Skylark Group makes list of Top 100 despite post-election setback

Skylark Group of companies managing director Vinod Patel in his office in Kisumu. Photo/Jacob Owiti

What you need to know:

  • Investor joins the league of Kenya’s leading entrepreneurs in spite of Sh50m loss.

As the dust settled on the country’s worst post poll crisis since independence in 2008, Mr Vinod Patel had accumulated a loss he estimates at Sh50 million due to arson and looting.

He was staring at the imminent collapse of a firm he had built from scratch for about 20 years, armed with nothing but passion and desire to do things differently.

“I sat down with the banks and our suppliers and told them we have only two options —  close shop, or go back to business with their support. They opted for the latter,” says the director of Skylark Group.

Desperate not to disappoint his backers, he ensured that the firm was back on profitability track in 2009.

That year, he joined the Kenya Top 100 mid-sized companies survey which targets firms whose annual turnover ranges between Sh70 million and Sh1 billion and are not listed on the securities exchange.

“In 2009, we were position 33 out of 100, but the good thing is that accessing loans and credit became so easy as banks and suppliers judged us basing on the Top 100 logo,” said Mr Patel.

Skylark Group, which comprises Skylark Construction and Skylark Creative, was ranked at position 26 in the 2010’s Top 100 survey but dropped to number 84 in 2011 on account of an ambitious expansion drive.

“During expansion, so many resources are committed and in the long run the bottom line is negatively affected, thus affecting the ranking,” he says. Last year, the company bounced back to position 30.

The Skylark Creative Products Ltd, a marketing arm of Skylark Group was launched in 2005 to brand and market the products of Skylark Construction, the flagship company.

After the first ranking, the entrepreneur says, his company obtained an ISO certification in a record three months, which he attributes to being part of the Top 100 mid-sized companies survey.

Skylark Group deals in general construction, interior finishes — both products and services, building material supply as well as a PVC manufacturing unit, which are all based in Kisumu.

The family business incorporated in 1995, employs an average of 250 people depending on the volume of work.

Even though Mr Patel admits the construction sector in western Kenya lags behind Nairobi, he banks on devolution to boost the sector he says has big potential.

According to the Skylark group director, who is also the chairman of Federation of Kenya Employers Nyanza region, being rated amongst Top 100 firms means a company’s accounts have been audited by reputable audit firms.

The Top 100 companies find it easy to loans from banks and deal with suppliers. Skylark Group, with a Sh400 million net worth, was established with a start-up capital of Sh3,000 in the early 1990s after Mr Patel quit a storekeeper job at a construction company to pursue  what he terms as personal growth.

Without any formal training in construction or business, the entrepreneur embarked on the arduous 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 Mr Patel.

He applied the knowledge he had acquired to venture into construction business.

“I would record whatever I read and the next day I would go to the site and tell the mason to mix this in this ratio and let’s see how it turns out then I would record my observations and at night compare my notes with what is in the books,” he says.

Skylark Construction’s big break came when 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 before submitting them and I won,” says Mr Patel.

The tender was worth Sh5.4 million and he used the money to boost his start-up — buying machinery and the first company vehicle, a second hand pick-up at Sh150,000, which he paid in instalments.

He borrowed a lot from friends and family and as Skylark Construction gradually grew, creditors and guarantors warmed up to him. He obtained more loans to grow his business.

Throughout the rise of his enterprise, Mr Patel says he 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.”

Skylark Group, according to Mr Patel, now has its sights trained on this year’s Top 100 Companies Awards.

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Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.