Ties that bind: Success secrets of couples who are business partners

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Bonfire Adventures proprietors Sarah and Simon Kabu show off their business award

What do Devki Group, Royal Media Services, Keroche Breweries and Bonfire Adventures have in common? Ties.

In all of them, a man and his wife played a role in their formation and are involved in the day-to-day running of the business.

And it is not the easiest of endeavours. When Forbessurveyed couples engaged in business in 2013, there was one resounding outcome: “Married couples in business together have extreme opinions when asked about it. It’s either the best thing that happened to them, or the worst.”

Those who viewed it as a wonderful thing said they had found a way of making the delicate balance between family and business.

Among those who viewed it as the worst idea, there was likely a messy divorce case, where the battle of who brought what in the partnership was among the issues of contention.

Against the backdrop of those realities, a Nairobi hotel yesterday organised a breakfast meeting under the theme: “Couples in Business: Are you Winning Together?”

Jacaranda Hotel in Westlands organised the meeting for entrepreneurial couples to learn from those who have made it.


By Thursday when Lifestyle spoke to the Jacaranda Hotels general manager Margaret Maingi on the plans for the event, there was optimism that the couples that were to deliver keynote addresses would inspire the attendants.

The speakers were Mr Nadenda Naval and his wife Neeta Raval — the multi-millionaires of Devki Group of Companies — and Palmhouse Dairies founders Eric Kimani and his wife Margaret Munene. Palmhouse produces a range of milk products and also supplies major hotels in the city.

“We are expecting them to inspire these women and men,” said Ms Maingi.

“We have discovered that there are businesses run by couples that do extremely well and there are businesses by couples that do so badly that even the couples split. The topic will be on how a man and his wife can grow their business while overcoming the different challenges that will come their way,” she added.

It was the first time the hotel was holding such an event, which morphed from a gathering for women dubbed “Women, Words and Wine Festival” that it had been organising earlier, where a motivational speaker could be invited to talk to women.


“A lot of women were asking, ‘How about me who has a husband and we have started a business together?’ So, we decided to go out and look for a couple who have started business together and have made it big,” said Ms Maingi.

She noted that by Thursday evening, 52 couples had enquired about the event. Of those, 35 had already bought tickets.

Mr Lawrence Terence Mwangi and his wife Millicent Chebet. They together run their Nairobi-based events company, Blossom Planners.

“I’m expecting people to come out feeling more empowered, more able to face challenges,” said Ms Maingi.

One couple that was looking forward to the talk was Mr Lawrence Terrence Macharia and his wife Millicent Chebet, who have been married for five years and who run Blossom Planners, an events company.

Their firm, whose offices are based along Nairobi’s Biashara Street, has organised a number of events in Nairobi including the Eric Omondi “Untamed” series, the various children’s festivals organised by comedian Churchill, the 2017 end-year party for Kenya Power staff, the Airtel Trace Music Star competition of 2016 and a number of baby showers and birthdays.

Mr Macharia and Ms Chebet met five years ago while producing NTV’s Churchill Show. They have since gone into private enterprise where the husband handles the creative part of the business while the wife executes the ideas.


“We started the company together because we noticed that he, as a content developer, could do scripting and could also act. For me, I was a producer,” said Ms Chebet.

“Anywhere I would go, I would take him along and we would pitch as one. That’s how we started our production house and started doing events together,” she added.

Their company was registered in 2015, two years after they started living as husband and wife.

In those years of operation, she has learnt a few lessons on how to mix family and business, among them being that parties should stick to their lanes and that total honesty is key.

They have also mastered the art of demarcation.

“After we leave work, when we get home, it is husband and wife. I go back to being a wife and he goes back to being a husband. I go to the kitchen and he does what he does as a husband,” she said.

Asked why she was looking forward to the event for couples in business, Ms Chebet said she was after inspiration.

“The guest speakers are people who have done this. There is a myth in Africa that couples cannot work together; that you will get bored with each other,” she said.


The Devki couple having been in this business for decades, she said, will be an inspiration to them on how to face the various challenges.

“I want to hear what they will share and how they have got here: When you’re down, what do you do? When you are up, what else should you increase? Should you always stick to one line or you can always open something else? I would want to know more. I’m really looking forward to it,” Ms Chebet said on Thursday.

For couples to stick together as a business, there is a host of must-dos, as Forbes stated in its 2013 analysis of entrepreneurial couples.

It listed equal commitment to the business, finding roles that suit each partner, having the same vision, respecting each other and knowing when to put aside the business to enjoy personal life as being the five most important characteristics of a successful couple in business.

One couple that has found a way to strike the balance is Mr Peter Gikungu Chege and his wife Esther Wanjiru Kamau, both directors of Gipps Enterprises, an M-Pesa super-agency with headquarters in Kikuyu Town.


The business has more than 200 M-Pesa tills countrywide that make an upwards of Sh150,000 a day that is shared as per the ratios laid down by M-Pesa’s parent company Safaricom.

Mr Chege went into M-Pesa business with his wife in 2010, four years after their marriage. They had tried a hand in electronics and music selling business as a team prior to that.

In the M-Pesa agency business, they faced numerous challenges at the start but finally found a survival formula through recruiting many sub-agents.

“The business has put us together more than the marriage because without her, I can’t move. We must work together because if she is not there, we will be forced to close the business,” Mr Chege told Lifestyle.

“When you are doing business in a family, you consult at the same level. At the end of the day, all success belongs to the family. Because whatever you get, at least you’re going to enjoy life, you are going to have whatever you want,” he added.

