How would life be without a roof above our heads? Would life still be enjoyable? The roof is one of the most fundamental components in any building. In Kenya, REXE Roofing Products Limited, under the leadership of Irene Wanjiku, has carved its name on the roofs of some of the outstanding construction projects in Kenya such as The Hub in Karen.
I met up with Irene, the Managing Director at REXE and we had a chat on her journey to becoming the “Roofing Queen”.
BARRACK: What is your background? Are you a designer by any chance?
IRENE: (Laughs) No! I am not a designer or an architect. I am none of those. I am a roofing specialist. I mean, since I was born I must have been living under a roof! I remember a story that was run in one of the dailies that christened me “The Roofing Queen” and that has given me that status.
B: So what is the real story?
IRENE: I do not have any ‘book smart’ training in construction but through my own research an experience, I have become ‘street smart’ in matters roofing. I have acquired the knowledge on roofing from my previous job, training by the manufacturers and the work that we do. I can comfortably answer questions on roofing now and I am still learning. My training is in Business Administration.
B: How did you journey into construction and roofing in particular start?
IRENE: I have been in the roofing industry since 2004 when I was working for one of the general building contractors in Nairobi. This means that they would take up an entire project. All that time there I was not really keen on the general contracting business but I found the roofing aspects to be very interesting.
B: Why did you find it to be interesting?
IRENE: I realized that most general contractors did not like working on the roof. I always found that the roof is one of the most important parts of the building yet many shied away from it. It is from here that I had to think of how I could make roofing installations ‘less difficult’.
Roofing construction is considered by many a contractor to be one of the most challenging areas in a construction project. The roof is very detailed – it’s not like brickwork. You are more likely to stumble upon someone who can do simple laying of masonry walling than you can come across a skilled labourer who has specialized in roofing.
Roofing can be very complicated. You can live with a crack or a broken door lock for some time – but you cannot live well in a house with a poorly executed roofing finish.
A lot of contractors focus on the wet works and building shell and then subcontract the roofing works. So far we have been able to work with a very wide range of contractors across a number of projects. Roofing is slowly evolving into specialist areas just like electrical and plumbing works.
B: What are some of the arrangements you have with the main contractors and developers?
IRENE: In some instances, we work as domestic sub-contractors under main contractors. Other times, we are directly appointed by the developer to do roofing for their projects.
When it comes to roofing, if you do a good job it will attract people who will look for you.
I am drawn more to things that are abandoned as opposed to what many people are drawn to. It’s more about my personality in a way.
A number of contractors and homeowners have had experiences where the roofing sub-contractors they hired simply abandoned their jobs and sites and very few people are interested in either fixing or repairing the roofs.
It is such instances that drew me to roofing. I have learnt that with interest and sufficient research, what many people are running away from can be done without causing a headache.
Many people want to do what is easy for them. However, it is in roofing that I saw an opportunity to develop my expertise and be the answer to the question ‘Who will do it?’ – I asked myself ‘Why don’t I do it?’
A house is a major investment and I believe that after sinking a lot of money, roofing should not be your worst nightmare. How do you start climbing up a roof to repair it? How do you even start? So the fact that nobody else wanted to do it was the main reason I made roofing my primary concern.
Furthermore, shelter is a basic need – we dress, eat, shop, work or live – under a roof. A shelter can’t be complete without a good roof.
B: What advice can you give young Kenyans out here seeking opportunities beyond the areas or fields of their study?
IRENE: Simply because I studied a course in Business Administration did not make me fail to learn anything new. I chose not to be ignorant.
Get as much knowledge and develop as much passion as possible about the product and service that you want to offer even if it is beyond your scope. I have had to develop passion for the shingle roofing products that we sell.
You also have to understand that your product is not meant for everyone. Where nobody buys the product you have to respect their decision. Somebody – architects, contractors, developers – who said “No” to us when we were starting, is coming back to us now. Some people need time.
You have to build your capacity over time, patiently, before you can start asking for things. We had to get serious projects before we could negotiate certain terms with our suppliers.
Even when people seem to be getting into the same business as you choose to be different. There is always that one thing that will make your business stand out.
