Overview of Dunhill Consulting, Thika Road Mall, Treadsetters and Imaging Solutions

Bharat Doshi gives an overview of the companies that used to form AshB Group (Dunhill Consulting, Thika Road Mall, Treadsetters and Imaging Solutions) and talks about doing business in Kenya, as well as the opportunities the country has to offer.

Interview with Bharat Doshi, Director at Dunhill Consulting, Thika Road Mall, Treadsetters and Imaging Solutions

Bharat Doshi, Director at AshB Group

Could you briefly give us an overview of the companies that used to form AshB Group?

Sure. We have a property development company called Dunhill Consulting, which has four silos. This includes property development per se, where we do our own projects; we have property sales and leasing; we have property management, where we take other people’s properties, such as large commercial buildings, and we manage them on their behalf, and we also do property valuations.

The group’s second company is Thika Road Mall Holdings (TRM), which is a mall that we conceptualised and at one point was the largest mall in East and Central Africa. Located along the Thika super-highway, it covers an area of around 500,000 sq. ft., which is fully let out – a business we now also manage.

The third company in the group is Treadsetters Tyres, which has been in the country for over 25 years. We have been re-treading truck tyres, using the Bandag technology for re-treading tyres, and we are now also the distributors for new Bridgestone tyres: we supply all the new Bridgestone truck tyres, passenger vehicle tyres, agricultural vehicle tyres and OTR tyres.

And the fourth company in the group is Imaging Solutions Limited, which used to be the original Kodak house and is now a distributor for Nikon cameras, as well Kodak paper, batteries, chemistry, etc. – everything related to photography.

What was your strategy behind having such different companies within a single group?

The strategy was first and foremost to learn good management techniques, and having done so, we aimed to apply these to good business opportunities. As our business life progressed, we found good opportunities in different segments, so we have continued to take over investments and running businesses which may be diverse, but are underpinned by the same management philosophy, the same attitude and values. This is what you see across all my companies, where the key factor is the management skills set, which is the same for any business.

Is there a prevalent business, or would you say they are all equivalent to you?

We run our businesses professionally, which implies having boards, with managing directors and a full management team for every business. While all our other businesses are run by employed or part-shareholder management directors, in the case of Dunhill we sit here ourselves. Therefore, the property business is where I am now focusing on. This is the reason why I’m currently in Dunhill.

Indeed, the property sector is booming in Kenya. What are the main projects that you are currently pushing through with Dunhill?

The first and most important thing is recognising that the customer is king, and if there is no customer, then there is no business. Therefore, we take it upon ourselves to treat our customers with respect, integrity, and absolute honesty.

Our experience has been very diverse. We have done town houses, apartments, office blocks and shopping centres. What we find is that there are opportunities in different segments at different times, so you really need to find the right opportunity at the right time and find the niche that you are able to provide in the marketplace to ensure that your project is well accepted and sold correctly at the right price, etc. We have a philosophy and value system in place at Dunhill, meaning that the properties that we develop are very unique. They have a lot of USPs, they are very good value for money, whether for investment or lease, and we make sure we cut no corners at all when it comes to quality. We also abide by all the statutory laws of Kenya, which includes solar building plans, parking allowances, etc. This is done to European or American standards. Our buildings are correctly fire-rated, etc.

We are currently working on three projects. The first is a massive office tower that we are building on the main Waiyaki Way. It’s a 20-storey building solely for tier-1 office space, and this building is unique in that it is a Green Star rated building and probably the first of this kind in Kenya. It is environmentally-compliant, uses all the necessary energy-efficient building systems, etc., so whoever buys or rents it is going to benefit from all the good things that a Green Star rated building can offer you. Besides that, it is tailored to multinational companies, so it’s appropriately designed, in terms of parking space, lifts, disabled access and space for the various different functions that a building may need to serve. It’s 100% fire-rated, as well as being correctly rated for CCTV operations. This is a fully ‘plug and play’ building, so any tenant who comes in will simply be able to connect, and everything will be instant – as opposed to having to do wiring and everything again. This is one of our main projects underway, due to be completed by June 2017.

We have also observed the number of apartments coming up in Nairobi, which you may have also noticed. Everyone believes the apartment segment is now saturated, but we disagree. We believe that opportunity is still there, but what the client now needs is the right location and the right price, as the market is becoming very discerning, meaning that the buyer has a lot of choice – and if he is smart, he can find exactly what he needs at the right price. As such, we have a project where we are putting up 60 apartments on one of the city’s prime residential roads, very close to where we are now, namely General Mathenge drive. These apartments are made in such a way that they are in the right location and yet remain economical, making our price points extremely effective. Even before starting the project, we had already sold 25 apartments out of 60 and we are now able to get pre-sales going.

The third thing that we are now embarking on is warehousing space. There is demand for good-sized, well-located warehousing space, so our next project involves putting up some serious warehousing parks. This is where our focus is.

As far as shopping malls are concerned, we had a strategy to build more of these. But we currently feel that shopping mall space is pretty saturated and that consequently there is going to be pressure on shopping malls. We are happy with those that we have, and we are managing them very successfully, but the plan is not to put up any more shopping malls for the time being. These are pretty much the areas we are currently focusing on.

