Intrigued by the productive nature of the Asian community in Kenya who are known for their success in running family businesses, ESTHER KIRAGU talked to Vipin Shah, a Director of Bobmil Group of Companies, a respected family business operating in Kenya.
On a chilly Friday morning I made my way to Bobmil Group of Companies located on the busy Mombasa Road. It is a beehive of activities. A forklift truck drives past me carrying a load of foam to the factory ready to be turned into beautiful and comfortable mattresses, one of the key products of the Group.
I was received warmly and served a cup of steaming, hot coffee before settling down for this interview with Mr Vipin Shah, accompanied by a young man. I notice a striking resemblance between the two and Vipin confirmed my presumption when he introduces the young man as his son, Jaimin.
Jaimin has been working with the family business for eight years – part of the careful succession plan in place. Vipin, with his two brothers, Bobby; who has since passed on and Milan, started Bobmil Industries way back in 1981.
Today, the second generation of the Shahs that includes Jaimin and his cousin, Bunty, have been incorporated in the business to ensure continuity and growth. The team of four form the directors of the family business and the Bobmil Group of Companies.
Growing up in Meru, Vipin looked up to his father, who was a businessman in the town. This shaped his interest in business and his family name, Shah, was an added incentive.
“From a young age, I knew my path was in business. We are Shahs and are born businessmen,” he says, light-heartedly alluding to the historical link of his surname with trading businesses. Vipin studied at a local primary school in Meru before joining the then City High School on Nairobi.
To get the necessary education to propel him on the path to success in business, Vipin joined the Gujarat University in Ahmedabad, India in 1965 where he studied for a degree in commerce.
He returned to Kenya in 1970 to pursue his business interests in a market that he felt offered the opportunities for success.
His father had relocated to India with the other family members but Vipin, a strong believer in the family being together, gradually worked towards bringing all his family back to Kenya.
Vipin’s career began at his uncle’s business in Nairobi, which specialised in ladies clothes. Working under the leadership and mentorship of his uncle, he gained knowledge and hands-on experience in the day-to-day running of the business.
During his eight years in this role, he was involved in managing the entire process from the selection of fabrics to import, stitching them to garments, packaging, selling and marketing the end product, as well as managing employees and collecting money from clients.
“I was a general manager of sorts, overseeing many aspects of the business,” he says. This gave him a good grip on the different dimensions of the business that came in handy later on when he started his own business.
In 1978, a newly married Vipin left his uncle’s business and relocated to Sagana town where he started a wholesale shop that stocked an assortment of household items.
He put in many hours of hard work and sacrifice that eventually bore fruits. He had been running the business successfully for about three years when his son, Jaimin, was born.
“I was concerned about my young family’s wellbeing. At the time, the sanitation of the small town of Sagana was wanting and I didn’t want to put my family’s health at risk, more so since I had a young child to consider. I closed the shop and relocated my family to Nairobi,” he explains.
He was fortunate to get business space at Bruce house in 1981 where he started a boutique specialising in unisex imported and locally produced clothes.
Believing in diversifying one’s investments, Vipin and his brothers also opened businesses trading in other imported goods, selling them to stores in Nairobi and other towns and trading centres in the country.
They went on to open a warehouse in Nairobi’s industrial area where they stored the stock and dispatched orders from.
Building a brand…
When a friend who was running a tiny plant that made foam products asked Vipin to buy it from him, he consulted his brothers who supported the idea.
“I began on a small scale and ran the plant for about three months before my youngest brother, Milan, who had just finished his university education in India, returned
to Kenya and took over from me,” he explains how Bobmil Industries came to being in 1981.
The company’s product offering quickly grew from mattresses to pillows and foam sheets, and today has several other products under its banner.
With time the company also expanded into manufacturing polythene products. While this division was started to address the internal needs of the mattress division, it quickly grew into a fully-fledged business of its own, supplying various industries and businesses with custom-made polythene packaging.
From a staff of about 15 in 1981, the company has grown to over 450 employees today, and has depots located around the country.
Vipin attributes this success to hard work and sacrifice, recalling the days when they would begin their day very early in the morning and not end until very late at night.
Having lost his younger brother, Bobby, in 2004 he says, “It took us about a year or so to find our footing again. This was only possible because of our family unity and support from everyone.”
Emphasising on the strength of a united family, Vipin says, “In a family business you tap into a wealth of knowledge from all parties within. You also grow the business faster when there is unity unlike a situation where one is running a business alone.
To achieve unity, there must be mutual respect and acknowledgment of everyone as an equal partner who has a significant role to play in the success of the business.”
Bobmil Industries has been recognised as a Superbrand in the East African region. Other companies within the Group include Viro Locks Kenya Limited, a company trading in locks and other security products; Express Spares Limited, a company trading in motor vehicle spare parts; and Sports Road Properties Limited, a residential property development and management, among others.
Vipin and his brother, Milan, are now guiding the younger generation to expand this Group and hopes they will soon start businesses in other parts of East Africa.
Mentoring the younger generation…
Vipin’s son, Jaimin, and his nephew, Bunty, returned to Kenya in 2007 and 2006 respectively after completing their studies abroad and were immediately incorporated into the business.
This saw the entry of the second generation of Shahs into the family business. Vipin says the young men have brought with them new perspective into the business and their latest venture is in flower farming.
“This project is different from the other family businesses and there are new things we are learning, but there are also things which have previously worked in our other businesses that we are applying to this project. In business you must be willing to learn and take up new challenges,” says Jaimin.
Vipin’s advice to those aspiring to achieve longevity for their business is to always have a succession plan as no one knows what the future holds, and to implement this plan as soon as possible.
“Build on the interests of the young leaders in your business from an early age. Mentor them and help build their confidence as you add new responsibilities to their docket. Ensure they become as good as or even better than you in managing various aspects of the business as this will ensure continuity of the business when you are not there,” he advises.
Vipin says planning ahead for your business and having long-term goals and incorporating the interest of your workers in these plans is also important.
“It is expensive to train your work force and grow their skills only for them to leave you after a short period. Reward your workers well and ensure they are growing with your company. If your workers are happy then your business will grow,” he says.
He emphasises the importance of always maintaining a long-term view in business and says financial management must be given attention at the highest level.
“Talk to a financial institution that works well with you and be patient with the growth of the business. Business is like a baby – you need to give personal attention especially at the foundation stage. Be patient and persistent,” he says, adding that although it takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice to see success, in the end it is very rewarding.
Vipin has two children, a son and a daughter, and two lively grandchildren. “It is a blessing to be surrounded by a loving and supportive family.
My mother lives with me, and so does my son and his family. Both my brothers’ families are also very close by. This has allowed us to maintain a very strong bond as we can see each other at any time,” he says.