Patricia Ithau sealed one of the biggest deals in corporate Kenya last year when she negotiated the takeover of Interconsumer Products Limited, makers of Nice and Lovely products from founder Paul Kinuthia.
She also oversaw the growth of Paris-based beauty brand L’Oréal’s local business, setting it up from the scratch. Now, after three years at the helm of L’Oréal in Kenya, Patricia leaves the work that saw her oversee the company’s regional operations.
“When I was head-hunted from East African Breweries Limited (EABL) to join L’Oréal, people asked, ‘What is L’Oréal?’ Few even knew how to pronounce the name,” she recalls.
Three years later, L’Oréal is now a business that employs 270 people, with two manufacturing sites. Product sales now stand at 40 million units of skin care, cosmetics, hair care, hair colour and hair styling products, up from two million in 2012 when it only dealt with Dark and Lovely brands in the Kenyan market. “That is a lot in three years,” she says.
But it was the big takeover last year that left an indelible mark in Patricia’s life and taught her several lifelong lessons that she will carry on to the next chapter of her life. “The acquisition of Nice and Lovely was something I needed to do. It gave us a range of products that would allow us to be in every single Kenyan’s home,” she says.
HOURS OF NEGOTIATIONS
L’Oréal, which is the world’s largest cosmetic group, beat South Africa’s Tiger Brands in the buy-out, which was worth Sh3 billion.
According to Patricia, the buyout was one of the most demanding projects, requiring hours of negotiations, due diligence, paper work and in-depth consultation. “We went in knowing this was the price. We really didn’t know about the other competitors. We had our eye on the goal,” she says.
The target had been identified a while back even before L’Oreal’s subsidiary was set up in Kenya. It was borne of an assessment of where the strength lay in the market, and the leading beauty products that would give the business a critical mass, Patricia reveals.
“It took a while to convince Mr Kinuthia to give up his baby. He had built the business for 15 years but at the end of the day, we arrived at a place where all the concerned parties were happy. One of his dreams was for his brands to go international,” says Patricia.
Persistence was probably the greatest lesson that Patricia got from the buy-out. If you really want something, Patricia believes, you must steel yourself for the barriers, challenges and the ultimate price you have to pay to get what you want.
The next big lesson was what it takes to acquire a business. The parties involved, the amount of detail and due diligence, and what you need to watch out for. “You need to have very good and reliable partners. I had one of the best legal minds in the market and very strong legal (and) financial support from Paris. Having all those makes it easy to close the deal,” she says.
But it was her vast network of friends, business associates and acquaintances she had built over the years in her roles at Unilever and EABL that worked the magic. “I realised the power of having established networks,” she says, “because those are the people who will trust you and give you credit. They will help you find the resources you need. It was really the power of networks that I had established over the years that made the journey easier.”
The most important aspect of an acquisition, besides the acquisition itself, is merging two teams to work as one unit. “Taking time to understand that and make people feel the warmth is very important,” she says.
But after three years of exponential growth, Patricia says it is time to call it a day and move on to other things. She remains tight-lipped over her next job but says that she needs the career break to spend time with her family.
A mother of two teens aged 18 and 16, Patricia is worried that she might not get to spend enough time with her children before they go to college. “I am doing something which very few people ever do or feel brave enough to do. I said let me take a break to get time with family and play golf. After 24 years of working non-stop, it is time I rest.”
Belgian Philippe D’Have, currently the L’Oréal business development director for sub-Saharan Africa, will take over when Patricia leaves on July 1. “He is a seasoned L’Oréal manager for over 22 years now. He is the right person to take the business to the next level.”
Patricia advises women in business and in the corporate world not to shy away from the immense responsibility that comes with being at the top. While women still remain grossly under-represented in boards and as CEOs, Patricia believes it is only a matter of time before women ‘‘get there’’.
“One of the things that we have to be careful about is that there isn’t tokenism. It is slow, because as women we don’t market ourselves and allow people to know that we are available and second, our network is not as strong as that of men,” she says.
To successfully be a mother and CEO has taken the support of her family and strong network of friends, who understand the demands of her job. “I must say I have a very supportive husband – Leonard Ithau. We are celebrating 20 years of marriage and I have learnt that by the end of the day, you need somebody to be there for you,” she says.