The exit of currency printer De La Rue from Kenya has left banks scrambling to find alternatives for chequebooks and security printing.
Akshay Gupta, the Head of Business & Strategyof Ramco Plexus, says his firm has seen a spike in orders from several banks, handing its parent firm Sintel a fighting chance in the race for Kenya's next biggest printer.
He spoke to the Business Daily on why he remains optimistic about manufacturing's fortunes amidst growing industry headwinds driven by a rising cost of production, forex exchange losses, escalating raw material import costs and supply chain constraints in recent years.
Your career journey has involved working for two renowned manufacturers in Bidco and as part of the Ramco Group. What have you learnt?
My longest tenure has been in Kenya and I have enjoyed staying in this country that has plenty of opportunities for business.
I was at Bidco for eight years having joined as Group CFO and working in strategy bringing in lots of funding into the country.
I have now been with Ramco Plexus as CEO for the last three years taking care of the printing and packaging arm, which consists of 13 companies.
We’ve seen a lot of executives pivoting from CFO to CEO and becoming successful. Is it as easy as it might look to an outsider like myself?
Having the qualification as a chartered accountant with a finance background you always carry finance with you and this is one of the critical things in business.
Sales and finance are the hardcore of it and then production and other aspects support the whole objective.
I have always been in this kind of role. What excites me now as CEO is that now I can create value, and employment and bring money into the country.
What to you is the key thing when pivoting a career?
The driving factor should always be the value created. The goal is about enhancing the business. One has assets, and the people around it and it becomes about creating more value to take the business to the next level.
It stops becoming about only you and it is instead about the entire ecosystem and how you create value around it.
What was it like stepping into a new company as CEO in the middle of the pandemic?
I generally look more at the opportunity than the challenge. Logistics was, for instance, a big challenge during the pandemic and I looked at what I could do differently.
Can I go back to the supplier? Can I lock in better quantities can I have better credit lines?
There is nothing right or wrong, it’s a balance between art and science. I always feel confident having been in this crisis environment before, like in Syria when the uprising started. The situation changes and you switch yourself accordingly.
There have been concerns about the industry’s growth with some companies closing to set up shop elsewhere. What to you has been the challenge?
To me, the external environment will remain and it is always going to give you challenges. The art, however, is to find opportunities in the external environment and mitigate the risks.
Just to give you a perspective we grew our top line during the Covid time. Any economy will provide some sort of challenge, the goal is to be more effective and to innovate.
Giving an example, for electricity, three of our companies have switched to solar which is sustainable and cost-effective even if it remains an investment. In short, solutions are available.
Many of your peers have dealt with foreign exchange access challenges. What has been your experience with this problem?
We have seen the depreciation of the shilling, but we see it as a short-term challenge. Every business is adjusting to it. We are also adjusting and looking at how we can optimise costs and the upstream value chain.
Can we explore local materials? Can we engage our customers to see how we can maintain the value? Can we change our value proposition to something more sustainable?
This is the way to manage external factors as they are very difficult to fully compensate for.
What are your expectations for 2023?
I think 2023 is going to create a very strong foundation, which I feel is very important because the next big leap could come in 2024 and 2025.
For us at Ramco Plexus, I think we have had a good two years and we continue to consolidate. For 2023, it is about consolidation to create a strong foundation for the larger leap.
The manufacturing sector remains a priority area even with the new administration. What do you feel is the realistic expectation for the industry?
We had to believe in ourselves that we are very capable to produce and make in Kenya. And by we, I mean we as a country.
This should be encouraged and pushed. We need policies to protect the local industry. Kenya is a great place to work and Kenya is capable of taking the whole of East Africa to a whole new level.
What would be your parting shot?
Always be a giant, always be proactive, ask and look at what can be done better. As an individual, you need to make a contribution to yourself but don’t forget society.
You are a very small piece of society so make sure your surroundings have been taken care of. Even in a small way, it’s okay to do it and if you do it consistently, you are impacting someone’s life.