His wife handles the firm’s finances — operating from their main shop in Nairobi’s Dagoretti — while he is responsible for giving the general directions of the business from the company’s headquarters in Kikuyu.


Asked why he cannot let the finances of the business to be handled by anyone else, he cited trust.

“In M-Pesa, we deal with money. And it is very difficult to trust people,” said Mr Chege, who has two children aged 10 and four with Ms Wanjiru.

“As far as you are dealing with liquid cash, you need someone you can trust. I can even travel. All the circulation of money goes through her, so it is safe,” he added.

Doing business as a couple, Mr Chege said, maximises on their strengths to steer the enterprise forward.

“When it comes to business, everyone is tough on their side,” said Mr Chege.

Mr Peter Chege and his wife Esther who run Gipps Enterprises, an M-Pesa super-agency

“If I deal with cash, you know most of our staff are ladies. So, they can get used to me. But towards her, it is not possible. It makes it easy. But when it comes to management, I’m better. I know what to do and when. I deal with operations and management,” he added.

One of the biggest principles he has come to learn about doing business as a couple is to know where the boundaries lie.


“We run a business as a different entity. We separate it from the family issues. What we normally do is deal with family issues at a family level,” he said.

Mr Chege is aware of the pitfalls of running business affairs informally, the way a family is run.

“In family, you have to go through experience. But in business, at least you have to learn in a professional way; you make everyone accountable,” he said.


Narendra Raval on the cover of Forbes Africa magazine

Narendra Raval and Neeta Raval – Devki Group of Companies

Devki drew a great deal of attention three years ago when it turned down an offer by Nigerian business magnate Aliko Dangote to buy it. When Forbes magazine featured Mr Raval in January 2015, Devki Group was amassing $650 million (Sh65 billion in today’s rates) in annual revenues.

Devki is the parent company of Maisha Mabati Mills, National Cement among other brands. The firm has a presence in several countries in the East African region.

Mr and Mrs Raval started the business as a hardware shop called The Steel Centre in Gikomba in 1986.

“My wife and I did everything ourselves. One of us would make the deliveries while the other manned the shop,” Mr Raval told Forbes Africa in May 2015.

Mr Raval would in 1989 buy 30 acres of land in Athi River for Sh365,000. It is from that plot that the exponential growth of Devki began.

The Ravals’ desire to keep Devki a family business is the reason they turned down Mr Dangote’s offer.

They are also big on philanthropy, which is partly due to the philosophy inculcated in Mr Raval in his days as a Hindu priest before he quit his priestly duties once he married Mrs Raval, a medical doctor, in 1982.

Joseph and Thabita Karanja – Keroche Industries

Joseph and Thabita Karanja – Keroche Industries

The couple started one of Kenya’s most reputable breweries from their home in 1997.

“With the locally available raw materials, the two, with a start-up capital of Sh500,000 decided to venture into fortified wines, which were favourable to the low-income market due to the low cost of production,” says a post on the Keroche Breweries website.

“Keroche built a small, fortified fruit wines brewery. With an initial production of 200 litres in the first month and a new brand, Viena, Keroche was too young and its production too small to get noticed in any of Kenya’s liquor books. But Viena gained immediate acceptance,” it adds.

The firm brought to Kenyans products like beers (Summit Lager, Summit Malt); vodkas (Viena Ice, Viena Ice Lemon Twist); wines (Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage) and the Crescent range of spirits.

Joseph is the chairman of the breweries but has kept a low profile, leaving Tabitha – the CEO – to be the face of the firm. Prior to starting the business, Mr Karanja owned a hardware store in Navasha. He ventured into the brewery industry before his wife joined in.


Mrs Karanja told Ventures Africa magazine in 2012 that her husband is a key player in the firm’s growth.

“Whenever I am down, he is there to pick me and I have a shoulder to lean on as he is always there to guide me. I owe him a lot,” she said.

Samuel Kamau Macharia and Purity Gathoni – Royal Media Services

The go-getting Samuel Kamau (SK) Macharia and his wife Purity co-run the Royal Media Services (RMS) conglomerate of two TV stations, numerous radio stations among other investments.

Mr Macharia is the RMS chairman while his wife deputises him. The 2014 book A Profile of Kenyan Entrepreneurs, written by four authors, says the two share various roles.

“SK Macharia focuses on the technical side of business, building transmitters, while Purity markets the stations,” write Waithaka, Wanjiru, Majeni and Evans.

“According to SK Macharia, Purity has done a tremendous marketing job. If she had not been in charge of the marketing function, the company would not have achieved much growth,” they add.

They state that RMS had 24 staff in 2003 but that had grown to over 900 at the time of writing the book, with a monthly payroll of about Sh60 million then.

Simon and Sarah Kabu – Bonfire Adventures

Bonfire Adventures, a travel company, owes its existence to social media. It started from posts made on social media platforms by the Kabus – who had met online – as they visited various places for adventure.

In 2008, they started inviting friends to join them in their trips.

“Every time we organised something, it would turn out so well that our friends decided to leave the planning to us whenever there was an event or getaway,” Mr Kabu told Nation in a past interview.

“We used social media to market ourselves and our pages on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, where we had our first (virtual) office before getting space at a friend’s premises. Our start-up capital was less than Sh23,000,” he added.

Their initial capital was spent in buying a desk, a chair, and a phone that was used for marketing on social media platforms.

Driven by the need to promote domestic tourism, they would visit various sites and share photos. They soon found a way of marketing themselves as the go-to people in organising such visits.

Five years into the business, they were getting up to 550 customers a month.



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