Ark Construction Limited is a Nairobi-based, family-owned construction company. The company has carved out a niche for itself in the interior fit out segment, with plans to grow and expand their general construction arm. I recently met with Ark Construction’s Associate Director and Project Manager, Bharat Kerai. He shared with me his story, experiences and thoughts on Kenya’s construction as a contractor.
OBM: What’s your story?
BK: Ark Construction Limited is a family-owned construction company founded in 2009. At the time, I didn’t think I’d join the family business when I came back from the UK, where I had gone to study. Over time and after being open and interacting with different people in the UK, I changed my mind. I eventually joined my dad in running our construction company in 2012 because I wanted to grow and continue the legacy.
OBM: Who in your family was initially in the construction business?
BK: My dad was involved in construction before he started the company.
OBM: How has your background in Business Administration been utilized in the contracting business?
BK: Studying Business Administration has helped me use the knowledge to help the company grow. My father is more technical than I am in matters of construction. I, on the other hand, utilize what I learnt in the UK in terms of business processes, finance, human resource, interactions, networking and other things to help the business grow.
OBM: How has your experience been so far?
BK: At first, I had no clue about construction. I had to learn the basics of interiors fit-out, how to get the materials, what you can and cannot do with certain materials and how they all fit into the overall scheme. Using that knowledge, I was gradually and progressively able to effectively communicate with the consultants in projects without having to tell them “Hold on, let me go the office and confirm this or that then I send you an email”.
OBM: How were your first days on the job?
BK: I had to go to sites where I handled the projects and meetings. I also moved around with the site managers, observed how they interacted with architects and staff on our sites, observed how they talked and discussed the projects and materials. I tried to grasp as much knowledge as I could about all these aspects.
OBM: How is interior fit out different from general construction?
BK: Interior fit-outs differ from general building works when it comes to the variety of materials used. There is a very wide variety of materials whereby a lot can be done using one material. For instance, an architect can recommend that you use an MDF board as partitioning. Another architect can use it to come up with different shapes and features.
Over time, when you look at drawings, at what was done on site and how materials are used on site it all narrows down to how much knowledge that you can absorb and how much interest you have.
OBM: What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning for the last three years in construction?
BK: The excitement to do something new every day and going out there, learning new things especially interior fit-out works. Also, learning as much as I can and doing the best as I can in Kenya’s interior fit out market motivates me.
OBM: Can you tell me about times when you almost gave up? How did you feel about it and what did you do instead of giving up?
BK: Sometimes the clients, the architects and interior designers can get very demanding. If you don’t do the work within the given timelines, the architect might say a few things or send nasty emails. Maybe you’ll even lose a client.
The hectic nature of contracting and the stress that a combination of these can put you through can be very overwhelming.
For a family business like mine – or for any entrepreneur – in construction in Kenya, you have to look at the mission you started the business with: What did you have in mind when you started the business? Was it to make money? Or was it to make a difference?
You have to look at all these and ask yourself: What’s the worst that could happen? This is a question that always puts into perspective what is important to you.
As a contractor, you may be late here and there due to factors beyond your control – issues with delayed supplies, issues with designers or poor communication. What makes a difference is how you communicate these challenges. Your social and PR skills also come into play.
OBM: How would you describe yourself in one word?
BK: Ambitious. I am ambitious about where I want us to be as a business and as the construction business in Kenya. There is a lot that has to be done.
As contractors, for example, we fail to utilize our full potential in comparison to other countries when you look at the kind of structures that they come up with. In Kenya, even though we have a lot of money, the kind of structures we are coming up with are still very basic.
We need to ask ourselves: “How can we get the industry to raise our standards?” This applies across the board from professional work in the offices to implementation in the site.
OBM: What is the toughest decision that you had to make in the last few months?
BK: Managing conflicts of interests. This comes up every time, especially where there are many stakeholders. There’s a project which I handled and it suffered delays and we were not able to meet the goals. There was a lot of stress involved.
OBM: I believe you have many sites running concurrently. How do you get to unwind and get away from the stress and pressure that come with being a contractor?
BK: As a family business, when living in the same house, there’s always that temptation to talk about business at home. I have been fortunate to learn a lot from my dad. One of the biggest decisions we have made is that when we reach home we don’t talk about business – no matter how bad, no matter how serious or important it is.