We have been in business for 5 years. Even though we seem to have gained traction in the market, we cannot settle. We have to keep working harder because there is constant competition. We have chosen to remain relevant and competitive in this specialized market. We know and we are aware that new products are coming into the market and we constantly ask ourselves “Are we innovating?”
B: How did you end up in distributing and installing shingle roofing finishes?
IRENE: I had an opportunity to meet with one of the leading companies in the world that manufacturers shingles.
I used to attend and I still attend a lot of exhibitions and expos especially in line with construction. I have an interest in knowing what is trending and happening in the field of construction.
So one day I attended an exhibition at KICC and present were these manufacturers that were looking for distributors. They had the display boards with the roofing material. When I asked about what they were,they told me that they were roofing shingles, manufactured in Canada. Based on my prior experience, I told them that we could use it locally.
B: When was that?
IRENE: That was in 2010. A year before we started Rexe. I am sure they were wondering why I was curious yet they were looking for a big, well-established organization, someone with a lot of experience and training in construction and every requirement that I did not have! I still told them that despite lacking the attributes they were looking for, I was still familiar with the challenges in roof construction in Kenya.
B: Did they take you seriously?
IRENE: Not really but I asked for their business card. They did not even ask me for my card. In 2011, during their third visit – looking for regional distributor – I met them again. They had met with some of the leading roofing experts who had promised to help them with the distribution but nothing had borne fruit yet.
After getting a few samples I went round showcasing the shingles to developers and contractors. Many would turn them down saying that it was not what they were looking for in their projects. Others were curious and hungry for more information while others wanted to buy.
I did not have stock locally and so I had to request for deposit –since the people trusted me – in order to facilitate shipping in the shingles. Although IKO has its headquarters in Canada, we import from their European plant in order to save on the shipping costs.
B: Did you have capital to do all this?
IRENE: I didn’t have much but the deposit enabled us raise about Kshs 5 million to ship in the first consignment in April 2012. Interestingly, we got most of our first clients from the Kenya Homes Expo event – some were even paying deposits at the expo!
B: What was your main product and how did it become one?
IRENE: We have two main products – roofing shingles and stone coated roofing tiles. People were more familiar with the stone coated tiles so it was easier to start from there. We gradually introduced the shingles to the market.
Roofing shingles are not easy to understand. They look and feel quite light. We took time to explain how the product works to our customers. We had to take time to do this and we still do.
B: What did you do differently?
IRENE: Many roofing companies hardly supply and fix their products and we saw a gap in this area. It is easier for businesses to sell the products but not really install – partly to shift liability and reduce risk that comes with fixing roofs.
We saw this an opportunity to create relationships with our clients and create a firm footing in the market by offering value.
B: How did you handle the resistance or unwillingness to take up roofing shingles?
IRENE: Shingles are widely used in North America and European nations. It is one of the most versatile roofing finishes out here. You can even harvest rainwater from roofs finished with shingles. They are natural granules. There is a great focus on quality control in every aspect by the manufacturers.
People don’t take up a product primarily because of inadequate information or lack of it. A new product seems vague and unclear to a market that does not have information that will help them understand it.
We also give a lifetime guarantee for the shingles roofing.
B: Did you ever feel like giving up in the face of resistance and slow uptake?
IRENE: People who give up tend to do so when they have a Plan B. I did not have that. I wanted to execute the ideas I had in my own organization. It has been difficult but people hardly notice. I had resigned from my job about a month after meeting the IKO team.
If you have a Plan B you will not think. Challenges and limited options compel you to think. If I gave up especially in the early days, we would not be talking about some of the most outstanding projects in our portfolio.
B: And how has Rexe Roofing been able to push the roofing shingles into the market?
IRENE: We have learnt to invest in training and teaching the decision makers in different projects, especially the architects since they are the ones who specify the building materials to be used. They are also very keen on the outcome of their project – such as The Hub in Karen – where we installed shingles and created a beautiful effect.
Any time an architect specifies your product in a project, they have signed it with their profession in the line. We also have a reputation to maintain through professional and thorough execution of the works so that we get more jobs. The architects have significant authority that comes with their role in a project.
B: What about the private home owners?
IRENE: We would still approach individual home owners, some of whom would consult their architects to seek their opinion about this new roofing product.
B: How have you ensured that your workforce at Rexe ensure quality workmanship?
IRENE: When we started working with IKO, we got our first major project – 100 units for the Mount Kenya Holiday Homes. When our partners and shingles suppliers, IKO, heard about this project, they had to come to Kenya with their engineer.
We encountered challenges even when we got this project. Some of our competitors put some hurdles along the way regarding our competence and capability to deliver on our projects.
That is why the IKO team came: to train our team of installers to ensure that the project was a success. It is this major project that opened doors to us to become the sole distributor for IKO in the East and Central Africa region.
B: How many people have you trained so far in this arrangement?
IRENE: In our first training in partnership with our suppliers, we trained 15 installers. We didn’t need all of them but we retained 5 to work full time technical staff for the company and the rest would be called whenever a project came up.
We did not mind training more as they also need to be absorbed into the market by other roofing installers. We believe that the better the workmanship in using shingles, the better for us as more people get to know about it.
We have chosen to emulate what paint companies are doing when they train painters. They don’t really care what brand of paint the trainees will use as long as they ensure quality workmanship in their work.
B: Have you trained or mentored people who are not part of your team?
IRENE: Yes, we have trained a number of people here who have even gone to set up their own roofing installation companies. Some come buy the products from us when they meet their clients and we gladly supply. I have chosen to be generous with ideas and information. It’s a way of creating opportunities for other people.
We have trained 25 people. We do not have the capacity to absorb all of them but we can create opportunities for them.
B: What is in the future for Rexe?
IRENE: We have hopes and plans of diversifying into real estate development in the future. As far as roofing is concerned, we also intend to manufacture and install roof shingles for low cost housing projects in Kenya.
B: Where have you derived a lot of lessons in the course of your business?
IRENE: First from IKO, the manufacturers of the roofing shingles. It’s a family owned business now in its fourth generation. They have laid a lot of emphasis on training. Every year we host them here for training and they also host us in Canada for training. This is to constantly refresh the knowledge and information our team has of the shingles. It challenges us to work to make Rexe outlives us.
Secondly, we have associated ourselves with people who make us really humbled. With IKO, for instance, the biggest projects we have handled locally are a tiny fraction of what they sell in other markets yet they treat us without any bias. This has challenged us to stop viewing jobs from the lens of “it doesn’t make business sense” to “no job is too small for us”.
Thirdly, I strive to attend events and training opportunities. The more I learn the better I become. This is not just limited to roofing and construction. Some of these opportunities are expensive in terms of time and money but they eventually pay off.
B: Any mentorship programmes that you are involved in?
IRENE: Last year we took part in The Keroche Foundation mentorship programme. It’s an initiative by Tabitha Karanja in which she shares her wealth on knowledge about what she has learnt over the years – including the competitive environment her business has had to operate in.
It’s an opportunity that I saw being advertised and I applied without knowing anyone there. It is important to realize that for some opportunities, you don’t need to know anyone for you to access them.
You have to be receptive when you think about mentorship. Sometimes as humans we tend to think that we know too much. Being a ‘know-it-all’ creates barriers to learning and being mentored.
B: Your business grew from an interaction at an expo – and you still participate as Rexe at the expos. What are some of the mistakes people make when they attend these events and how can tap into opportunities like you did?
IRENE: I think one of the mistakes people make is going with a friend who is not as keen as you. Unless you’re on a sightseeing mission, you should go with a sense of purpose and with people who share the same mission.
There is also the attitude of “I have seen the same thing before in the previous expos”. There is always something new that you can pick up. In business, a lot happens between two events. The lesson may not be in the product but in the explanation that you’ll be given.
Also don’t go with a source of distraction, for example, don’t carry your two year toddler to an expo. As an exhibitor, I can’t tell you satisfactorily about my product or equipment or technology when you are with a kid present. However, kids from about 10 years old can learn something.
Go ready to listen and observe and learn as much as you can. Be independent and if you have company, make them understand why you are there and share lessons.
Go early when the exhibitors are free – and exhibitors are still fresh, the stands are less crowded and the exhibitor can give you maximum attention possible to your queries. Act like the exhibition is an interview – plan for it adequately.
You can reach Irene and Rexe Roofing via her Twitter account @Roofing_Queen and @RexeRoofing. If you are interested in reading more on her articles on roofing, you can sign up for BUILDesign Magazine.