur manages more than resources and activities for the business. Never forget that you are also managing real people with different struggles and backgrounds.
Closing a deal
Looking for work is also a critical and strenuous function as a project manager and entrepreneur.
When I was employed, projects would fall on my desk and how they came to be you don’t know.
Sometimes, you think that your boss isn’t working but there’s a big exercise in looking for work and it’s strenuous.
Thankfully, it’s part of the training I got when I was employed when at that senior level would go with my boss to meet clients.
It requires skill to convince and pitch for a multi-million project. You have for example to have credibility by having a functional firm and capital.
Lesson: As a business leader, nothing really happens until you’ve closed a deal.
Leadership really matters
A leader is not who you are but what you do leadership. Some are born with it but it can be cultivated – it’s how you carry yourself.
In our profession have no choice, a project manager is a leader automatically if you don’t have natural qualities you must build them you are going to lead people to run a project for a lengthy time.
I always make a joke that we are very few project managers and I believe I’m one of them running projects successfully is not for everyone.
Project management is a calling, this work is not easy there are certain things that are not optional for a project manager but could be for other professions.
You have to have leadership and networking skills and appearance also matters and you must also be a suave marketer.
Lesson: To create long-lasting success, having proactive leadership skills is non-negotiable. This involves taking responsibility and firing up your troops and business vision.
Sticking to budget, time and quality
One of the highlights of my career has been executing projects within the set budget and delivering them within the given time and required quality.
Sometimes, the biggest threat to achieving that can even be clients at times.
Lessons: Not sticking to budget is one recipe for disaster as it streamlines your finances, limits spending and helps save for goals.
Know your limits and have multiple plans
For example, I don’t like taking up projects that involve residential single dwellings owing to past experience. There’s too much back and forth that affects the delivery of the project. This can end up being costly
The biggest issue with projects is the construction itself. As Murphy’s law states: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
In project management every plan that you put in place you must know that something else may come up. It may be even a change of weather.
Lesson: You may have a beautiful plan but implementation not easy as there are many variables.
Respect numbers and market analysis
Real estate is now a buyer’s market with lots of options on the table for investors and customers.
This means that as an investor you have to engage in market studies and understand the industry. Follow the research, understand the niche and fill the gap - there’s no industry that has better returns than real estate
Comparative market analysis should be your north star I’ve told clients don’t build or sell the property, you must be willing to listen to the market.
Understand rental yields and the importance of location.
Lesson: To stay on top as an entrepreneur and beat the competition, market research can be the main differentiator.
Hire qualified professionals
After understanding the market, use registered professionals as this will bulletproof your investments.
Also, do genuine construction work without shortcuts. That greed is what’s hurting our real estate where one wants to get more than possible or sell what’s not there.
Lesson: Hiring professionals can maximise your time and money by providing quality work and unlocking value.