When we step out of the office into the house, we are father and son and not business partners. This breaks the monotony of work.
Sundays are days for resting. As a company, we work 6 days a week.
OBM: What about in the case where projects are demanding?
BK: We have maybe taken up Sundays once or twice but as a contractor, you have to create a team that is able to deliver in the given timelines and quality.
OBM: You joined the Kenya’s Top 100 mid-sized companies club in 2014 – what does it mean to your business?
BK: Yes, participating in Kenya’s Top 100 Mid-sized companies has given us more exposure whenever we are featured in their publications. It is a form of marketing for us in a way.
When it comes to quality, it is our clients who are impressed usually go out there and spread the word. As a contracting company, we spend very little on marketing. Actually we have zero budget for marketing.
OBM: How do you then get by without marketing?
BK: When you find that people know that you do a good job, then they will know about you and recommend you to other projects and consultants.
Your public relations skills are also important. You don’t have to go out and meet everyone – attending parties and cocktails – unless it is an important function. How you relate with your clients, the architects, interior designers and the entire team matters. They are the same people who go out there and speak about your work.
As a contractor, if you are in a project where you constantly fight with the client over and over, you will not have a good referral system.
OBM: People think that there’s a tonne of money to be made as a contractor in Kenya. What has your experience taught you regarding this?
BK: I think making money should be the bottom-line. I mean, if you are not making money, then why are you in business? But if you’re only looking for money, then you’ll miss out on so many other things. You’ll miss out on time, relationships and quality which are very critical in the nature of our business. If you miss out on them then your pocket suffers. If you maintain the three things, there’ll be a lot of money to be made.
If you don’t have the right knowledge, you’ll find that there will be a lot of wastage and misuse of labour, which will eat into your profits.
OBM: What are some of the major concerns that you have about your company? About the building/construction sector?
BK: Lack of creativity that goes into construction in Kenya. We have a lot of big projects coming up but there’s almost, generally, nothing new in terms of design. As key players in the industry that should be a big concern.
Poor workmanship is critical. More and more contractors are joining the Kenyan construction market with the notion that there is a lot of money to be made, overlooking quality in the process. As a result, you find that quality is lacking in their deliverables.
As a country, we need to regulate who enters the market and even set standards on the minimum acceptable standards that have to be observed.
OBM: How do you ensure quality control in your projects?
BK: Whenever we sign construction contracts we know we are bound to deliver within the time and budget agreed on. When it comes to quality, nothing can replace an eye for detail. We have trained our site managers and let them know the standards we expect of them on the job.
The quality of work speaks a lot about your brand. Everyone in your team should know the minimum standard acceptable in your deliverables.
OBM: Why have you focussed heavily on fit out?
BK: The satisfaction we derived from doing fit outs has made us focus on it. There is a wide scope and a lot of new things to be learnt in comparison to general building works. We have a wide variety of designs, materials and experiments in interior fit out.
There were also few players in the market and the quality today cannot be compared to a few years ago. There was a gap to be filled. As a business, we targeted that and created our niche in the process. And there are always offices coming up or undergoing renovations.
OBM: Can we say that contractors in the interior fit-out business are smiling all the way to the banks when new office developments are coming up?
BK: In a way, but not really. When clients fail to allocate adequate budget for a project you will always find cheaper contractors who may not deliver the best quality. Clients who know the value of quality are always willing to pay a premium for it. What determines the budget include the quality of finishes a client wants and if they can afford it.
OBM: What is that one misconception that people have of interior design?
BK: The truth is that interior design and fit-out is more complicated than general building works. It entails a lot of small details which you have to combine to come up with the desired wow factor.
OBM: Plans for growth and expansion?
BK: Yes. We also do general and civil works alongside interiors fit-out. But now that we are established in the interiors fit-out market, we plan to grow our general and civil works division.
OBM: Advice to a start-up contractor?
BK: If you are fresh from school and you have no experience, I would suggest that you go work and gain experience in a firm in the area you are interested in. When you manage your own firm, you will know how to relate with labour, materials and people efficiently.
Relationships with people in the industry are very important and you have to work hard to maintain them. If you fail to cultivate relationships and networks in the industry, it will be difficult for you to survive in the market in two or three years.
When it comes to capital, it depends on how big or small you want to become. The amount of capital depends on how you manage your cash flows and how you push your clients to pay you so that you don’t strain so hard.