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Tony Owich: From odd jobs to showbiz investor

 Founder and director of The Bar Next Door and Manhattan Antony Owich. [File, Standard]

Antony Owich, who began his entrepreneurial journey with a dream and little capital, has in the past few years become a prominent face in Nairobi's social scene.

From hawking clothes, toiling in a chocolate factory, working as a banker, to now investing in bars and entertainment ventures, Owich has deservedly earned his business stripes.

The former Jameson Brand Ambassador is the founder and director of The Bar Next Door and Manhattan two of Nairobi's popular entertainment joints the latter which he has invested alongside Sauti Sol's Bien-Aime Baraza.

He was also one of the faces of the Chivas Regal Self Made series in Kenya where top personalities including radio presenter Maina Kageni, DJ G-Money and doctor and musician Dr Reign uncovered their success stories.

Owich began grinding while in university. All he wanted to do then was stay "fresh" which saw him constantly ask his civil servant dad for money to buy clothes and the answer was always a strong 'no'.

"He told me 'I don't have money' so much that I asked him why he went to work every morning. One day he sat me down and showed me his payslip.

"And since that day, I respected my dad even more. It was not a lot but he was able to sustain four children," he recalls.

Fire in his belly

This triggered Owich to start pulling his weight. He would buy clothes from Gikomba market and sell to his fellow students for a profit at the University of Nairobi, where he was studying economics.

The money was good for a student but he had a fire in his belly, which saw him get a job while still in school.

"I needed to spread my wings. So, I got another job which was not the best but it did it for me," he says.

Owich trooped to Nairobi's Industrial Area where he worked for a large chocolate manufacturer positioned at the conveyor belt and tasked with stacking chocolate bars into boxes.

After completing his undergraduate, he got a job working for an outsourced customer service company handling customers of the now-defunct Yu Mobile.

Lasting only a month, this was the shortest job he's ever held in his life but turned out to be a transformative experience.

Seated at a desk all day, he would listen to customer complaints from his earpiece. A majority of the customers were from outside Nairobi and some would just call for sport.

"That job taught me a lot of patience and how to value time. We would work for 12 hours straight with only short breaks of about 15 minutes after maybe three hours," he says in hindsight.

Owich left the job after securing an entry-level position at Chase Bank (now SBM Bank).

At the lender, he began as a customer service, customer service agent, then as a quality analyst and eventually at the treasury sales team.

After six months at the treasury unit, Owich felt ready for a new challenge that saw him slowly transition into a career in the bar and hospitality sector.

Relying on his talkative and passionate demeanour, he applied and clinched the highly competitive job as the Jameson Brand Ambassador for East Africa.

He was now a whiskey connoisseur in an adventurous job that saw him travel all over the region to champion the brand.

Owich credits the job with firming up his people skills as he engaged with individuals from all levels from influencers, and barmen to CEOs.

"That made me realise how you need to wear different hats to interact with all these different people."

He was later poached by the Carlsberg Group to work with a team tasked with disrupting the local beer market with the firm's Tuborg beer brand.

Soon, alcohol giant Diageo through its local subsidiary EABL tapped him in 2018 to establish its luxury portfolio.

These experiences gave him the confidence to venture into the bar and hospitality business.

"That's why I've always been linked to alcohol. When someone looks through my social media pages, one would think I like partying. But that's the industry I understand."

"When my entrepreneurial urge hit, I was never going to start a pharmacy or open a school because I already had this wealth of knowledge in understanding pricing for alcohol, the consumer and the overall industry," he tells Enterprise.

During his adventures and travels, he'd take pictures and save them in a folder which later formed part of his market research.

"The pictures were mostly bars. How they looked, what type of uniform worn by staff - anything that stood out in bars," he chuckles.

And even as the pandemic raged on, he pulled out those pictures and decided to fully plunge himself into the bar business.

He recalls sharing the idea with guys in his investment group which featured big names in the entertainment and business world but no one appeared to warm up to open a bar.

Bar was born

Owich floated the idea to his best friend Grace who agreed to team up, and Bar Next Door was born.

It was no walk in the park with Owich thinking that soon he'd be making revenues of Sh50,000 a day from the bar business.

They'd found an old building in Kilimani which they had to renovate to create the space they wanted.

The first contractor didn't do a proper job and they were forced to hire another one. Quickly, they'd run out of cash even before opening doors.

It took a high school friend who'd owned bars and had once employed Owich as a manager to step in and boost the business with some capital.

Having worked in the alcohol space, it wasn't hard for Owich to hire competent staff and also create buzz around the new bar. However, the start was slow.

Through customer feedback, they've been improving their space until it became what it is now including roofing outside, good food, live music and DJ selection.

The pandemic had wreaked havoc on the entertainment scene leading to the closure of many bars across the country and forcing a rethink of the bar business model.

The Bar Next Door concept was an open space which appealed to many patrons. It seeks to serve the urban elite living in the posh Nairobi areas of Kilimani, Lavington and Ngong road by giving a local bar experience. "We sought to create a space where one can be authentic and not feel like you're digging too much into your pocket to buy a drink or breaking your pocket to buy a drink," he says.

He notes that they'd done a risk analysis of the business and one of them was the bar's location in a residential area.

Recently, Nairobi Governor Johnson Sakaja announced the revocation of licences for nightclubs and wines and spirits joints operating in residential areas to curb noise pollution.

Bars in residential areas have also been ordered to stop playing music by 10.00pm.

Industry players have warned of job losses of up to 13,000 workers employed in the affected bars. However, intensive lobbying from stakeholders is ongoing to find a solution.

Owich underscores that residents can be able to co-exist with bars provided there's enough dialogue which they've done from the onset with residents, local government and other stakeholders.

"We were able to have conversations with the community from the start. We told them we have the kind of business we're setting up in the area. We further told them to engage us on a constant basis on changes that we need to make business," he notes.

This has led to changes such as repositioning of speakers, soundproofing and also employing guards to patrol the perimeter and ensure adherence to agreed noise levels.

As advice to upcoming entrepreneurs, Owich insists on asking the right and hard questions, hiring competent personnel and constantly learning.

The entrepreneur is working on an e-commerce platform aiming to disrupt the industry with reliable and fast delivery with a social community element.

To prop up his business and management skills, Owich recently completed his MBA and is also eyeing another course at the London Business School.

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