From Sh3,000 first deal, contractor has built an empire worth millions


Skylark Constructions Limited managing director Vinod Patel (left) when he spoke to the Business Daily. Above: Mr Patel with Prime Minister Raila Odinga ( second left) at a past function. courtesy

“It is better to make use of a chance to change rather than try to change your chances”, Brahma Kumaris.

This maxim displayed on the desktop calendar of Vinod Patel best describes the journey of the managing director of Skylark Constructions Limited.

Mr Patel says he created his Sh200 million business empire with a start-up capital of Sh3,000. The Business Daily caught up with him in his new premises in Kisumu where he shared his inspiring story. “I was employed as a store keeper at a construction company and I told myself that I could not remain in store keeping all my life”, he recalls. “I needed to grow.”

Without any formal training in construction or business, Mr Patel embarked on the gruelling journey to self-employment.

“I used to go to the British Council Library in Kisumu where I borrowed books on construction, estimating and tendering, which I read at night. Over the months I got more informed on the construction business,” says Patel. He applied the knowledge he acquired on construction at his workplace. “I would record whatever I read and the next day I would go to the site and tell the fundi (mason) ‘mix this in this ratio and let’s see how it turns out’ and I would record my observations and then at night compare my notes with what is in the books.”

After one year of studying, Patel figured out that he knew all that was required to launch a business in construction, and in 1990 he went for it.

Taking risks

“I told my employer that I was leaving to start my own business and he asked me ‘are you going to make it?’, to which I replied I am going to try,” he says. “I told my father that I am young and I could take my risk and if I fail I would get up again”.

But Mr Patel did more than just try. He gave it everything he had. “The first job I got was a Sh3,000 construction deal. I didn’t have any money and I had to ask my client to give me a Sh1,500 down payment so that I could go buy some tools,” he says.
Over the next several months, Mr Patel went up and down Kisumu and the nearby towns looking for small construction bids. “I did not have a car or even a bicycle and it was tough,” he says. “I used to walk for long distances to do a bit of painting and plastering jobs.”

Adds Patel: “I remember putting two bags of cement on a matatu, then I would tell my guy who was on the ground to come meet me with a wheelbarrow and we would push the cement up-hill two or three kilometres to the construction site.”

Eight months later Patel got his big break. Mumias Sugar Company advertised tenders for building classrooms for a school the company sponsors.

“I worked hard on that tender to ensure that my documents were okay...I submitted my tender and I won.”

The tender was worth Sh5.4 million. Patel used the money to boost his fragile start-up. “I was now able to buy machinery and the first company vehicle — a second hand 504 Peugeot pick-up at Sh150,000 which I paid for by instalments,” he reminisces. Patel borrowed a lot from friends and family and as Skylark Constructions gradually grew, creditors and guarantors warmed up to him. He obtained more loans to grow his business. Throughout the rise of his enterprise, Patel maintained his core principle for attracting and retaining clients — being true to the business.

“Something that really gave confidence to my clients and gave me a lot of referrals was the fact that I would not compromise on the quality of my work,” he says. “Even if I gave an erroneous estimate on a tender I would rather absorb the loss than take shortcuts to cover myself.”

In 2005, Patel launched Skylark Creative Products Ltd, a marketing company to brand and market the products of his flagship company Skylark Constructions.

Tragedy struck in the post-election mayhem when looters descended upon his business, vandalised his premises and set ablaze what remained.

“I sat down with the banks and our suppliers and told them ‘we have only two options here, we can file for bankruptcy and close shop, or go back to business with your support”, he recalls. They opted for the latter and the rest is history.

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