At Dunhill we are also very good at selling and leasing properties, as well as managing properties. Again, this is a very niche product that we offer, because we completely take the headache away from the landlord. Once he entrusts his property to us, we make sure he has the right tenant, his property is well managed, is looked after, etc., so that the whole process of property management or sale is taken away from the landlord and taken up by us and we provide him with a service he will be very happy with. This is essentially what Dunhill specialises in. We also have many people who want property valuations done, for banks, for insurance purposes and the like, so we opened a valuations department, which specialises in going out and giving you a true and fair value of your property. That’s Dunhill in a nutshell.

And as far as the other companies are concerned, are there any interesting developments in the near future?

As far as Treadsetters is concerned, these are very interesting times. Bridgestone, the world’s largest tyre company, is very keen to expand and cement its foothold in Kenya. They are very eager to support us, through a host of amazing programmes, and Treadsetters is now really well placed to take off with Bridgestone new tyres. We have some unique solutions for transporters. For instance, we offer a service called ‘mileage contracts’, where we don’t sell a tyre to a customer upfront, but rather per kilometre: we own the inventory, we manage the tyre, we do everything that is required to make sure that it keeps running, and the customer just pays us for the kilometres that the tyre runs for, which amounts to a cost-per-kilometre equation. This is very unique and unheard of in this part of the world and very successful. Other than that, Treadsetters is coming up with some very interesting new re-treading technologies to ensure that the performance of a re-treaded tyre far outlives that of a new tyre. Therefore, if you have a good quality casing like Bridgestone, and if you carry out a Bandag re-tread on that, we will guarantee that it will run for more than the full life of a brand new tyre, at less than half the price, so this is a very good economic proposal for a transporter. Apart from this, we are expanding our passenger tyre division, and we are coming up with a concept where we do not wish the customer to come to us. Instead, we aim to go to our customer, so whether it’s a shopping mall or an office block, we will be able to come to you and change your tyres while you’re doing your work at your office, in the parking space at your premises. This is a mobile tyre-changing service we are looking to launch. We are also coming up with a very interesting concept of insurance, which will mean that you can buy your tyres from us and no matter what causes damage to the tyre – whether you run over a rock, you drive badly, you tear the tyre or damage it – it will be completely guaranteed. In other words, you can come back to us over a three-year period and we’ll replace it for you at no cost. These are some very new and unique concepts that Treadsetter is coming up with and we’re trying to revolutionise what’s happening in Kenya when it comes to the transport industry.

Imaging Solutions is a Nikon camera distributor. This country is undergoing a digital camera boom, and everybody wants a DSLR, so are able to provide not just the camera, but all the associated services required: accessories, repairs, training – which means we are continuously running training schools designed for people ranging from very basic to professional photographers, allowing them to learn different techniques to enjoy the benefits of all the technology now coming into cameras, and this is very popular. So we have these Nikon schools running in Kenya all the time, where these guys can come and learn very specialised skills that will be very useful for them to become self-employed.

Those are our four businesses summed up.

As a business leader and the head of all these companies, what would you say is the philosophy and common mission that cuts across them? What would you like to achieve?

Let’s talk about our values. The first and most important thing is recognising that the customer is king, and if there is no customer, then there is no business. Therefore, we take it upon ourselves to treat our customers with respect, integrity, and absolute honesty. The second element in this system is precisely honesty, so while we are in business and we are here to make money, we make sure that the proposal offered to the client is 100% honest and the deals done are very transparent, involving total disclosure, so when a customer buys from us, he knows that he is buying from a reliable, trustworthy supplier as opposed to just anyone. As a result, there is a good deal of repeat business, and in a sense we don’t just aim to have customers, but rather raving fans. These are customers who go and talk to their friends about how brilliant our businesses are, and this is what creates repeat business. Across all of our businesses, this is the reason why we have never had to advertise or go out of our way to make noise about what we do, as people come back to us.

Our philosophy is essentially being transparent and straight, doing our business correctly and within the laws of Kenya, i.e. obeying the rules, without any corrupt practices, while making sure that our staff understand our values and that this whole culture flows all the way down. Another thing we try and do is for all our staff to act as ‘owners’, which means that they are empowered to go out there and make good decisions, as if they owned the business, which is very useful for us.

Do you do any type of actions in terms of CSR?

Personally, I am very deeply involved in CSR and philanthropy, as one of my missions. I would say that close to 30% of my time now goes towards philanthropy, so I’ll run through what I do. I have 3 trusts, for which I am a trustee. We started something called Food for Life Trust, where we have raised a good deal of money, and the interest from that money is currently feeding over 2,000 people in Kenya. Every single day, our kitchens cook the food, and our vehicles deliver these meals to different schools. We have a feeding programme that we are running in different schools.

