Keroche CEO weathers many storms to build a multi-billion empire.

By: MACHARIA MWANGI

She thrives in good times but it is in a crisis that her true mettle is revealed.

For the 18 years that Keroche Breweries Chief Executive Officer Tabitha Karanja has been in the liquor industry, staggering challenges have been brewing from all angles.

These roadblocks, including a number of run-ins with government institutions, can easily break the back of even the most resolute person, but Mrs Karanja has been undeterred.

That she has kept her sobriety and never buckled speaks volumes of the depth of her staying power.

The latest setback for Keroche Breweries CEO was the widespread fight against the second generation brews.

The multi-billion shilling firm found itself in the thick of things with regulators casting doubt on the quality of some of the company’s products.

Typical of her, Mrs Karanja aggressively took the bull by the horns.

CRACKDOWN ON ILLICIT LIQUOR

At the height of the war on illicit brews, Naivasha Member of Parliament John Kihagi led a team to inspect Keroche premises.

However, the manner in which the exercise was carried out rubbed Ms Karanja the wrong way. Piqued, she exchanged words with the MP in the fully glare of the cameras.

“We clapped when the head of State ordered a crackdown on the second generation brews as we were also losing business as a result of these unlicensed brew makers,” she said but quickly added that she did not expect the exercise to degenerate into lawlessness, targeting genuine and legal businesses.

Even the regulators who had previously given her products a clean of health had turned against her.

“To my utter shock, even the Kenya Bureau of Standard listed a product belonging to my company as having not met the required standards,” she said.

DEALING WITH LOSSES

As the impasse persisted, the company was incurring losses.

“I lost an estimated Sh150 million in sales,” she revealed.

Eventually she prevailed, once again weathering another storm that was threatening to derail her exciting business journey.

Certainly Mrs Karanja is now battled-hardened having fought and won a number of epic wars which started when her business was barely off the ground

Apparently she had entered a veritable no-go zone as from the word go, trouble seemed to be awaiting her at every turn.

However, two decades down the road, her focus and resilience has paid off, leading to a company that is holding a pride of place in the local market.

EXPANDING BUSINESS

Having conquered the local market, Keroche has set its sights on the East and Central African market.

The CEO says she will soon introduce her products in the regional market and if the reception is good she will go the whole hog and set up a plant in one of the countries.

“I will start by selling most of my products and see how it pans out. If promising, I will set an industry in one of those countries,” said Mrs Karanja.

Mrs Karanja says the investors Kenya is looking for are right here in the country. She believes that if local investors are given the necessary incentives and encouragement, they would churn out jobs for the youth.

“Our people are going to foreign countries like China and Europe in search of foreign investors who after investing here repatriate the wealth to their countries the following morning,” she says.

AUDACITY OF BIG DREAMS

Conversely, she says, Kenyan entrepreneurs take risks such as borrowing billions of shillings to set up businesses that create jobs, build the economy and retain wealth in Kenya. This must change, she says.

For her relentlessness and audacity to dream big, the Keroche CEO has received global accolades.

She has won three coveted awards in a span of one year, highlighting her achievements and underscoring the respect she commands in the business world.

The latest addition to her glittering array of trophies is the ALN 2015 Transformational Business Award which she scooped in Morocco a fortnight ago.

The 6th Annual Gathering of the African Leadership Network 2015 Summit in Marrakesh, judged Keroche Breweries as Africa’s Best Growing Company.

The award goes to “a notable business leader who has created significant socio-economic impact in Africa” by building a business with revenues valued at more than $50 million.

As she received the award, the indefatigable business woman encouraged people to be bold and decisive in implementing their ideas.

“We must be brave enough to get out of our comfort zones, take risks, think big, be innovative and remain focused on the big picture,” she counselled.

She has also been feted by the CNBC Business Development Manager East Africa and the CNBC Africa All Africa Business Leaders Award.

That she has been able to build the company from scratch, having started with Sh100,000, and nurturing to a Sh7 billion behemoth is a clear testimony of her business acumen.

BIGGEST LOAN IN KENYA’S HISTORY

At the beginning she just focused on producing fortified wines.

“We used the capital (Sh100,000) to buy a second-hand semi-manual machine that could only manage 100 cartons a day,” She said.

The reception in the market was encouraging and soon the demand outstripped supply, necessitating expansion.

Recently Mrs Karanja took a loan of Sh5 billion, the biggest loan an individual had borrowed in Kenya’s lending history, to fund a new plant.

The plant has a production capacity of 600,000 bottles a day. Now the brewer will not only comfortably meet the ever rising demand for its products locally, it also has to scout for more customers across the borders. In Kenya, the firm seeks to have a 20 per cent market share.

“The new plant has the capacity to produce 30 different brands, giving me a golden chance to stake a claim at the cutthroat market,” says Mrs Karanja.

As a woman, she has to juggle between family and business and evidently she is admirably balancing the two divergent responsibilities.

Despite a very tight schedule, she still finds fairly sufficient time to be with her family members. And she even takes turn in the kitchen as she loves cooking. This, she says, strengthens the family bond.

Her husband and Keroche Breweries Chairman Joseph Karanja has supported her every step of the way. He however prefers to remain in the back seat as his wife hogs the limelight and steer the brewer to great heights of success.

She is also nurturing budding entrepreneurs through Keroche Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation.

The first batch of six are soon graduating.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION