It is not common to find the MD of a company showing visitors around her exhibition stand especially in an international construction exhibition such as The Big 5 Construct East Africa. RAK Ceramic’s Prina Patel may pass for a typical sales executive for the company. Well, she is a sales person and also the Managing Director of RAK Ceramics and Sanitary Ware Limited. We met with her and had a lengthy chat amidst her guiding her visitors around her exhibition stand. Today, she shares her journey from investment banking to the helm of a leading ceramics and sanitary ware company.

BARRACK: Hi Prina, do you mind if we start with you telling us about who you are?

PRINA: (Laughs) Who am I? Do you mean, “Why am I the MD of a construction company in Kenya?”

BARRACK: You can start from there if it makes it any easier for you to answer the question (laughing)

PRINA: I was born and raised here in Kenya. My background is actually in investment banking. I moved to the UK in the year 2000 to study Economics. I stayed in the UK for 14 years – seven of which I worked in investment banking.

I moved back to Kenya about 4 years ago.

BARRACK: And that makes your company how old?

PRINA: It is a long story (laughs). The RAK history in Kenya is very interesting. But first, I am sure you have heard about Flamingo Tiles, right? I am a director of the company as well. Flamingo Tiles is our family business.

BARRACK: And does that have anything to do with you moving back to Kenya?

PRINA: Yes it does. While I was away the business was struggling. Flamingo Tiles had a production plant in Kitengela where we would manufacture about 250,000 square metres of tiles per month. However, due to various issues – lack of proper skilled labour, government’s lack of support, energy costs – all these made it quite difficult to produce tiles locally. These issues are real and they have made it difficult to be a manufacturer in Kenya.

BARRACK: What happened to the Flamingo Tiles business?

PRINA: This is where our business survival skills kicked in. We had to figure out ways of producing tiles at a lower costs. As a business person, I gladly jumped on the opportunity. We had to close the production plant due to the reasons I mentioned. Our clients can still access the same products in the same designs with even more ranges available, all from RAK in the UAE.

BARRACK: What about RAK Ceramics and Sanitary Ware Limited?

PRINA: RAK Ceramics as a brand has been in Kenya for quite some time although it has been operating under different dealerships that have been changing hands in the course of time. Our business partners at RAK Ceramics approached us in late 2015 to create a new dealership in Kenya – and that is why we are here as RAK Ceramics and Sanitary Ware Limited. We have been operating for less than a year now under this new partnership, although we are currently still based around our Flamingo Tiles showroom along Mombasa Road. We are, however, moving our showroom to Thika Road at Exit 10 next to Kenya Clay Works by the end of the year.

BARRACK: Why were you approached?

PRINA: From operating Flamingo Tiles, our partners believed in us and in our understanding of the market. RAK Ceramics is based out of the UAE at Ras Al Khaimah – hence the acronym RAK – where they have 9 plants. I also had to express interest in becoming their local dealer – and I communicated my desire to have them manufacture our designs. Even though they have their own designs, experience had shown us a lot about the designs that would work in the local market. We can say that our designs are now manufactured by RAK in the UAE.

This creates a win-win situation, we know what works in the local market and they get the brand awareness while accessing the local market. It’s very important to note that RAK’s specialty is in porcelain tiles but they have recently expanded their range of ceramic tiles.

BARRACK: How would you describe the local Kenyan market when it comes to tiles?

PRINA: The Kenyan market is very cost-conscious. That is why we don’t stock some of the most expensive tiles since they don’t move. However, if someone is interested, we can order for them.

BARRACK: What are some of the projects in which RAK Ceramic tiles have been used?

PRINA: We have recently supplied about 30,000 square metres of tiles to the Kenya Police Housing Scheme. Prior to that, RAK supplied tiles to the KICC during the renovation works. Our tiles were used at the Safaricom House. Globally, the RAK ceramic tiles have been used in many projects.

BARRACK: Is it proper to use normal floor tiles in swimming pools?

PRINA: One of the most important things to note about ceramic tiles is that they absorb water. Cheaper quality regular floor tiles tend to absorb more water. This is evident when you are laying tiles using cement screed and the tiles absorb water and expand. Porcelain tiles, on the other hand absorb very little water and that’s what makes them harder and less brittle. That is partly why porcelain tiles are popular in the European markets where the temperature shifts makes water expand and contract, exerting the pressure on the tiles.

It is very important to realize that there are tiles meant to be used specifically for use in swimming pools. First, they have much lower water absorption properties. Also, they work well with the right waterproof adhesive.

In a swimming pool, the base of the tiles has to be waterproofed. The grout also has to be waterproof.

BARRACK: What do you do when a contractor approaches you and they want to buy floor tiles for use in a swimming pool?

PRINA: (Laughs) Actually, they do come in here asking for either regular floor tiles or mosaic tiles but I give them the right direction regarding the way it should be done. But again, there is very little you can do to ensure that they buy the right tiles – all you can do is advise.

BARRACK: How do you intend to remain competitive in this competitive tiles market in Kenya?

PRINA: I don’t want to be greedy when it comes to margins. We are not interested in making outrageous margins. The market is stratified. There are tiles that are often very low in quality and therefore have very low prices. However, the challenge with these tiles is the high rate and cost of replacement.

The emerging Kenyan consumer wants value for money and this is where the gap exists. This consumer wants to spend the right amount of money for the right quality of tiles. Unfortunately, the market has many suppliers who fail to appreciate this and are taking advantage of consumers who may not be aware. Suppliers need to guide buyers accordingly in order to help them realize value for their money.

BARRACK: So what is your game plan as RAK Ceramics and Sanitary Ware?

PRINA: We want to tell consumers out there that there are ranges of high quality tiles that are well within your budget. You can get really good products within your budget.

I believe in the quality of our products and business model and this gives us the confidence to succeed in the market.

BARRACK: So who is your main target?

PRINA: Our main target is basically anyone. We believe in our quality and pricing which is very competitive. While I believe cost is an important factor, I want to give you value. I want to give you better products that you can afford. It is not uncommon to find people who desire to have world-class standards in terms of finishes but at Kenyan prices.

In terms of costs, we are not competing with the tiles from China – we will definitely lose out. We consider our products to be in the mid-range when it comes to pricing.

BARRACK: Who has been the most influential person ever since you got involved in RAK Ceramics and Sanitary Ware?

PRINA: Our general sales manager Pradip Savania. Everything I know about the business I have learned from him.

BARRACK: What makes your business unique and why?

PRINA: I have grown in this business long enough to admit that the strength of our company is in the women in it. This is because we are more passionate and interested in the details of our range of products. I am not sure if it comes with being a woman or not but we are more conscious about what we sell. We don’t just focus on what we sell – we want to offer our customers a service.

I have learnt that if I am running the company, I need to know the product. The best way to sell, is to know what you are selling. That is the only way you can sell. Women are generally good at creating relationships.

BARRACK: Does being a woman in the male-dominated industry present any challenges?

PRINA: Often people – usually the older stakeholders in the construction industry – don’t take you seriously when you are a woman and you are very young. I have been to meeting where I show up and I am asked “Where is your director?”

I have also realized that there are people that I cannot deal with and that is where my marketing manager comes in. He knows how to step in and interact with them on our behalf. There is a wide misconception in our society that women cannot reach a certain level of leadership or responsibilities.

BARRACK: What is one piece of advice that you have been given that has been instrumental in your role?

PRINA: A good friend of mine who owns his businesses here in Kenya told me something when I came back. He said to me that while you are doing business in Kenya, you should be constantly adjusting your expectations. If you are not flexible in this market with how you approach business and the relationships that come with it, you will not succeed.