Saidi Ahmed Ndope can be summarised as a young, ambitious and determined go-getter. At only 35 years of age he has managed to grow his portfolio at Markmann & Co. Ltd by steering the product development and R&D departments to greater heights over the last couple of years. Starting off his career as a Sales & Marketing Executive in 2009 right out of University, he steadily rose up the ranks to hold his current position as the General Manager. Saidi was one of the participants in Creative Metier’s coaching programme for Small and Growing Business (SGBs) in Kenya. We caught up with Saidi to discuss business and leadership.

Can you tell us a little bit about Markmann & Co.?

Markmann & Co. Ltd has been offering fleet management solutions and specialised equipment since its inception in Kenya.

The business we are in is largely driven by technology growth and development. My focus is in business development and sales. I was instrumental in bringing about change in the company and improved various areas related to technology integration consequently replacing the traditional manual structures. The company is continually going through this shift to keep up with various advances in our areas of specialisation. Our main focus is offering our customers what they need and customising their unique preferences rather than the product itself determining their needs. For a long time, the company identified foreign brands and brought these technologies to Kenya to implement. When I joined the team, Kenya was going through a tech shift which necessitated a more dynamic approach to our service provision. Our systems are very different now as compared to a few years back. We are fully embracing technology and customising it to the Kenyan market; our younger team being the driving force. This has led to a big shift; sales started picking up, customer relations improved and general feedback from market surveys has helped Markmann position itself better for the future. Our focus is on the customers’ needs. Their feedback whether positive or negative drives us to do better. Our clients are different in the areas they operate so we have to be responsive to all their needs.

Did you start the business?

No, I didn’t. The company has been in existence since 1951. In the past it was very traditional in the types of products and services offered. We are making it more diverse with our product base growing incrementally. There were two products initially, now there are almost 60. We’ve divided them into two; retail business which sells over the counter, and specialised products and services. Before we only sold specialised products with the accompanying service. We have now set up retail based products that complement our sales department which has really helped in sustaining the business. We have made the company independent by improving its cash flow.

So you’d say you’ve shifted the business model?

Yes, certainly. We have.

How did you do that?

I have to give credit to my Directors. They saw something in me and believed and trusted in me.

I am a major in finance and marketing but they drove me to marketing. They saw I was young and innovative and could create a change for the company. I am the youngest member of the leadership team so they put a lot of trust in me to put a new face to the company. I came in with a lot of ideas which I implemented.

What are some of the challenges you face in the Kenyan context running your business?

Financing is a big problem for the larger jobs. We were heavily reliant on getting finance –  still are. To some extent we are held back on doing a lot of things because of finance limitations. It was and still is financing. With the current economic situation, we’ve had to create a balance between our operational costs and income generated. We had to cut down on spending, manage costs, and invested heavily in stock (not to say that we do not have issues with stock. In fact, this is another challenge. We’ve had challenges with imports which is a big issue in Kenya currently).

Human resource retention is another issue especially when you have large team. They tend to keep looking for other u which I would say is natural for anyone but we grow our employees by promotions, financial remuneration and use other motivational ways to improve retention. We had to lay off some employees from IT as their input was not equal to their output. They were diverting our clients instead of growing our current client base. It’s very tricky with technicians, you have to follow closely to see if they are actually working for you or their productivity lies elsewhere.

Where do you see your business in the next 5 years?

Growth; that’s the biggest element – going into ownership of assets. We used to value ourselves on our stocks but we want to build assets that are long-term for the company. For instance, we intend to acquire space where we are and move from paying for rental space. We want to expand through such ways.

How are you financing this?

We don’t get financing from outside we have to do it internally. There are some service provision contracts we intend to take up because it will open up a whole new channel of revenue and continuous cash flow to sustain this projected growth.

What about in the next 10 years?

We aspire to open different entities. The parent company will handle fleet management and control equipment supplies. The subsidiary will handle the mid-to long term investments and service provision contracts. This way we will be able to focus on our core activities while chartering our growth path.

Are you just working in Kenya or elsewhere?

We are doing a lot outside. I spend a lot of time interacting with various suppliers and establishing networks and contacts locally and internationally. I’m constantly on the lookout for new products and services and the market for the same in Kenya and the East African region.

For sales, we are currently limited to Kenya but we’re trying to push the owners of the brands to let us supply to the rest of East Africa.  We are really focused on selling to other regions.

What have you found to work best in keeping your business afloat/ profitable?

Price is key in Kenya. The larger number of people are not keen on quality and reliability. The percentage of people that want quality and will pay the premium for it, can’t sustain our business. We are trying to get a balance between quality and price and have set up support services which can help sustain the business while maintaining every client’s installation. The balance between quality, price and service is key in maintaining a trustworthy reputation.

How many staff are you?

We used to have about 20 employees but we downsized and are now nine. We are fewer but are doing the jobs more efficiently with reduced idle time in between jobs.

How would you describe the culture of the organisation?

Open office policy, all employees are assigned their various tasks and given timelines to meet. We have the standard supervision and operational structures that we follow but we don’t micromanage. We follow up in weekly meetings and ensure supervision is conducted on all technical jobs. That’s the system we work under. With technical jobs you can’t micromanage. So many things can change; the work might take longer or things might break down so things don’t always go as planned. There has to be some flexibility.

How has how you lead changed since going through the coaching programme?

I believe in people now. I believe in my team. Before I used to micro-manage everything. I used to tell them how to do everything. Now I guide them as per our company mission and vision and let them do the job. I call clients to follow up and they are happy because of the systems in place. Clients don’t call me as much for every single issue which translates to better team work. I can now focus on growth and development more than general operations.

What’s the impact of that on the business?

The company is reliant on me on long term growth now; seeing ahead to the next 5-10 years. The “smaller jobs” are handled by my team. I have managed to pass down what I know so the knowledge is no longer just with me. It has trickled down to the rest of my team.

What has been the most satisfying moment in business for you?

Seeing a sale being completed without me being involved when it’s a big job. When people are confident in themselves, they can do a lot. People now only consult me for what I think rather than ask me how to do it. My sales team have surpassed me in sales. I’d say for the last three months, my sales team are way ahead of me.

What’s your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur or running a business?

Being able to wake up and see an opportunity and bring it to the company and not getting it turned down. I see opportunities and recommend what can be done. I never say we cannot do something. I give them what they need. If one of my clients ask me for something, I help them even if I have to outsource the service. That’s the best part.  We never say we don’t do something. We find a way.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

In the process of the coaching programme, I realised that I’d like to take it up professionally for my personal growth.  I believe it will empower me a lot and in turn benefit my organisation and team.

From coaching my team, I have seen a lot of impact. In the short period I did coaching I learned so much about myself and the environment. If you have that kind of knowledge it can help you to have so much input and with business, even more impact.

I don’t want to use coaching just for myself and my organisation but even more than that. There are lot of businesses that need the support and guidance that is not necessarily financial. A lot of Kenyans think in business the end goal is about getting the money but it’s one of the main elements that lead to a sustainable future in business. I believe you must find a balance between managing the business operations, interact with your employees and working towards meeting your customer’s needs. You can have all the money, the best technology, the best gadgets but these will not have an impact on the business like the people element. A lot of Kenyans have ideas but where they get stuck is saying they don’t have money. If people get away from being fixated on the money, a lot of businesses will flourish.