When Mary-Ann Musangi Kirubi, left her job to open a restaurant, she did not know she would close it due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Close to three years since Covid-19 hit the country in 2020, the daughter of billionaire businessman, late Chris Kirubi, reveals that she shut down her food venture, scrapping any plans to take that path.
She was operating three restaurants- two chains of Secret Garden and Olpul Steakhouse at Two Rivers Mall- and a catering business.
She closed two of the restaurants when the government ban on people's movements and activities to contain the virus put many restaurateurs in a fix.
“I had to let go my members of staff and sell all my assets within the restaurant business because it was difficult financially to navigate through the Covid-19 season,” she says.
“And at the same time, I was also managing on a full-time basis, Haco Industries, as well as overseeing the other businesses within the estate.”
Having sat on the boards of all her father's companies even before he fell sick and passed on in 2021, Ms Musangi was a natural pick to manage the vast business empire.
She opened her first business in 2011 after an early retirement from working with KCB Bank Group as the marketing director for five years.
She opened her first Secret Garden outlet on Riverside Drive in Nairobi. The business was however among those that suffered the terrorist attack in 2019 at the Dusit complex.
In February 2017, she established Olpul, an upscale steakhouse when Two Rivers Mall opened.
The food businesses had been born out of passion. However, she says running the outlets served her more lessons despite her years of experience in other industries.
“I had my two children for consecutive years so I decided to retire from banking. This was supposed to be my retirement job which ended up being a lot more difficult than working in the bank. So yes, it was very different and it was born out of a passion of love of an idea and creating a concept,” she says.
The hospitality industry was among the worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
At the height of the crisis, hotels and restaurants were no-go zones after the government imposed heavy restrictions including closures and limited operating hours that sharply cut revenues and forecasts showed it could take up to 2023 for the industry to recover.
Besides the pandemic, Ms Musangi adds that running a restaurant business needs one to have good control measures and people management skills to avoid leakage, theft and navigate the industry.
“People management is the most difficult part of navigating a business. Because you are working with a lot of people in the restaurant business, you have to be very patient to understand the people that you are working with, and be able to explain your vision, how you want things, how things need to be done, and why it will be done in a certain way, otherwise, you will not achieve.”
“You only achieve through your people. I am only as good as my people, my team. I truly believe that 110 percent. In the restaurant business, we are working with a lot of people. That’s another big area that can be quite challenging if you don't know how to work with people.”
Ms Musangi has also previously worked for British multinational pharmaceutical GlaxoSmithKline and advertising, marketing, and public relations agency Ogilvy & Mather where she honed her skills and experience in the corporate world for over 25 years.
Also read: Chris Kirubi's narrow path to success
With a lack of hospitality experience, she says running restaurants was ‘different’ compared to the rest.
“Yes, it was very different. …I had gone to business school. I had only worked in the business arena of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) and marketing, so running a restaurant was very different. I like taking on new challenges, different things and pushing myself to the next level. So I did. I went out and learned, I got a consultant to work with me, and I set up the first restaurant in 14 Riverside.”
The entrepreneur has scrapped any plans to open any food outlet even as economies continue to reel from the impact of the pandemic such as the spiralled inflation.
“It was the hardest business I ever run. The restaurant business looks like it is very simple but it is actually very difficult, and very technical. So if you don't have the proper preparation for it you can end up losing a lot of money.”
“But I enjoyed it very much. I just loved that aspect of being able to create with the chefs and also meeting people. I loved meeting new people every day at the restaurant and even today, people come up to me and say they know me; they remember me from one of my restaurants.”
She sold the restaurant assets less than the undisclosed invested capital and shifted to overseeing the other businesses in media, investment, marketing and technology among the entire Kirubi portfolio.
“I sold them at a loss. When you are in business you have to be ready. You win some, you lose some. You are not going to be successful in everything,” she says.