The second one we started is the Water for Life Trust, where we have actually gone out and set up water boreholes in many arid or semi-arid areas of Kenya. To date, we have dug over 240 bore wells, which would typically benefit over 2.3 million people. This has been very successful, and we carry out constant checks to ensure that the bore wells are working. This attracts donors, who provide us with the necessary financial support to implement these projects.

The third one, which I was very keen on, was a trust related to education, and we wanted to create an Education for Life Trust. But instead of that, we ended up adopting a unit that was looking after children with cerebral palsy. It’s a terrible disease of the brain, meaning that when a child is born, his or her brain is unable to communicate with the rest of his or her body, involving different levels of CP. Unfortunately, the child grows up very stunted or very disabled, unable to move hands and legs, or achieve proper coordination with the eyes, and speech is also a problem. We adopted a unit with 22 children initially, and have now grown it to over 100 children with cerebral palsy who we are looking after completely. The plan now is to set up a cerebral palsy centre for Kenya. The government has given us a two-acre piece of land, and our plan is to set up a superb facility there for kids with CP, housing over 250 children suffering with CP, in addition to other brain disorders, which we want to look after, as nobody else does in Kenya. There is currently no cerebral palsy centre in Kenya at all, so this is something that is really lacking. On the other hand, statistics tell us that there are around 10-15,000 kids suffering from CP in Nairobi alone, of which we are currently looking after 100. This programme needs to be expanded, and this is where my Philanthropy or CSR comes in.

In terms of the organisations I work with on all these projects, there is one called Young James in Nairobi and a second one called Veerayatan Kenya.

What are the main challenges you face on a daily basis, and in terms of doing business in general, thinking about a foreign company that may want to set up here. What kinds of difficulties would they have to face, or is it really easy to set up a business here?

First of all, I think it’s important to recognise Kenya’s strengths, as opposed to worrying about the challenges. Let’s understand what the opportunities that Kenya offers are. Firstly, there’s the Kenyan people and culture, which is very hard-working. The average Kenyan is a very well trained, well educated, well presented, dynamic and hard-working individual. So, if you recognise the strength of people in Kenya, this is something very unique. I have worked in many other countries in the world, but Kenya is special, because its workforce is superb.

Secondly, we need to understand that this is a developing country, and the government also has its own challenges and problems to contend with. But having said that, we are very lucky because Kenya is far more developed and progressive compared to other parts of the world, in terms of governance and in terms of how the country operates. We have reasonably good infrastructure, we have very good IT and very good mobile phone services. In terms of these facilities, I believe Kenya is far better placed than many other African countries. Our financial system and banking sector are actually very strong and vibrant, in terms of facilities available to people who want to start businesses here. The Kenyan public is also very demanding, and this makes for huge competition. We have a range of very good products available on the market, so if you go around in Kenya, you can get practically anything that you can get in any part of the world. This is very interesting, as you are not stuck with some basic offerings. Everything is available here and these are some of the great things about Kenya.

In terms of challenges, I think we are really struggling with the current traffic issues and the problem of moving your goods or people from one place to another. Transport or traffic on the roads is a major disaster. The second factor hurting a lot of business is corruption and corrupt practices, meaning that you are always in a situation where you may be competing with people who might be compromised, and consequently you have to be very alert that the cancer of corruption does not enter your business. You also have to face competition which may be corrupting your buyer, while you don’t want this to happen. Therefore, corruption is a big issue here.

Security used to be pretty bad, and I think it has improved significantly. The government has done many good things, and as a result I would say that security is not as bad as it used to be. It’s getting better, and although police force remains inadequate in terms of training and the facilities they have, I believe there is a pretty decent job being done.

For a foreign company to come into Kenya, the biggest challenge lies in the fact that most of them come here with the feeling that this is a developing country, that ‘these guys don’t know much’, that they are able to bring their Western ideas to Kenya and take over. It doesn’t work that way, because the Kenyan businessman is very astute and savvy, he has travelled the world, so he understands what’s happening outside, and he is able to understand exactly what the offerings are overseas, thanks to the internet and the connectivity available to us, and all of this makes for some tough competition. Therefore, a foreigner coming here will actually find it much easier and quicker to start up in Kenya if he finds a good local partner. Any company that tries to venture into Kenya by themselves will struggle far more, whereas things become much simpler for a company that comes in and decides to join hands. But it’s not easy, as local competition is fierce, so you can’t just walk in and walk away with tonnes of money. That doesn’t happen.

What is your vision for the future in the next 5 years? What would you like to have achieved by then?

The game plan is very simple. Although we may be growing old, the plan is to keep growing the business, and to find and train more people, then let these people develop ownership of these companies, where they can actually buy shares in the companies. Meanwhile, we have to use call upon our ability, our entrepreneurship and our business acumen to grow the businesses and make them far larger in all the different fields where we operate. Growth is therefore a definite, while making sure that we are able to sustain whatever we are doing, on a very long term basis, as opposed to a short-termist, briefcase-trader mentality where you go and make some money and then move on. Ours is a more long term and strategic approach, essentially with the aim of making a difference in Kenya, by employing more people, creating more jobs, more systems and greater corporate governance, all of which may be seen as adding big value to the economy.

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