On a half an acre plot in Nairobi’s Garden Estate, off Thika Road, lies a car upholstery business.
At the compound, all manner of cars are lined; luxury, vans, and vintage. Workers are busy destroying and remaking, stitching and fitting, as cars leave and others enter. Here, they deal with anything car interior – roof lining, dashboards, steering wheels, door panels, floor carpeting, seat fitting.
Robert Mbok, the co-founder started the business over four years ago, with his brother, Evans and one other partner.
“From childhood, we had a lot of interest in cars. It got to a point where we started experimenting with our cars. I had a Nissan (Tiida) and began playing around with its interior. We thought, how could we share our skills with other people? What do we need? So we started by getting a machine and experts,” says Mr Mbok.
From this, the company grew. It was a need they initially thought only a few car aficionados would want, but from the demand in the market, they knew they were onto something.
From a single branch and three workers, they have now expanded to over 50 employees and three branches across the country – Nairobi, Mombasa, and Eldoret.
Car upholstery in layman's terms is simply the process of improving your car’s interior. An assessment of your car and what is needed to be done is the first process. Do you want a seat with fabric or leather?
The car is customised according to your needs, however, you are offered expert advice depending on the make and model of the car.
“We do an assessment of the need then we talk about costs which is pegged on material options - genuine leather is usually more expensive than fabric.”
“Through this, we can establish what the client wants and the cost implication. Once we agree, we do a checklist: How is the car at the point of reception? Is the steering wheel functioning well? Does it have airbag errors? What is the existing condition of the car so that the client can pick it up in the same condition, but better in terms of upholstery. Only then can we start working on the car.”
“We then move to the operations team which creates a job card of what is needed to be done and assigns to specific teams. There is the team that does the fitting and another that does the stitching. We also have a quality assurance team that ensures everything is done to the client’s specifications. Finally, we have the clearance team which prepares the car in terms of cleaning, fitting back the seats, basically ensuring the car is ready for the client.”
When the clearance team is done, the quality assurance team is recalled to do one final check before handing the vehicle over to the customer engagement team which contacts the client.
Not a cheap business
Car upholstery however does not come cheap.
“There are packages from as low as Sh500 for a gearbox to high-end fittings. Everything interior done dictates the prices and also depends on the complexity of the car. Luxury cars like Range Rovers and Volvos are designed for comfort; thus, they need more detail and time. Some vehicles can take up to 10 working days.”
“There are clients who have projects cars such as vintage cars that need specialised care. For instance, you may not be able to get such items as their door handles in time.”
So how much on average will it cost? “For a luxury five-seater, the seats range from Sh25,000 to around Sh85,000 depending on the type of material. Genuine leather goes for Sh75,000. For the steering wheel, we have a range from Sh3,000 to Sh5,000. Floor carpeting covers start from Sh8,000.”
Mr Mbok sources most of its materials from the local industries. However, sometimes he imports materials when clients request.
“We source most of our materials from the local markets. Foams, linings etc. We have specific types of leather such as microfiber leather and genuine processed leather that we have to import, which depends on the needs of a client.”
As a niche market, theirs is one industry that prides itself on a growing market.
“Across our branches, we have at any given time, more than 20 cars. We however have a capacity of between 30 to 40 cars at a time.”
But this is no problem as when they are over capacity, one can always book for the next week or the week after. That capacity is also dictated by specifics.
At any given time they could be focused on working on the dashboard which would mean they have limited capacity to work on more dashboards. They however have a mobile team that can shift across the three branches depending on the workload.
“We have broken even and we can sustain our operations and pay our employees. We are still at the growth stage, and plowing back into the business,” he says, adding that they hope to build one of the biggest car upholstery company in East Africa.
No business is without challenges and for Mr Mbok, the economy has not been performing well recently. People would want to upgrade their car interiors but with the rising cost of fuel, pockets are tighter and people who would otherwise satisfy this secondary need are holding out.
“The machinery is also a big problem. Getting raw materials is hard, such as microfiber which I have to import from Dubai or China. If a client needs fast customisation, they are limited to either taking what we can offer or having to wait.”
“Being niche, we do not have as many people that are experienced in this field. If I am looking for someone who is super good at upholstery, there are no institutions that are training people in this. We have limited talent and skills. We have to train them on the job.”
Coupled with this are all the licences one needs to start a business. He says the government has no strategy to support the small industries that are cropping up.
He however sees a brighter future. They are in talks to see how they can make their procurement faster such as leveraging technologies like Alibaba for quick shipping.
“The future looks good. The kind of investments such as time and resources and training we have put in will keep us improving. We are the market leaders and thus we are positive that through our desire for excellence, and because we have specialised in quality and expertise, we will remain ahead.”